While he may not have had a string of hit records, there is still much to be said about singer Billy Paul. He began singing on local radio shows in his hometown of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when he was 12 years old. Although he started out honing his vocal skills by singing to records at home, he would eventually get formal vocal training at various schools including Philadelphia’s Granoff School of Music, which boasts such alumni as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Fortune and John Coltrane. Paul’s smooth voice gained him an audience on the local music circuit and soon he began performing with Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Roberta Flack. In 1957, after releasing his first song entitled “Why Am I,” Paul was drafted into the army. While stationed in Germany he formed The Jazz Blues Symphony Band with Gary Crosby, the son of singer Bing Crosby. (They invited fellow recruit Elvis Presley to join as well, but Presley declined, content with driving the colonel’s jeep.) After being discharged from the army, Paul returned to Philadelphia and while singing in the Sahara Jazz Club he met two young music producers who were starting a record label. The producers were the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff and their company, Philadelphia International Records, would change the sound of popular music. In 1968, they released Paul’s first album Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club, but it would be Paul’s 1972 release that would put him on the musical map. The album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul contained the classic ode to an affair, “Me and Mrs. Jones,” which made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts in the states, entered the Top 20 in the UK, and earned Paul a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Although future albums wouldn’t garner Paul the same commercial success, he continued to gain critical acclaim, was well respected amongst his musical peers, and was still a favorite with music listeners. In the 1980s, house music DJs embraced Paul’s music. It wasn’t unusual to hear his 1977 single “Only The Strong Survive” in the mix on late night house music radio shows. Since then, “Me and Mrs. Jones” has been covered numerous times, most notably by Freddie Jackson in the 1990s and singer Michael Bublé in 2007. In 2009 Paul was the subject of a biographical documentary Am I Black Enough For You, also the title of one of his previous singles. These days, at 77 years old, Paul tours extensively in the states and overseas, continuing to wow audiences with that golden voice.
Montrose Cunningham is an independent funk/rock/soul artist and devoted music aficionado residing in Dallas, Texas. When he isn’t digging through the crates–digital and analog–he’s jamming with his band or hanging with his daughter, sometimes at the same time. Purchase his latest release “Inertia” at www.MontroseMusic.com, visit him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @MontroseC.