Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Billy Paul – “Me and Mrs. Jones”

It was late June 1969 while stationed at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 82nd Airborne Division that I took leave to get married and headed north to Indiana.

 Musicologist/entrepreneur Jamey Aebersold was playing a series of park concerts around Louisville, Kentucky and employing singer Billy Paul’s rhythm section. Aebersold had been both educator and mentor to me the latter part of my teens and I had nothing but utmost respect and admiration for the way he conducted his life and concentrated on the music.

During conversation we learned Paul was playing the weekend at a local jazz spot, 118 Washington Street, a warehouse district near the edge of the fast moving Ohio River. This was a section of frontier like structures along the waterfront and Main Street preserved to keep the community in tune with its past.

Me and my bride exchanged vows and rings early afternoon the 30th and by evening were ready to celebrate. The riverfront always had that bohemian vibe to it; a mix of bars, artsy import shops, a bookstore and a few longhairs standing in the shadows – the kind of place a half-dozen local beatniks a decade earlier would have logged late hours in a coffee house snapping fingers and digging obtuse poetry.

Anticipating the jazz explosion we settle in a side corner. Pianist Eddie Green was “to the bone,” a Philadelphia legend – a player connected to Bud Powell, actually - a student of Powell’s brother Ritchie in the ‘50s and disciple of the thriving bebop movement. Drummer Sherman Ferguson was both affable and well versed in Max Roach/ Philly Jo Jones tradition - lots of dancing cymbal work and hearty swing. Seven years later Ferguson and I would be members of the Pointer Sisters backing trio.

While on break Kristine and I connect with Ferguson and Paul and confess this was our wedding night and we were out for good celebratory time. The duo invite us to the basement, a catacomb of bricks shaped like a wood burning pizza oven; medieval looking alcoves and proceed to light up a bowl of hashish. Can’t say it was anything like we would one day blow in Toronto but it must have had a euphoric effect. The mood was quite high.

We return to our seats and a song or two in Paul saunters on stage and looks around the room - sports a big smile – lifts the microphone and belts – “Me and Mrs. King” – holy shit – did he really say that – “we got a thing going on.” The song’s about an extramarital affair with this “Mrs. Jones” – not the newlywed, Mrs. King! The room went crazy. Paul looked over at Kristine and wailed. We looked at each other, startled and humbled. That was the capper to an evening never to be forgot – one we talk about forty-seven years later.

While the world was fixated on the untimely passing of Prince – Mr. Paul passed away from cancer at the age of 81 – four days after Prince.

There is no way to compare the two other than the power of a song. “Me and Mr. Jones” is a once in a lifetime recording – a song so universally loved and imitated it transcends all pop ditties and riff splatter. This is a song born in a jazz singer’s heart in a city where jazz and soul were willing accomplices.

Paul was a student of the grand women of jazz song – Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, soaking up everything he could as an eleven year old who set out to become an original – to sound like him – to sing like a jazz saxophonist caught in a profound improvised statement.

Paul played the clubs, campuses alongside Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, even idols Dinah Washington and Nina Simone and became a hot item in the impactful Philadelphia jazz scene long before the “big bang.”

“Me and Mrs. Jones” was written by Cary 'Hippy' Gilbert, Kenny Gamble, and Leon Huff and released on CBS – 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. This would be Paul’s one and only #1 hit – a freak of logic and timing.

A song of this magnitude will underwrite the future and keep you employed as long as people remember – and no one ever forgot the opening lines, “Me and Mrs. Jones, we got a thing going on we both know that it's wrong, but it's much too strong to let it go now.”

Paul remained in the shadows working as much and as long as he cared then retired in 1989 – yet, no one singing or playing an instrument really ever retires. You may be usurped by a younger generation, a Bobby McFerrin, “Get Happy,” but never totally forgotten.

Along comes year 2000 the Olympics and athlete Marion Jones who would win five track and field gold medals. Nike – the world’s biggest maker of athletic shoes airs a commercial featuring the track star in a campaign entitled “Mrs. Jones” using without permission Paul’s iconic recording. Paul contacted an attorney and sued for $1,000,000 for lost licensing fees. They bad, he good.

The history of the recording business is ripe with accounting errors, oversights, delayed or never to be gotten royalty payments. Such was the case in 2003 for Paul who sued Assorted Music, its owners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and Sony Music Entertainment for nearly a half a million dollars. Paul hadn’t received a statement of royalties in nearly 27 years from Philadelphia International Records. Paul’s attorney asserted, “There is no question that Billy Paul’s royalties had been improperly calculated for many years.” The jury agreed and awarded Paul $12,000 beyond the suit and opened the door for suits from other aggrieved artists – The O’Jays, Archie Bell & the Drells etc.

Paul shined bright and long and did what he always loved – sang jazz, some with an “in your face message” – others from the jazz standards playbook, and “Me and Mrs. Jones” allowed him the resources to be the jazz singer he wanted to be!

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