My Time Spent With Singer – Billy Paul 1934 – 2016
I believe 2016 will be a year long remembered as the ‘year that the music died’. The artist that we have lost and have passed on thus far in this still relatively new year is shocking to say the least.
A passing of note this past week was Philadelphia legend and known throughout the world, vocalist Billy Paul whose major Grammy award winning hit was ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’. Out of all the notable music celebrities who have passed so far this year; the passing of Billy Paul is personal one for me.
I was hired by Billy right after I finished college to be his keyboard player. It was my first professional gig. The band started out with two keyboardist with the late great James Batton being the lead keyboardist until he departed to go and play with saxophonist great Grover Washington Jr. who was starting a new band. I became the sole keyboardist afterwards staying for a year or so myself.
In hindsight, although I did realize the opportunity I was given to play with an artist of Billy’s stature, I wished I was more aware at the time of the magnitude of this position. I learned a lot from Billy and playing with seasoned musicians, traveling the world and opening and playing with other great artist. I ‘chalk’ my lack of awareness to youth and inexperience, but I remember Billy taking me ‘under his wing’. It was not always a comfortable place for me to be (again much due to my outlook) because Billy although not a cruel person at all, could be brutally honest but in a caring way. I still remember watching this great entertainer night after night thrill large and sometimes not as large audiences as he sang the same songs with an enthusiasm and newness as if it was the first time he had an opportunity to sing them. Watching from my position behind the keyboards was an invaluable education that you could not get from any other place. Billy was often spontaneous and unpredictable musically which kept you on your toes following him and the keeping the performance fresh. He had a deep knowledge and appreciation of jazz. I have read that label owner, producer and songwriter Kenny Gamble said that in the beginning, Billy was a challenge finding material and a way to market him because Billy was essentially a jazz singer. If you listen to Billy’s phrasing and approach to singing, you can hear singer Nancy Wilson’s influence.
Billy was an approachable entertainer and human being. There were no pretense or conditions that had to be met to speak with him even if he did not know the person. I’ve known him to just stop and speak with fans no matter who and where they were found.
I am sure that if you would like to know more about the life of Billy, you could ‘Google’ his name and find his biography. I could go on with little anecdotes and stories about my time spent with Billy, but they would be numerous. I just wanted folks to know what a wonderful, giving, and engaging human being Billy Paul was from someone who had the honor and privilege of knowing and experience of personally knowing and working with him.
Billy Paul…you definitely made a difference in my life!
Rest In Paradise my brother.