Rightly, Billy Paul is forever ‘Me And Mrs Jones’… and by extension Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. Collectors, however, know that Billy Paul had a life before – and indeed after PIR… and this new bbr reissue examines an album from that “afterlife”.
Let’s briefly recap. Before pacting with Gamble and Huff, Paul had made a reasonable living as a jobbing jazz singer, but then “that song” catapulted him to stardom. It was always going to be hard maintaining the ‘Mrs Jones’ momentum and the singer left PIR in 1979 just as the Philly dons were focusing on more and more outside work and struggling with the complexities of the business side of things.
Billy Paul too was struggling with the music biz… and he turned his back on it – moving out to California. . Then, in 1985 he got to know LA night club entrepreneur Lonnie Simmons who owned his own record label – Total Experience, home to people like The Gap Band and Yarborough and Peoples. Simmons offered Billy Paul a deal and the singer signed and the result was this single album. Sadly, ‘Lately’ failed to reignite Paul’s career and listening to this first time CD reissue it’s easy to hear why. Billy Paul, you see, was an old school singer. He learned his trade in the demanding East coast jazz clubs. He relished singing live in front of sensitive musicians playing “real” instruments. At PIR, that situation was replicated in the studio. By the time he was with Total Experience, though, the world had turned. Electric instruments were the order of the day and for the album Billy was saddled with a producer, Jonah Ellis, who was determined to use them to the max and the result was less than satisfactory – a situation made worse by the fact that the LA label’s team of songwriters weren’t in the same league as the Philly crew.
Poor Billy Paul does his best. He sings his heart out and he turns the ballad ‘Let Me In’ into a rather decent affair, while the album’s title cut (not the Stevie Wonder song by the way) almost makes it. But a lot of the time he sounds at odds with both the songs and the production. … notably on the covers of the standards ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and ‘On A Clear Day’. Songs like that just weren’t written for electric instruments. Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ was and here Paul offers a less than subtle rip-off of it. But his song – ‘Sexual Therapy’ – lacks credibilty.
‘Lately’ was Billy Paul’s only Total Experience album. He moved on to Ichiban in 1988 and since then he’s recorded sporadically. He still tours and of course ‘Me And Mrs Jones’ is the centrepiece of his show. Not surprisingly he doesn’t feature any songs from ‘Lately’.