BILLY PAUL / “Let’s Stay Together”
The man sang like his voice was a jazz trumpet. The majority of his repertoire was composed of pop and ballads (check out "I Want Cha' Baby) but he was more a revolutionary than a romantic. Although his biggest-selling release was the quintessential cheating song, “Me And Mrs. Jones,” Billy Paul was actually a black power advocate who had the ability to turn a love song into an ode to struggling for a better life. For Billy Paul and for those of us of the same or similar political persuasion "a better life" necessarily included (to quote Che Guevera) "great feelings of love." Listen to "Let's Make A Baby." Hear how the song moves from the personal feelings of the narrator to the larger social circumstance, eventually situating the personal within the realm of the cosmic and the spiritual continuum of human existence ("Babies are born everyday. Boys. Girls. Life is never gonna stop. But it begins, it dies, and it begins again"). During the seventies, in black communities across the country Billy Paul’s distinctive voice was a treasure. Paul's jazz approach to pop material and subtle coded additions to the lyrics resonated with the dreams and aspirations of the then restive black community. Jazz masters were well known for reinterpreting popular song and producing major works. A good example of this type of transformation is how Paul takes Elton John’s “Your Song” and makes it our song referencing the entire sweep of black music (“gospel, blues, jazz, rock and roll”). Then there’s the miraculous transformation of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” that heightens the implicit message of the song, making it into a sermon on the necessity of unity. In a less politicized period, Billy Paul may have made a career singing in Las Vegas hotels and New York nightclubs but in the seventies a different urging focused Billy Paul’s career on non-commercial concerns. Paul's insistent focus was both the strength of his music and simultaneously a limit on mainstream acceptance. But why should mainstream acceptance or commercial success be the measure of musical quality? Billy Paul's music is truly classic in both its exhortatory message as well as in its expansive jazz-based improvisation and arrangements—certainly Paul was a couple of giant steps beyond the bulk of pop music. Paul even had the ability to take "It's Too Late," a song of resignation and transform it into a song of critical self-assessment and determination to be true to his principles while acknowledging the depth of past feelings. Billy Paul chose to sing a wide, wide range of music, filtering it all through his jazz sensibility and socially-aware consciousness. A major example of Paul’s vision was “Amanha,” the hit duet he did with Brazilian soul diva Sandra de Sa. I first heard the song in the early eighties when I bought Sandra’s album in Salvador, Bahia—initially I was surprised to hear Billy Paul’s immediately identifiable voice pour forth but then I knew it made sense, after all, if I was in Brazil why shouldn’t Billy Paul also be there? Back then it was the norm to have an international outlook and to travel to Third World countries. The last five songs in this Billy Paul set establish my man’s credentials as a voice of the people. “I’m Gonna Make It This Time” was a strong statement of self-determination, forget past failures, this time I'm going all the way. “Compared To What” includes an autobiographical section in addition to the encouragement to move “right on—straight ahead.” Given Billy’s arrangement that includes oratory from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who would have identified “Let ‘em In” as a Paul McCartney song? “Everything Must Change” is an obvious vehicle for Paul’s vibrato-rich crooning. By the end of the song, Paul is singing full out in a moving, clarion call for change. “This Is Your Life” was always one of my favorites, from it’s jazz piano opening to its meaningful lyrics. This is the kind of music you could hear on black radio in the seventies, music that embraced a wide repertoire given focus and meaning by the interpretations of iconic figures such as Billy Paul. This was a serious man who had a talent for infusing jazz into pop settings and social consciousness into pop songs. Billy Paul. Black. Man. Conscious. Artist. Beautiful. —Kalamu ya Salaam GET YOUR BILLY PAUL ON Billy Paul recordings have been scare for a long time but digital downloads are making it easier to get hold of classic tracks from brother Paul. Born Paul Williams on December 1, 1934, he was a Philly jazz-head who worked with jazz luminaries such as Charlie Parker and Dinah Washington. The majority of his recordings are from the seventies when he was a mainstay at Philadelphia International. "Me And Mrs. Jones," "Let's Stay Together," "Your Song," "I'm Gonna Make It This Time," and "It's Too Late" are all included on 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul. "Compared To What" and "This Is Your Life" - Going East/War Of The Gods. "I Want Cha' Baby" and "Let's Make A Baby" - When Love Is New. "Let 'Em In" - Let 'Em In. "Amanhã" - Focus (Sandra de Sa).
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