Me and Mrs. Jones
April 10th, 2013
Todd plays "Me and Mrs. Jones" on his piano.
BILLY PAUL - ME AND MRS. JONES
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: [smooth] Hello, ladies and gentlemen. You're listening to the smooth sounds of One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at the full careers of bands and artists known for only one song. Today we're gonna turn the lights down low—well, lower than usual, I guess—and look at one of the smoothest soul brothers ever to only chart once.
- Video for "Me and Mrs. Jones"
- Billy Paul: Me and Mrs. Jones
- We got a thing goin' on
- We both know that it's wrong
Todd: If it's so wrong, why does it feel so right? Yeah, if you have any interest whatsoever in soul music, you have to know...
Todd (VO): ..."Me and Mrs. Jones", one of the finest and most heartbreaking songs about infidelity ever written. But any discussion of this mega-monster of a hit has to involve the singer behind it—Billy Paul, the man you see there with the impressive beard and the pimpin' hat. [Picture of Billy] In fact, he kinda looks a little like... [side-by-side with picture of Rap Critic] huh, weird.
Anyway, Billy Paul put "Me and Mrs. Jones" at #1 on the R&B charts and the pop charts in December 1972, and it could not have gotten that big if this man did not possess absolute buckets of talent...
Todd: ...which he totally did. And yet, in an era dominated by great soul music...
Todd (VO): Billy Paul got lost in the shuffle, with "Me and Mrs. Jones" being his first and last hit, and people seem to think it was [still image of YouTube video stating...] by Marvin Gaye, which it wasn't. Like, seriously, people, come on.
Todd: And his career became one of the all-time historic fumbles in pop music. Like, you wouldn't believe, guys.
Todd (VO): So what happened to this bearded balladeeer?
Todd: Well, close the door and hold your lady close 'cause we're gonna find out. Let's get this thing goin' on.
- Billy: Me and Mrs...
Before the hit
Todd: The thing to know about the early career of the soul singer Billy Paul is that he wasn't a soul singer, and he wasn't named Billy Paul.
- Back cover of Ebony Woman
Todd (VO): His real name was Paul Williams, but he went with Billy Paul as a stage name because there was another guy named [single cover of "Look What I Found"/"The Lady Is Waiting"] Paul Williams running around. You know, the songwriter, short guy, [images from...] he was in Phantom of the Paradise, he was on The Muppet Show once. Okay, I guess you don't know him.
Todd: He was big at the time. Anyway...
- Album cover of Feeling Good at the Cadillac Club
Todd (VO): He kickstarted his career by working with a lot of the greats. By "greats," I mean the jazz greats like Dinah Washington and Miles Davis because he was a jazz singer, not soul.
Todd: You know, like scoobity-boobity-doo-bop. He didn't even like soul music, which was a problem because he was kind of on a soul label.
- Image of Neptune Records logo on record
Todd (VO): See, he was signed to a company called Neptune Records run by two men named...
Todd: ...Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
- Montages from two videos: Gamble and Huff History and Gamble and Huff's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Todd (VO): And those of you who know your music history will recognize those names because Gamble and Huff were about to change the face of R&B forever, and shift the center of black music from Motown back to Philly. See, they invented a whole new genre, Philly soul. You know, sweet melodies, strings, horns, catchy, funky soul music. This basically was the sound of the 70s, and would eventually mutate to disco. So Billy Paul had hooked his point the right way. He had signed onto the new face of R&B, Neptune Records, which...
Todd: ...never had a hit and went complete busto about a year later.
- Neptune Records logo stamped with "CLOSED"
- Front cover of Ebony Woman
Todd (VO): Neptune Records put out two jazz albums with Billy Paul, which, like all the records Neptune put out, sank like a bag of rocks.
Todd: I guess the world wasn't ready for a soul-jazz cover of "Mrs. Robinson".
- Billy: [over album cover] And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson
- Jesus loves you than you will know
- Whoa whoa whoa
Todd: Heh. [beat] I have no idea. It's better than his next album's cover of "Magic Carpet Ride".
- [Over album cover of Going East]
- Billy: You don't know what we can find
- Why don't you come with me, little girl
- On a magic carpet ride
Todd: I...I really don't know about this one.
Todd (VO): But anyway, Gamble and Huff started a new label which actually did get big—Philadelphia International. And with some actual success behind them, they decided to give their jazz singer Billy a soul makeover for his next album, [cover of...] 360 Degrees of Billy Pa... yeesh, that's a horrible album cover. What is he, like a Cerberus? And they started putting together some original songs for him to sing, but the big one, in particular, came when Gamble and Huff were people-watching at the cafe beneath their offices. Apparently, there was this guy and this young woman who come in every day, they made up a story on the spot about who these two people were and they wrote a song about it.
Todd: And the result was...
The big hit
- Billy Paul performing on Soul Train
- Billy: Me and Mrs. Jones
Todd (VO): "Me and Mrs. Jones" is one of the all-time great soul records, but it did cause some controversy at the time. [Single cover] That "Mrs." in the title is a big, screaming red flag to what this song is about, and...
Todd: ...if you still need me to spell it out for you, the "Me" in the title is not Mr. Jones.
- Billy: We both know that it's wrong
- But it's much too strong to let it go now
Todd (VO): That...that's why it was controversial, it was accused of glorifying adultery. Uh, I'm gonna say that is...
Todd: ...if this is what glorifying adultery sounds like, I'd hate to hear what a sad, depressing cheating song would be because "Me and Mrs. Jones" is goddamn heartbreaking.
- Billy: It hurts so much
- It hurts so much inside
Todd: [trying to be enthusiastic] Woo, nothing like gettin' some strange, runnin' around behind your husband's back, you know. Nothin' but fun times. [Shrugs]
- Billy: We meet every day at the same cafe
Todd (VO): They don't seem to be even doing any of the fun parts of having an affair. I think they just meet and talk. Holding hands is about as romantic as this song gets. The plans they make are probably just made-up fantasy-land stuff. But I guess it's not judgmental, it's just sad.
Todd: So what makes it so good?
- Billy: ME AND MRS...MRS JONES
Todd (VO): Geez, just listen to this guy belt! I think part of it is that Billy Paul was just so much older than your average R&B singer is nowadays. Dude was, like, pushing 40. 37 is pretty old to have your first hit, but it...it works in his favor here 'cause this is a voice that's experienced life. You would believe Billy Paul actually had this happen to him. Also, what worked in Billy Paul's favor is that he came from jazz, not soul or gospel, so he stood out. Paul wasn't a guy with a huge range, but he came at music differently from most soul singers. He didn't do any of those, you know, gospel runs.
Todd: You know, he didn't do any of the "whoa-ho-hooo!" I can't do it. "Whoa-ho..." I can't do it. Just take my word for it.
- Billy: Cause she's got her own obligations
Todd (VO): And Billy Paul needed to be on the older side because this is an adult song. It's a song about responsibilities and consequences.
Todd: They're pretty much screwed, it sounds like. She's married, he might be married too, there's probably kids involved...
Todd (VO): ...and Mr. Jones is probably a jerk, he's like rich and [pictures of Cal (Billy Zane) in Titanic...] has a stupid mustache, he's super-controlling and jealous and unsupportive and [...and the Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) in Moulin Rouge!] he's, like, boring, laughs at obnoxious jokes.
Todd: Although if I were Mr. Jones and I heard this song, I think I'd be okay with it honestly. Goddamn, do I love this song.
- Billy: And now she'll go her way
Todd (VO): But the point is they're probably not gonna go ride off into the sunset hand-in-hand. We...we don't have songs like this anymore. Nowadays, music belongs to Taylor Swift and other people without life experiences. If you wanna hear what makes Billy Paul's version so good, just listen to Michael Buble's terrible cover.
- Video of Buble's cover
- Michael Buble: Me and Mrs. Jones
- We got a thing going on
Todd: Eh-heh? You do not get it, Buble. Just go away.
Todd (VO): "Me and Mrs. Jones" indisputably would not have been as well-remembered without Billy Paul's forceful singing. So we got a #1 by a super-talented artist in a very R&B-friendly era.
Todd: So how does he not have another hit? [preparing] Hoo boy.
The failed follow-up
Todd: Billy Paul really did not want this to be his next single, but...I guess the label was worried about his street cred?
- Video for "Am I Black Enough for You"
- Billy: Am I black enough for you
- Am I black enough for you
- We're gonna move on up, one by one
- We ain't gonna stop
Todd (VO): "Am I Black Enough for You?"
Todd: Yeah, believe it or not, a song with that title turned out to be too black for most mainstream audiences. No one could've predicted.
Todd (VO): Actually, pretty much everyone predicted. Billy Paul begged Kenny Gamble not to release it as his next single, as did pretty much all of Gamble's colleagues. Like, Peter and Marcia Brady are gonna listen to a song this threatening in between their Carly Simon and John Denver? Yeah, that was obviously never gonna happen, but Gamble was so damn proud of this song. So he released it anyway because he was either the most naive or the most ballsy man on the planet.
Todd: See, Kenny Gamble was all about racial equality. This is the guy who wrote "Love Train".
- Clip of the O'Jays performing "Love Train" on The Midnight Special
- O'Jays: People all over the world, join hands
- Start a love train
Todd: And apparently he didn't see any contradiction between the utopianism of that song and the pissed-off, militant tone of "Am I Black Enough for You?"
- Billy: We're gonna move on up
- Three by three
Todd (VO): See, black people are gonna rise up, and then everyone was gonna be happy, was the idea. It didn't come across. It came across as kind of threatening instead. Like, it was 1973. [Pictures of...] The Black Panthers were still a thing, [...and a George Wallace campaign button] and a segregationist was nearly a major party's presidential nominee the year before. Race relations weren't as bad as they were in the 60s, but it wasn't sunshine and roses either. Billy Paul said a lot of people would be turned off by it, and he was right. It went over about as well as this.
- Clip from Blazing Saddles
- Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little): Excuse me while I whip this out.
- [The crowd screams in horror as he whips out a piece of paper]
Todd (VO): White audiences did not take to this song. For that matter, black audiences didn't take to this song either because...well, it's not very good. It's not enjoyably righteous like, you know, "Get Up, Stand Up" or "Stay it Loud, I'm Black and Proud". It's...it's just kind of pissy and confrontational. It doesn't make you feel good listening to it.
Todd: For what it's worth, that is only my opinion. I've read some people praise this song to the high heavens...
- Picture of Schoolly D
Todd (VO): ...including legendary gangsta rap pioneer Schoolly D, [album cover of...] who named one of his albums for it. People who remember Billy Paul usually prefer to remember his more political stuff, which he made a lot of. But regardless, "Am I Black Enough for You?" halted Billy Paul's momentum like a brick wall.
Todd: His career never really recovered and he was sore about it for years.
- Video for "Your Song"
Todd (VO): He had other singles from that album, including a very nice cover of Elton John's "Your Song".
- Billy: And you can tell everybody
- That this is your song
- Chorus: This is your song
Todd (VO): I think this version is singing to God. But it just didn't take off.
Todd: Billy Paul released his followup album in 1973, [album cover of...] War of the Gods. The title track was a protest against religious violence. I really want to believe that the whole album was this bizarre prog rock opera about battling deities. It did launch "Thanks for Saving My Life", which hit #37, and after that, Billy Paul never really troubled the pop charts again.
Did he ever do anything else?
- Video for "I Trust You"
- Billy: Go where you wanna go
Todd (VO): Now let me be clear. It's not like there's a huge demand for Billy Paul out there; music critics have never, like, decided he was an unfairly ignored genius or anything. But he does have a long recorded output that is worth digging up. He kept putting out album after album through the 70s, and a few afterwards too. None of them were ever really successful or did more than scrape the bottom of the R&B charts because his label's choice of singles was always kind of crap.
Todd: But there are a few highlights in there. For example, there's this.
- Video for "Let's Make a Baby"
- Billy: Come on, come on
- Let's make a baby
Todd (VO): Yeah, check out this love jam. This was his last decent-charting single on the R&B charts. I know you guys probably think "Let's Make a Baby" is just a corny pickup line, but...he means it pretty literally. This is literally about getting your wife pregnant.
- Billy: Let's bring another life into this world
- A little boy, a little girl
Todd: So, uh...if you are getting busy with your lady specifically for the purpose of procreation, well...throw this on. Couldn't hurt.
- Video for "Let 'em In"
- Billy: Someone's knockin' at the door
- Somebody's ringin' the bell
Todd (VO): Also he did a civil rights-themed rewrite of Paul McCartney's "Let 'em In".
- Billy: Do me a favor
- Open the door and let 'em in
Todd (VO): Um...I'm actually a pretty big Paul McCartney fan, but "Let 'em In" is probably the single stupidest, most meaningless song McCartney ever wrote.
Todd: And Billy here is trying to turn it into a grand metaphor for civil rights by name-checking black icons.
- Billy: Brother Martin
- We can't forget John
- Bobby Maker, Louis Armstrong
Todd: So...let them in...to America...I guess. It works, kinda.
- Footage of Billy singing
- Billy: Brown baby
Todd (VO): And of course, there's a lot more. Paul didn't always have very good material, but he was a very good singer, so I would highly recommend any of the things he recorded in the 70s 'cause that was just a good decade for soul music. He also recorded some stuff in the 80s, but...
Todd: ...I was actually recommend that you stay far, far away.
Album cover of Lately, Billy singing "I Only Have Eyes for You"
- Billy: Girl, girl, you better wake up.
Todd (VO): Came up with an alternate title for that one (Am I Crap Enough For You?) [Clip of an older Billy performing "Me and Mrs. Jones"] Paul just kept on truckin', and he still performs today at the age of 78, and he's still as smooth as ever. Maybe his career could've been better, but it could also have been a lot worse, so...
Todd: ...I'd say he did well enough for himself.
Did he deserve better
Todd: Uh...yes? I guess I'll go with yes.
Todd (VO): He deserved more success. He also probably deserved better material, and probably better oversight from the record label. He kinda got screwed in that department. But even then, he made a lot of good music, and I can't imagine how the world would've been worsened by having more Billy Paul in it. You can still find his stuff on tons of compilation CDs and stuff. Paul is doing well enough for himself. He had to sue Gamble and Huff for some of his back royalties a few years ago, but he got it. And of course, "Me and Mrs. Jones" is eternal.
Todd: So this is Todd In The Shadows sending one out to all those cheating hearts and forbidden loves out there this evening. Good night.
- Billy: [finishing up] We know, they know...
Closing tag song: Freddie Jackson - "Me and Mrs. Jones"
"Me and Mrs. Jones" is owned by Sony Music
This video is owned by me