It’s inevitable that Billy Paul will be best remembered for that thing he had going on with a certain Mrs. Jones. But that ode to a steamy extramarital affair hardly told the whole story of Billy Paul. “A lot of people don’t even know I’m a jazz singer. That’s what I want to be known for,” Paul tells Andy Kellman in the liner notes to Big Break Records’ must-have reissue of the singer’s second album, Ebony Woman. Though produced by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, Ebony Woman wasn’t issued on Philadelphia International Records, their label celebrating its landmark 40th year in 2012. Rather, Ebony Woman was released in 1970 on the Chess-distributed Neptune label, a precursor to PIR. And although I’d be hard-pressed to call it a jazz album per se, it also bears little relation to the smooth soul of “Me and Mrs. Jones” despite being recorded by Gamble and Huff at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios. It is, however, an album that’s most worthy of reassessment and reissue especially during this, PIR’s 40th anniversary year.
Unlike most of the records to come from the Philly hit factory, Ebony Woman is largely populated by contemporary covers, a sensible move considering Paul’s background as an interpretive singer. As a young man in the mid-1940s, Paul was already known on the Philadelphia airwaves, and he parlayed his success into live gigs with artists as renowned as jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. He opened for artists including Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Dinah Washington, and won an amateur night at the Apollo. Naturally, record labels pursued Paul, and he had been recording since 1959. It was in that year that Paul recorded the first version of the Morris Bailey song that would give Ebony Woman its title. Paul was performing at Philadelphia’s Cadillac Club in 1967 when Kenny Gamble spotted him. He ushered him into the studio for Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club, his long-playing album debut for Gamble Records. (Typical of the era, it was a studio effort despite the live title. It’s also a prime candidate for reissue. Perhaps our friends at Big Break are listening…) Feelin’ Good was primarily composed of theatrical standards (“On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Just in Time,” “Feelin’ Good,” “Somewhere”) with some more recent pop songs also in the mix (“That’s Life,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”) For Ebony Woman, the emphasis was on pop material, albeit interpreted in an adult, jazz-oriented style by Paul and musical director Stanley Johnson.
Hit the jump for the scoop!
In addition to the title track, Paul took on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” The Association’s “Windy” and The Classics IV’s “Traces” as well as a radical reinvention of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” He also brought a distinct, somber flavor to “The Windmills of Your Mind” and let his funky side loose on “Proud Mary.” As for “Ebony Woman” itself, it was arranged by future Philadelphia International mainstay Bobby Martin. The composer/arranger also provided a song of his own for Paul, “Let’s Fall in Love All Over,” which is the closest song to anticipate the future sound of PIR. Pianist Horace Silver contributed a version with lyrics of his 1968 song “Psychedelic Sally,” which is appropriately far-out despite the cool, cocktail vibe of the entire album.
Ebony Woman scored a none-too-shabby No. 12 on the R&B chart upon its initial release, and returned to the chart at No. 43 when Gamble and Huff reissued it with a new cover in 1973 on the Philadelphia International label. The original cover has been restored for Big Break’s new edition, which also includes the 1973 cover in the booklet. Andy Kellman has provided new liner notes based on an interview with Paul. Billy Paul’s next album was still an appetizer of sorts; Going East (1971) featured Bobby Martin and Thom Bell arrangements on songs ranging from Jimmy Webb’s “This is Your Life” to Rodgers and Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel.” Then in 1972 came 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, and “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The rest, as they say, is history! Ebony Woman is available now from Big Break Records and can be ordered at the link below!
Billy Paul, Ebony Woman (Neptune NLPS-201, 1970 - reissued Big Break CDBBR 0142, 2012)
- Ebony Woman
- Mrs. Robinson
- The Windmills of Your mind
- Everyday People
- Let’s Fall in Love All Over
- Psychedelic Sally
- Proud Mary