Farewell to another remarkable voice. Philly soul and R&B legend Billy Paul has passed away at the age of 81, leaving behind a decades-long legacy of rich, passionate and sublimely soulful music. Big Break Records has been one of the stewards of Billy’s musical history on CD; below, we’ve reprinted our review of 2014’s reissue of Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club in this great artist’s memory.
Big Break Records and Billy Paul – they’ve got a thing going on.
The label, an imprint of the Cherry Red Group, has just returned to the soul titan’s catalogue for the sixth time – and with this release has gone back to the very beginning. BBR’s previous reissues from the “Me and Mrs. Jones” singer have explored his Philadelphia International discography as well as his Neptune release Ebony Woman and a post-PIR album for Total Experience Records. Now, the label has turned its attention to Paul’s debut LP, 1968’s Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club. Despite its title, Feelin’ Good is not a live recording, but rather a studio creation based upon the singer’s successful club act. And though it’s far from a typical “soul” album, one listen reveals just how much soul always resided within Billy Paul.
Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club was financed for $365.00 (yes, you read that right – three hundred and sixty five dollars) by the singer, then approaching his mid-thirties, and his wife and business partner Blanche Williams. Paul and Williams delivered the LP, nearly complete, to the budding entrepreneur Kenny Gamble. Before Philadelphia International, Gamble and Leon Huff had tried their hand at a number of record labels, among them Excel and Gamble. Feelin’ Good would be just the second LP ever released on the Gamble label, following The Intruders Are Together from the “Cowboys to Girls” vocal group.
Paul recorded the album at Philly’s Virtue Studios with just his jazz trio: pianist/arranger Stanley Johnson, drummer Norman Fearrington and bassist Bill Collick. Paul, also serving as producer, and Gamble resisted any temptation to “sweeten” the tracks, and so the sound is far-removed from the orchestrated R&B with which Gamble and Huff would soon conquer the charts. In other words, this is the pure Paul. The singer’s act had been honed at venues including the titular Philly club. “[The Cadillac] was a famous, famous club. Aretha Franklin worked there. Me and George Benson used to work there all the time,” Paul recalls in the exemplary new liner notes penned for BBR’s reissue by Andy Kellman.
Paul structured the LP in the style of his club act, introducing himself with the traditional “Billy Boy” (“Where are you, Billy Boy? I will sing this song for you, and I hope you like it, too…Here I am, for you…”). He adorns the performance with some truly wild scatting that couldn’t be further-removed from, say, “Me and Mrs. Jones,” before launching into his varied and time-tested onstage repertoire. Toots Thielemans and Norman Gimbel’s tongue-twisting “Bluesette” is delivered casually, with some impressively elongated notes and a natural control of the song’s inherently jazzy rhythms. More relaxed is a bossa nova treatment of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s theatrical standard “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever),” which Paul resurrected on 1985’s Lately (recently reissued by BBR).
The vocalist twists and turns Lane’s hauntingly ethereal melody, and both caresses and sanctifies Lerner’s spellbinding lyrics with a – no pun intended – clear affinity for the song. Johnson even takes a solo on piano. Bassist Collick opens a soulful but swinging reading of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “Just in Time” from their musical Bells Are Ringing. Paul joyfully scats to reflect the brightness of Comden and Green’s life- and love-affirming lyrics as Johnson brings his light and upbeat touch to Styne’s buoyant melody.
The flipside of “Just in Time” may well be Kenny Gamble’s torrid torch song “Missing You.” It’s sung with supremely soulful confidence and a pained wail by Paul. Another one of the album’s darker moments is “That’s Life,” Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon’s 1966 Top 5 hit for Frank Sinatra. The tune is all but unrecognizable from Johnson’s piano introduction, which sets the stage for a reworking of the still-recent song. Paul spits out the list in the lyrics that Sinatra took slowly and deliberately, taking great liberties with both the lyrics and melody with a jazz singer’s tenacity. This loose, spirited reading couldn’t be more different than Sinatra’s majestically defiant growl, yet Paul still left no doubt that he would be “back in the race.” Equally unusual is a take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” in which the vocalist alternates between a whisper and a scream. Johnson finds the bounce in Dylan’s famous melody but Paul brings on the drama (“Look out your window, honey, and I’ll be long gone!”) and savors the song’s acidic kiss-off sentiment.
The emotional high point of Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club is the nominal title track, again derived from a Broadway musical. Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Feeling Good” was written for The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, and Paul invests their dramatic song with depth and pain. It’s an extended workout at over eight minutes in length, but never loses the intimacy that must have made Paul such a success on the stage of the Cadillac Club. Immediately following “Feeling Good” is the album closer, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story stunner “Somewhere.” It’s rendered with intensity as well as uplift by Paul and his versatile trio.
Following the success of such recordings as “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Gamble Records successor Philadelphia International reissued Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club with new artwork featuring Paul in a long, flowing gown. Needless to say, fans expecting The Sound of Philadelphia might have been disappointed with the jazz and standards repertoire on the LP if they didn’t come to the album with an open mind. If they did, they would have discovered another, equally thrilling side of Billy Paul. BBR’s reissue of the original 1968 album restores its cover artwork, depicting stage lights. In Kellman’s notes, Paul also remembers that the design was intended to evoke the traffic lights near the club’s busy address.
Nick Robbins has remastered Feelin’ Good, and the package has been beautifully designed up to BBR’s typical high standards. The back cover of the booklet features the revised PIR artwork for fans who would rather flip it around to see that image adorn the jewel case. Billy Paul’s jazz roots informed his striking vocal delivery at Philadelphia International and beyond, but this album remains the only true document of this period. As a collection of timeless songs performed by an artist for whom the term “timeless” equally applies, Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club will indeed make fans and collectors feel good.
- Billy Boy
- Missing You
- On a Clear Day
- Just in Time
- That’s Life
- Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
- Feeling Good