The U.K.'s Dutton Vocalion label is continuing to grow its SACD catalogue of quadraphonic releases. Following recent titles from The Guess Who, Rick Derringer, Stephen Sondheim, and others, Vocalion has just released another batch of vintage quad mixes from the worlds of jazz (George Benson's Body Talk, Weather Report's Tale Spinnin'), rock (the Jim Peterik-affiliated jazz-rock fusion group Chase's Pure Music and Chase), and R&B. In the latter category comes three albums from Philadelphia International's Billy Paul in two SACD packages. All of Vocalion's SACDs are hybrid discs, meaning that the stereo layers can be played on standard CD players.
The first release pairs the soul man's 1972 breakthrough 360 Degrees of Billy Paul with its 1973 follow-up, War of the Gods on two hybrid SACDs. By the time of 360 Degrees, Paul was no stranger to the record business. A recording artist since 1959, he had opened for artists including Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Dinah Washington, and even won an amateur night at the Apollo. 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. It was primarily composed of theatrical standards with some more recent pop songs also in the mix. For his sophomore album with Gamble, Ebony Woman, the emphasis was also squarely on pop material, albeit interpreted in an adult, jazz-oriented style. While the LP fared well on the R&B chart, Gamble and his partner Leon Huff sensed that Paul could be at the vanguard of the smooth, orchestral R&B style that would come to be known forevermore as "Philadelphia soul." Paul made his Philly International debut with 1971's Going East, a true transitional album. The following year, they crafted 360 Degrees, penning four originals out of eight tracks.
The centerpiece, of course, is the smoldering "Me and Mrs. Jones," a No. 1 Pop/No. 1 R&B phenomenon written by Gamble, Huff and Cary Gilbert, and arranged by Bobby Martin. Less commercially successful but no less powerful is the fiery "Am I Black Enough for You?" also from Gamble and Huff. More in the vein of "Mrs. Jones" is a dramatic reworking, Philly-style, of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," with string and horn charts from Norman Harris. Another familiar song was tackled via Elton John and Bernie Taupin's then-recent "Your Song," given a distinct treatment from Paul and Lenny Pakula. Carole King and Toni Stern's chart-topping "It's Too Late," from King's breakthrough Tapestry, lent itself to many R&B reworkings by artists such as The Isley Brothers. It's fascinating to compare Paul's version, arranged by Pakula, with fellow Philly maestro Thom Bell's silkier treatment for The Stylistics.
360 Degrees topped the R&B chart and went to the top 20 of the Pop chart, sealing Paul's place in the soul pantheon. War of the Gods found Paul as a Philly answer to Isaac Hayes or Marvin Gaye, both of whom produced "heavy" extended song suites in the soul idiom. One glance at the album artwork, with a masked devil facing off against a beaming being of light, shows that Billy Paul and Messrs. Gamble and Huff had more on their minds than just dance and romance. The album's tone was set by "I See the Light," a slow-burning, hypnotic odyssey of self-discovery in which Paul's deep baritone is in service of a melody (arranged by Lenny Pakula) that threatens to turn torpid but instead surprises with its triumphant refrain. The song's eventual majesty catches the listener off-guard, but it's ultimately a curtain-raiser for "War of the Gods." Siren-like electronics open the lengthy, 10+-minute Bobby Martin-arranged track, in which Paul proclaims, "The time has come for the War of the Gods." The melody shifts and turns, with Martin's arrangement veering along with it from a dirge to jazz to a Latin groove as the narrator addresses both "the master of tricks, the master of pain" Lucifer and "the strong, the mighty" God - who might have the "title" of "Allah, Buddha, Hare Krishna, Jehovah...[or] Jesus." Needless to say, Paul and the song's co-writers Gamble and Huff were on the side of the angels, with Paul passionately testifying for his Father in the War. But he'd come a long way from that thing with Mrs. Jones.
The album can roughly be divided into thirds: the one-two punch of those initial tracks, the three-song "pop" mid-section, and the epic, spiritual finale. (Bobby Martin handled arrangements for all songs other than the opening and closing tracks.) Of those three "lighter" songs, "The Whole Town's Talking" is as compact as 'War of the Gods" is epic. With jazz singer Paul in his best R&B/pop vein, the catchy tune has PIR's trademark female backing vocals (which had been deployed so very differently in "War") standing out over the irresistible and airy orchestral blend including prominent horns, strings, winds and piano. In the song, apparently the townspeople heard about Billy's love life through, what else, the grapevine! (There's no relation to the Sherman Marshall song, "The Whole Town's Laughing at Me," recorded at PIR by Teddy Pendergrass on his debut solo album.) "Thanks for Saving My Life," an enjoyable ode to a cherished partner, brought a lighter touch to the LP. Most interesting is "I Was Married," a jazzy memory ballad of those relationships that just didn't work out. With a sinuous saxophone weaving in and out of its seven minutes' length, it's somewhat akin to "epic pop." For the closing plea for "Peace Holy Peace," Paul was joined by a 22-member choir and an appropriately churchy organ. Though War of the Gods isn't one of the singer or label's most accessible albums, it's doubtless one of the most provocative and passionate.
The third Paul title to receive the Vocalion treatment is 1974's Live in Europe. As it's never had a U.K. or U.S. release on CD, it's a particularly welcome addition to the catalogue. A short, four-song album, Live in Europe was culled from the singer's well-received sets at London's Hammersmith Odeon and Chatham's Central Hall in December 1973 as captured by the Rolling Stones' mobile truck. (The package tour also featured his Philly International labelmates The O'Jays and The Intruders; The O'Jays' set was also released on LP as Live in London. It, too, received a quadraphonic release and would be a great choice for Vocalion.) Following the opening excerpt of "War of the Gods," Paul tackles extended versions of "Brown Baby," "Me and Mrs. Jones," and "Your Song," as well as "Thanks for Saving My Life." (The introduction was indexed with "Brown Baby" on the original LP but is split here into two tracks.)
These 4.0-channel surround sound mixes are solid examples of the format, largely immersive and discrete. The label's Michael J. Dutton has remastered all titles. 360 Degrees of Billy Paul/War of the Gods adds new liner notes by David Zimmerman, while Live in Europe reprints the original album notes. Both hybrid SACD titles from Billy Paul are available now directly from Vocalion as well as at the Amazon links below!
CD 1: 360 Degrees of Billy Paul (Philadelphia International LP ZQ 31793, 1972)
- Brown Baby
- I'm Just a Prisoner
- It's Too Late
- Me and Mrs. Jones
- Am I Black Enough for You
- Let's Stay Together
- Your Song
- I'm Gonna Make It This Time
CD 2: War of the Gods (Philadelphia International LP ZQ 32409, 1973)
- I See the Light
- War of the Gods
- The Whole Town's Talking
- I Was Married
- Thanks for Saving My Life
- Peace Holy Peace
- War of the Gods - Introduction
- Brown Baby
- Thanks for Saving My Life
- Me and Mrs. Jones
- Your Song