I love soul music. But Philadelphia soul music transcends love and puts somewhere in the heavens when I hear it. The Spinners, The O’Jays, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, The Delfonics… – Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell knew how to take vocal groups left on the industry scrap heap, play to their vocal strengths and give them tight classy instrumental arrangement to sing over. The early 70s is filled with one classic after another. Unfortunately paranoia and greed killed their momentum when in 1976, the MFSB house band went on strike and signed with Salsoul. PIR carried on, even had some more hits, but it was never the same again. That’s the story of Billy Paul’s career in a nutshell.
Billy Paul was born Paul Wiliams and had been recording since the late 50s, with hardly any commercial success. His first LP release for Gamble & Huff came in 1968 with a live recording called Feeling Good at the Cadillac Club on their Gamble label. Two years later, he’d release Ebony Woman on their Neptune label and followed it with Going East in 1971 on the newly formed Philadelphia International label. They let Billy record standards and soulful covers of popular tunes of the day like Mrs. Robinson and Magic Carpet Ride. But it felt like one misfire after another for poor ol’ Billy. No one knew what to do with that low raspy voice.
Then one day Kenny & Leon were inspired to write a story about a guy who came into a nearby cafe every day and met a girl. They’d play sit, talk, play music on the jukebox. And that was enough for their imaginations to go wild and create the scenario in Me And Mrs Jones. They let Billy hear the demo they recorded and while he was away, he got into character, imagining himself as the lead and belting out of the most passionate and soul wrenching vocals in PIR history. Gamble & Huff would try to use Billy a mouthpiece for more Afro-centric, political songs and would up killing his career in the process.
But as far as ‘cheating’ songs go, this one is the tops. You can stack it up with any old blues or country standard – Billy’s is the best. Shame that it’s become a lost genre. Outside of some misogynistic rap songs, cheating songs died out in the late 70s, about the same time as the Women’s lib movement coalesced. Coincidence? Hey, it takes two to tango.
When this song comes on, it’s like someone has just slipped me into a warm bath. From start to finish it’s one long velvet groove, even when the horns and string hit their climactic strikes just before the chorus when Billy smoothly screams “Me-iyee-iyee Ahh-uhannnd Mrs….Mrs Jo-oh-ohhhnes”. Poor dude. He’s either beggin for some more and missing that it’s gone. This song made a big impression on me as a kid and does til this day. But that doesn’t mean it’s without its faults.
For example, this is supposed to be an illicit passionate affair that are so attracted to each other but have significant others. So they’re torn apart, confused, yearning, heart-broken, whatever. But the lyrics tell a different story.
Me and Mrs Jones, we got a thing going on
We both know that it’s wrong
But it’s much too strong to let it cool down now
So Billy is telling us that he’s cheating, but since there’s feeling involved, there can’t be a clean break right now. Let’s assume for argument’s sake he’s speaking to us or to a therapist, but probably not his wife.
We meet every day at the same cafe
Six-thirty I know she’ll be there
OK, Billy. It feels like you want to get caught. You meet every day? That’s not gonna cause suspicion? And at 6:30? That’s dinnertime. Unless you’re talking about AM and in that case, who cheats at dawn? Hit the snooze, buddy.
Holding hands, making all kinds of plans
While the jukebox plays our favorite song
Holding hands? Making plans? Unless the plans include 15 minutes alone in the cafe bathroom, this feels like two six-year-old kids on the playground pretending to be adults. Which would then make their favorite song Playground In My Mind.
We gotta be extra careful
That we don’t build our hopes too high
Cause she’s got her own obligations and so do I
Now for the first time it just hit me. What is she telling her man every night? I’m going grocery shopping, be back in 3 hours? None of this is making sense, unless these two are having their own secret affair or they’re just plain dumb.
Well, it’s time for us to be leaving
It hurts so much, it hurts so much inside
Now she’ll go her way and I’ll go mine
Tomorrow we’ll meet the same place, the same time
For more coffee and hand holding…I understand Gamble & Huff wanted to do this classy. But if anyone besides Billy sings this song, they’s be bored to tears. Teddy Pendergrass would just scare you if he sang it. Why do I feel like Billy’s really not cheating with anyone. Maybe he’s just getting together with the guys for a Fantasy Football draft or whatever the equivalent to that would be in 1972.
Fun facts: Billboard, the jokesters that they are, reported that Me & Mrs Jones replaced none other than Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman at #1 in December of 1972. Billy had his only big hit at the ripe old age of 38. Then yuks-a-plenty when in January of 1973, Me & Mrs. Jones was replaced at the top by Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.