Me & Mr Paul

 The first artist of note I ever had the opportunity to produce was Billy Paul. Most of you will know the name from a huge hit he had in the early 70s titled Me And Mrs. Jones. It was nearly 15 years later when I was offered the chance to work with him on a record. That experience is another chapter all together. Several chapters actually! For our purposes here, I’d like to focus on a particular live performance the band I was with at the time did with him.

Since he was to be in Atlanta for pre-production of his upcoming record, his management thought it would be a good idea to book a couple of gigs for him to help offset costs and possibly to get him in performance mode for the work that lie ahead. I was asked if I could put together a band to work with him on 2 shows. The first was to be in Chattanooga, TN, the other in Atlanta at the famed Fox Theatre. It sounded like a win/win situation. I would get a chance to see Billy at work before we recorded and my band would pick up a couple of gigs in the process, as well as Billy and I getting a chance to know a bit more about one another.

Once Billy came into town we had a few rehearsals. Everyone in the band was professional, so we had learned the music prior to his arrival and mostly we just needed to work the show out in terms of arrangements, cues, etc. The mood was light and everything seemed to go rather smoothly. After a couple of days, we were ready.

The first night (Friday) was in Chattanooga where Billy headlined. All the rehearsals paid off and the show pretty much went off without a hitch. We followed Billy through his set easily and he was in good voice and we all had a blast. We considered the Chattanooga gig to be a paid rehearsal for the big gig the following night at the Fox.

The Fox is one of those gigs that have some significance attached to it. For me, playing there was right up there with The Apollo, Montreux Jazz Festival, or The Paradiso in Amsterdam. There’s just so much history with these venues that you literally can feel it from the time you enter the hall! The Fox definitely had that sense of history and energy, and being on the bill with legends such as Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis just enhanced it all!

We arrived late afternoon for sound check. The entire band was hyped. However, we were not quite as hyped as Billy was. Ours was a very natural excitement brought about by the anticipation of playing one of our favourite venues. Billy’s was brought about by the natural excitement of scoring an eight ball the previous evening after the show. It only took one look to realise this man had been up all night long and was just pure gone. He was rambling, complaining, pacing, everything he wasn’t just a few short hours ago.

We attempted to sound check but all of a sudden to Billy, everything we played was either too slow, in the wrong key or we were changing the arrangement or the monitors weren’t right, etc. I was stunned and wasn’t sure what to do. Our bass player LeBron kind of took control as best he could and somewhat calmed Billy down a bit. LeBron got him off stage and the rest of us apologised to the crew. They were pros. They had seen his type and more before and said not to worry. The last thing you ever want on a gig is an unhappy sound engineer. They have the power of your performance at their fingertips. Literally!!

The bass player rejoined us on stage and the band ran a couple of things so the crew could get levels. We had a few hours before the show so I stuck around to see Nancy and Ramsey each do a sound check. Just 20 min of Ms Wilson running a couple of songs and Ramsey playing through a few songs quickly made me forget about Billy’s new found drug induced diva status, (divO?) and I was again excited to be playing at the Fox.

As we got close to show time, the place is filling up and is brimming with that energy you feel when people are anticipating a great evening. We’re told it’s a sold out house. Oh man, to be playing the Fox to a sold out room and be on the same bill as Nancy and Ramsey was just exhilarating and humbling at the same time.

We go to find Billy and he is STILL jacked up. I wish I could say this was (like for us) just nervous excitement but that was not the case. He was gone! He wasn’t being such a divo at this point though. There was a certain amount of realisation setting in that he was getting ready to do an important gig and he was getting a little paranoid. The whole band talked through the set with him, reviewed tempos, cues, solos and whatever else we could think of to try and put him at ease. It was also good for us to go through this as a band as well as with Billy. Hopefully we were reinforcing things for ALL of us.

Most people don’t know that Billy used to work as a jazz singer before he became famous. He worked with some of Philadelphia’s finest as well as appearing with such luminaries as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and countless others. It was Nancy Wilson who first brought Billy to the attention of the recording industry. Anyway, Billy liked to open with a jazz blues where he could scat and show off his chops a little.

The lights dim and the band opens up with a mid tempo blues. The guitarist plays a couple of choruses and the audience is swaying and we’re off. Billy walks out on stage and the place erupts with applause. We start relaxing a little as Billy makes his way through the first half of the song. We’re loose, we’re swinging and everything seems to be coming together. In the middle of the song, Billy looks at me, points and says “Buzz!” Ok, this is not a planned solo for me but I can roll with it. Like I said, we are sounding good so maybe it was just getting good to Billy. I start soloing through a chorus and Billy comes over and sits next to me at the piano. I’ve done enough gigs to think that he’s just trying to create a show moment, sitting next to me and nodding and “diggin” what I’m doing. Kind of the jazz version of the lead singer getting in the guitarist face right? Hah! I wish. Instead, in the middle of my solo, Billy looks at me and whispers “Buzz, where we at?” All I can think is holy shit is this guy serious? So I lean in and say “at the Fox Billy.” Suddenly he gets this pained look on his face and is frantically saying “NAW MAN IN DA SONG…IN DA SONG…WHERE WE AT IN DA SONG?!” I look at him while playing and very calmly reply “ I don’t know Billy we’re following you.” Well his whole world caved. He gets up from the piano bench we shared and just says “AWWWWW DAMN!” Everyone in the band is looking at me by now wondering just what happened. My face in half amusement and half panic face said it. The band KNEW something was up.

I’m not going to go into a song-by-song description of what followed. I’m sure the other band members had their own memories of what stood out that night. Let’s just say though that during each song Billy became more and more agitated and was pacing frantically. Wireless mics were not the norm as yet so he has his mic with a cord. A very long cord at that. So long in fact, that as he is pacing through each song in his set, the cable is wrapping itself around the front monitor cabinets. This is going on for 30 minutes and Billy is not even aware that the mic cable is getting shorter with each song.

The entire set you can feel the audience go from mild amusement to let’s bring Nancy on. He is not singing well at all. He is messing up lyrics, out of tune and his banter is nonsensical. It’s embarrassing to be on stage with him at this point but we are almost home. Time for the “hit!” Usually people will forgive anything when they hear what it is that made you famous. We hit the downbeat of Me & Mrs. Jones. Bobby G, the guitarist, hits that opening guitar riff with the piano and the place goes nuts. We are all secretly saying to ourselves, c’mon Billy let’s end on a high note. All these people are rooting for you!

Well he comes in with the opening line and the place goes crazy again. The audience knows each line of the lyric and you can hear them singing right along with him. They love this song and I think they also feel it will be the LAST song, so they are into the moment.

As he’s crooning the verse he is stalking the stage as far as the cable will allow him. Billy makes his way to the far end of the stage just as he’s preparing to belt out the chorus “Meeee aaaaand Mrs, Mrs Jones.” With mic in hand, he quickly draws the mic up and away from his lips. As he does so, the tension on what was left of the cord causes it to rip from the mic and the guts just drop out of it onto the ground. Billy tosses the mic on the floor and is now standing on stage sans microphone, arms outstretched, shouting at the top of his lungs the chorus to his biggest hit!

People in the front rows (probably throughout the hall) are snickering. You can hear it and see it. It was just the most embarrassing spectacle I have ever witnessed and certainly the most I was ever part of. The sound crew hurriedly brings a new mic to him but the damage has been done. I felt awful for him and even more so for us.

He has an encore planned which we ALL (audience included) were hoping he would not do. No such luck. He was determined to do Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love Of All. Why lord…why???

He only gets midway through and stops the band in mid song. Unfuckingbelievable!!! We didn’t stop at first but he kept waving us to cut and was shouting, “Ice it! Ice it means stop!” At this point we couldn’t just ignore him so we stopped. He breaks into some type of speech that no one is listening to, understands, nor cares about. LeBron walks over to me with a “what the fuck” look and we decided to take control and play him off as if it were an award show or something. It worked and he left the stage. Once he was off we played long enough to be sure he was not coming back. After the last note we couldn’t wait to make a beeline out of there.

Immediately after we played the last note, you could hear a murmur run through the crowd peppered with just a smattering of applause. Ugh. One friend of mine who was there remarked that I looked like a school kid after a bad recital. I took the music, put it together, tapped it a few times on the piano, tucked it under my arms and huffed off stage!

We all headed backstage just in shock over what we had been a part of. I was livid and wanted to confront him about what had just happened Billy was in the dressing room changing. LeBron and I walked by and saw him rubbing something on his chest. LeBron asked “what are you doing man?” Billy looked at him and said he was toweling off and putting lotion on his chest. LeBron looked at him and said “mutha fucka that ain’t lotion, that’s my hair gel!” Billy let one of his patented “awww damn!” All I could do was shake my head and think what a fitting ending to a most embarrassing evening.

I eventually produced that album on him. It was a disaster and I was convinced I would never get the opportunity to produce another record ever again. Fortunately the only thing worse than my production was Billy’s performance.

More on the continuing adventures of Billy Paul to come!