Many, many years ago, when I was living through a desperate time I used to listen to Billy Paul’s ‘Your Song’ each morning …
First thing when I woke up, I’d switch on the computer, find the song, put it on, go wake my son and then listen to the music on repeat, during our breakfast, until all the other morning tasks were done and it was time to leave.
Often it seems to me that films score the truly tragic moments incorrectly especially where the moment of tragedy and loss is accompanied by sad music. This isn't true to life, or at least my life. Sure, I could have been listening to Diamanda Galás or Joy Division, or something bleak, but I didn't need a reminder of what I was feeling. I wanted to have a reminder of something I couldn't see, but hoped could be there for me in the future. This need of mine makes me think of the profound lyric by Jonathan Richman from his masterpiece 'Hospital' (that was also released in 1972) ...
I go to bakeries all day long
There’s a lack of sweetness in my life
And there is pain inside
You can see it in my eyes
where the narrator seeks out the 'sweetness' externally because of the lack within. So that in this moment of real urgency and despair I sought out ... the pop-sugar of Billy Paul.
Billy Paul has a whole catalogue of serious songs with a political edge – songs that I’m a fan of as well, of course ‘Am I black enough for you?’ (check out this wild take on the theme by Schoolly D a decade or so on) or ‘I’m just a prisoner’ that were both included on the 360 Degrees of Billy Paul album.
The 8-minute track, 'I'm just a prisoner' is fabulous, so sensitive in its depiction of the experience, carried along with what comes across as a super-precise, but thoughtful monologue reflecting the psychological head-space of the incarcerated man; I really love the musical excess that kicks in about half-way through, it’s so expressive.
Indeed, ?uestlove has called for Paul to be recognised for his more serious work, stating that he is one of the ‘criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music.'
Listening to Billy Paul’s ‘Your song’ now, all these years later, it’s easy for me to see why I loved it so much then; there’s something about the naïve quality of Paul’s delivery – including the rasping, sound of his breathing almost – that makes you connect with the feeling of optimism and hope. Added to this is the expression of idealised love (‘.. How wonderful life is when you're in the world, world, world..’ This is the part my son sings along with).
You feel transported, carried along by the energy; it’s musical escapism of the sweetest kind.
The delivery also seemed so exotic to me too, then, especially the way the intonation and language was played around with, using the idioms of Black American English, incorporating all those joyful flourishes, including the high-point that makes me smile each time I hear it: ‘I’m doin’ beautiful’. Now after checking the lyrics to write this, I have just discovered that this, my favourite-ever etc part of the song is not correct: the real line is much more prosaic, in fact. That's a shame.
Just look at the way these verses are reinvented, with the emphasis on a word that has no real meaning, if – if and the repetition.
Alongside Paul’s energetic delivery, what saves the music from falling into false sentiment is the playfulness of the instrumentation: all those insistent piano stabs that come out of nowhere, those swirling descending flourishes, the snippets of horns piping away and (yes, I know) the gorgeous backing-vocals.
This musical sensibility, arch and romantic and excessive but never too much, reminds me of the more lyrical artists working in hip-hop production – past and present – where sound as elements is loved in and of itself, as something to be cherished.
To get a sense of the ‘Billy Paul magic’, return to the Elton John original or this cover – which I like a lot as well – from Al Jarreau; see, this live version from Hamburg, 1976 with its super-sleazy introduction and his bizarre Theremin-type movements mid-performance.
R.I.P Billy Paul (1934-2016) & Al Jarreau (1940-2017)