In December 1972, soul singer Billy Paul scored a #1 pop and r&b hit with a smoldering ode to adultery called "Me and Mrs. Jones." Although he had a minor hit years later, Paul never returned to the public consciousness. But why? The documentary Am I Black Enough for You (2009) has the answer… somewhere.
Paul had quite a life before "Me and Mrs. Jones": he was a child singer on Philadelphia radio, apparently did a brief stint as a boxer, served in the army alongside Elvis, and sang with John Coltrane, among others. But the film, by Swedish director Göran Olsson, glosses over all that in favor of one pivotal incident in Paul's career. After "Me and Mrs. Jones," the tried-and-true thing would have been to release another pop song. Paul had a half-decent one on his album, but instead the follow-up was a funky slice of Black Power uplift called "Am I Black Enough for You."
We're gonna move on up
One by one
We ain't gonna stop
Until the work is done
The single flopped. It sounds like pretty innocuous, even feel-good stuff now, but back in 1972 "White America couldn't understand," explains proto-gangsta rapper Schoolly D, who covered the tune 17 years later. "'Wait a minute — this man wants to make love. Why is he black now?'" Paul's career never recovered.
Much of the film is devoted to unraveling that fateful decision and its consequences. Paul decries it this day. Kenny Gamble scoffs, "Billy Paul is a madman," adding that Paul simply never came up with another song as good as "Me and Mrs. Jones." Olsson fails to point out that Gamble is dissembling — along with his Philadelphia International Records partner Leon Huff, it was precisely Gamble's responsibility to compose and produce the hits for Paul. Later, Gamble contradicts himself and says "Am I Black Enough for You" "was great and Billy sounded great doing it."
Gamble digs himself a deeper hole when he says the decision to release the song as a single was based on the consensus of "most of the disk jockeys" and the label's distributor, CBS. But disk jockeys clearly disliked the song; otherwise it would likely have been a hit. And CBS' Clive Davis explicitly says he opposed it, which makes abundant sense, knowing his sensibilities. Paul also says Davis was against it. So Gamble's statement doesn't hold much water.
Gamble had a penchant for making social statements both on and off his records, and it may have overcome his commercial judgment. But "Am I Black Enough for You" was hardly an anomaly in Paul's catalogue. The Roots' redoubtable drummer Questlove calls Paul "one of the criminally unmentioned proprietors of socially conscious post-revolution '60s civil rights music," magnanimously classing him with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. So perhaps the song was artistically honest even if it was commercially misguided. Or maybe by doing the more socially conscious material, the trained jazz singer Paul was just being, as Gamble calls him in passing, "a very cooperative artist." The film never chases down any of this.
And finally, perhaps the real reason Paul's career fell off emerges: he and his wife/manager fell into substance abuse: speed, downers, cocaine and drinking.
But all this information is scattered, padded out and confused by endless Philadelphia cityscapes and frequent passages of Billy Paul performing live — well, sort of live. What Olsson actually does is overdub the original studio recordings onto contemporary live footage, which he painstakingly edits so it looks like the musicians are playing the music you're hearing. Olsson even dubs in audience noise to heighten the illusion. I bet most people don't even notice. That is not journalistic truth, and it's inexcusable. (There's also no vintage performance footage, which is a damn shame; perhaps there was a licensing issue.)
And when and where were these performances? We don't know. An on-screen credit identifies one venue as the Bataclan in Paris, but doesn't indicate when the show took place. The film depicts several other shows, but none of them are identified at all. Was Paul popular enough to headline, or was it a package tour? How does he sound now that he's in his 70s? We have little idea.
Olsson routinely leaves out other journalistic basics, like dates and places for key events mentioned in the interviews. We don't know when Paul's wife became his manager, or the sales or chart numbers for "Am I Black Enough for You," or when Paul started doing drugs, although if you happen to know when Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" came out you might be able to guess roughly when he went into rehab. Olsson routinely includes soundbites from interviewees, such as Schoolly D's claim that Paul wanted to release "Am I Black Enough for You" as his first single, that contradict seemingly ironclad truths established earlier.
And even though "Am I Black Enough for You" is the crux of the story, we don't hear the song until an hour and 12 minutes into the movie. Once again, it's an overdub of the original track onto a live performance, and it's introduced unceremoniously, without even an on-screen credit, unlike all the other songs in the film. Very odd, considering this is the big reveal, the song everybody's been talking about all this time, the song the whole movie is about.
It's almost as if Olsson was so enamored of his subject that he lost all perspective. At one point, when a weary Paul asks if they can finish up an interview, Olsson replies off-camera, "We're fine. I love you so much." In the opening titles, Olsson even credits his subject as "HRH [His Royal Highness] Billy Paul." HRH? WTF? And yet it's almost counterbalanced by how much Olsson gained Paul's trust, eliciting some moving passages and intriguing revelations. In a very poignant scene, Paul says something about "Am I Black Enough for You" that surprises even Blanche, his wife of 44 years, who is sitting beside him. "I feel as though I let the song down… when I went into my darkness [his period of drug abuse]. I feel like I abandoned the song," says Paul.
"And I'm still going to get to the bottom of 'Am I Black Enough,'" he says. And then he looks meaningfully at Blanche and adds, "We're going to do that." It's too bad the movie didn't do the same.