In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
We’ll never see another story like Motown Records, a regional and black-owned record label that did everything in-house, developed its own sound, and became a long-running and absolutely dominant force within pop music. People talk about Stax Records like it was some kind of competitor to Motown. It was not. Stax produced countless classic records, but it never anywhere near Motown in terms of sheer popularity. But in the early ’70s, a real competitor to Motown did emerge, albeit briefly.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were musicians and songwriters who met each other while they were gigging around Philadelphia’s music scene in the early ’60s. The first record that they got together to produce was the Soul Survivors’ 1967 stomper “Expressway To Your Heart,” and it was a hit. (“Expressway To Your Heart” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) They kept working together, producing for Jerry Butler and Dusty Springfield and Wilson Pickett. And they gradually thickened their sound, adding strings and baroque horn arrangements and psychedelic guitar effects. Along with fellow production genius Thom Bell, they developed what became the Philadelphia soul sound.
Philadelphia International Records wasn’t the first label that Gamble and Huff founded, but it was the one that stuck. They started the label in 1971, inking a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS. By then, they had their approach down: Writing and producing themselves, recording everything at the same studio (Sigma Sound) with the same group of absurdly gifted studio musicians (the band that would become known as MFSB). All of this was straight from the Motown playbook, but with their velvety and extravagant sound, Gamble and Huff tapped into changing trends, following pop music in the softer and more ornate direction that it was traveling.
The hits started arriving right away. In 1972, Gamble and Huff scored with the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” (peaked at #3, a 9) and Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (also peaked at #3, a 7). And at the very end of the year, Gamble and Huff scored their first #1 with Billy Paul’s “Me And Mrs. Jones.” It would not be their last.
Billy Paul was a veteran nightclub singer nearly a decade older than Gamble or Huff. A Philadelphia native like Gamble and Huff, Paul had started recording jazz singles in the early ’50s. He’d had a long and spotty career — singing with a few R&B groups, striking up a friendship with Marvin Gaye during their journeyman days, trying to get Elvis to join a band with him with they served in the Army in Germany together. Gamble and Huff had released a 1968 Billy Paul live jazz-standards album on Gamble Records, one of their pre-Philadelphia International labels. By the time “Me And Mrs. Jones” hit #1, Paul was 38.
Gamble and Huff wrote “Me And Mrs. Jones” about a couple they kept seeing in a bar. They’d go drinking everyday at the bar that was downstairs in their label’s office building, and every single day, the same man would meet a woman in this bar. They’d sit together for a few minutes, talking quietly together and playing a few songs on the jukebox, and then they’d go their separate ways. Gamble and Huff came up with a story about the love affair that they imagined this couple was having, and they turned that into a song.
There are a lot of pop songs about infidelity, but they’re usually sung from the point of view of the aggrieved party. That’s not “Me And Mrs. Jones.” Instead, on that one, Billy Paul’s narrator has “a thing going on” with a married woman. It’s an obsessive sort of relationship. They meet up every single day in the same café at the same time. They talk and make plans, but they can’t be together.
“We both know it’s wrong,” Paul sings. But he doesn’t sound like he thinks it’s wrong. Instead, he sings about her with a warm sort of longing, and he doesn’t intend to cut things off: “Tomorrow, we’ll meet the same place, the same time.” Paul implies that he’s cheating on someone, too: “She’s got her own obligations / And so, and so do I.” And Paul never even sings about sex. Instead, he just sings about holding hands and listening to the jukebox together. Maybe it’s not even a physical affair. Maybe it’s just an emotional one. (They’re probably fucking, though.)
It’s a finely observed song, one that never judges its characters or imagines a way out of its situation. But it’s also schmaltz. One of Gamble and Huff’s great strengths was their sense of rhythmic push; it’s what would make them so ideally suited for the early days of disco. But we don’t hear that on “Me And Mrs. Jones.” Instead, it’s a lush and lazy sprawl of a song. It all sounds magnificent, these guitars and pianos and saxophones all luxuriating into each other. But there’s no force to it, no urgency.
Billy Paul made the transition from jazz to soul pretty smoothly, and plenty of his other Philadelphia International singles (like “Am I Black Enough For You?,” the great “Me And Mrs. Jones” follow-up that sadly flopped) were downright funky. But on “Me And Mrs. Jones,” we can hear a nightclub-singer hamminess coming through. The song gives him a lot of space, and he fills it up, hitting showy high notes all over the place. He sells the song’s emotional pull, but he also shows off, using that glacial tempo to vamp hard. And the arrangement fully veers into lite-jazz aesthetics. It’s a sharp and considered track, expertly recorded. But it’s also probably my least favorite of those Gamble & Huff hits, mostly because it stays set on lull.
Billy Paul would never get anywhere near the top 10 again, though he spent the rest of the decade recording for Philadelphia International. A couple of decades later, he sued Gamble and Huff for missing royalties on “Me And Mrs. Jones,” and he won. He made it to the age of 81, when cancer claimed him.
Gamble and Huff, meanwhile, were just getting started.
BONUS BEATS: Mary J. Blige (who will eventually show up in this column) interpolated “Me And Mrs. Jones” on “Mr. Wrong,” a 2011 collaboration with Drake (who will also eventually show up in this column). It peaked at #87. Here’s the video: