Friday, January 4, 2019
Blackest and whitest things in Philadelphia
I recently ran across this video of Billy Paul singing his signature piece, Me and Mrs. Jones. There are a couple of things I love about this video (once you get past the weird modern dance number at the very beginning). Most immediately striking is that Billy sings the whole song with a long, thin cigar clenched between his teeth. It's just so effortlessly cool, and doesn't even looked contrived, though it was surely the result of a very deliberate decision by the production team. The second thing I like about this is that Billy is about 38 when he's singing this song. It's a grown-up song about a grown-up topic, sung by a grown-up. This contrasts with much of pop music throughout the late 20th century, which tends to be teenyboppers singing about silly nonsense. Billy Paul is unapologetically adult here. In this sense he is really archetypal of the Philly Soul sound, which to me is defined by just such a confident, self-assured grown-up attitude.
At the same time, my wife and I have been watching the old TV show "thirtysomething". I'd never seen it, save occasional snatches I'd catch when I was a kid and had network TV on at that hour of the night. It's really good, and deftly captures a lot of things about being a grown-up, navigating a marriage, raising kids. It's particularly mind-blowing for me because the characters are the age I am now, but the show was shot thirty years ago, when I was a little kid. So it's this odd mix of familiar from my childhood, familiar from my adulthood, and a lot less dated than you might expect a 30-year-old show to be. Coincidentally, "thirtysomething" is also set in Philadelphia. But don't expect a cameo from Billy Paul. In fact, don't expect to see anyone who looks even remotely like him. We're about 5 episodes in, and I can't recall having seen one black face, not even walking around in the background of scenes set downtown. I guess it's because there aren't many black folks in Philly, right?