Billy Paul Memphis Sings Like Never Before

'Me & Mrs. Jones' Singer Wins Half Mil

In the music industry, the rip-offs are endless and continuing. Record companies have traditionally destroyed artists, and then lawyers have often done the same to their clients.

It's all kind of sad when you realize that while the lawyers and artists bicker, a few moguls have laughed their way to mansions, private pension plans and lifestyles worthy of sheiks.

So it's good news today that Philadelphia rhythm and blues singer Billy Paul (search), whose 1973 hit "Me & Mrs. Jones" has been a radio staple for 30 years, has won a major verdict.

On Thursday, Paul triumphantly won $500,000 from his former record company's owners, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. He could have won more, but a statute of limitations prevented him from collecting royalties earlier than 1994. Can you imagine if he'd been able to go back all three decades?

Paul asserted in court that he had not received a royalty accounting from Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International label in about 27 years. Then, a year and a half ago, he heard his voice singing "Me & Mrs. Jones" on a Nike commercial.

Realizing he had never agreed to be a Nike spokesman, he found San Francisco attorney Steven Ames Brown, who specializes in such cases. Brown hired an expert auditor, who went back over Philadelphia International's accounting. The jury was out for 90 minutes on Thursday.

"And Billy Paul was Kenny Gamble's best friend," Brown said yesterday. "Can you imagine what might have happened to the others?"

The other potential winners in this case could be the many dozens of artists who turned out hits for Philadelphia International in the 1970s. The O'Jays, The Spinners, The Three Degrees, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes are among those acts.

Blanche Williams Paul, Billy's wife, said yesterday in a statement: "Winning this case opens the door for all of those other artists whose royalties were withheld or under-accounted to go to court and seek justice, and to know that they have a good chance of winning their case. This is just the beginning of G&H's worst nightmare. The avalanche cometh."

Memphis Sings Like Never Before

Meantime, I went to Memphis this weekend for the beginning of a week-long celebration of soul music.

Four years ago, when I was in Memphis to start our documentary, Only the Strong Survive, the whole town was obsessed with Elvis Presley (search). This was very painful to me, as the city's real legacy was not with this pill-popping, self-indulgent diva who had shag carpeting on his ceiling, but in the beautiful rhythm and blues of Stax and Hi Records.

But back in 1999, Elvis was everywhere. The only place you could even buy a Stax T-shirt was at Tater Red's on Beale Street. The original Stax studios had been demolished, and all that remained was an empty lot of weeds with a dingy plaque on East McLemore Street.

For our film, the legendary Carla Thomas, who'd sung "Gee Whiz," reminisced with us in 100-degree heat in the middle of that barren space.

Since then a lot has happened, and it's all good. Andy and Staley Cates, two enterprising brothers from Memphis, have built a gorgeous museum on the site. 

Soulsville USA (search) opens this Friday, and it could not be better. First of all, the façade is a replica of the original building, as if it had never been knocked down. Inside, in the beautifully designed space, there are dozens of salutes, interactive and otherwise, to Stax's greatest stars: Rufus Thomas, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, William Bell, the Bar-Kays and Carla herself.

There are even areas for other Memphis R&B labels, like Hi (Al Green, Ann Peebles, Willie Mitchell) and Goldwax (James Carr). It was too much to absorb in one visit, and I can't wait to return. The Web site is www.soulsvilleusa.com.

Hopefully, the museum will reinvigorate an area of town badly in need of help. Already there are signs that it's working.

But the rest of Memphis is humming. Four years ago the city was digging and renovating; the area around the Peabody Hotel was a mess.

Now the whole place is turned upside down by the wondrous Peabody Place — malls, restaurants and bars that fit in so well with old Beale Street. Gibson Guitars has its own museum and restaurant and there's an Isaac Hayes restaurant, too.

On Saturday night the whole place was so busy it was like Times Square. This is the city to visit this summer. I have to thank Linn Sitler and Tommie Pardue of the Memphis Film Commission for bringing us down and turning us on to their revitalized city.

The food is so good in Memphis you are in constant danger of needing an angioplasty! When you get to town, make a local take you to the fabled Cozy Corner for ribs and chicken. There is nothing like it in the world. Dr. Atkins would have approved.