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Fornication and adultery were illegal in Pennsylvania until 1973. Laws prohibiting them were abolished that year, but not without a struggle. In November 1972, as the new criminal code was being debated, a Democrat in the state legislature proposed an amendment protecting the ban. It was defeated by 111 votes to 73.
The blow to Pennsylvanian morality came three nights after Philadelphian singer Billy Paul appeared on the television show Soul Train. He wore a suave velvet suit and sang his new single, “Me and Mrs Jones”, as couples slow-danced around the foot of the stage. The song was about adultery.
“Me and Mrs Jones, we got a thing going on,” Paul sang in a beautifully sultry tone. “We both know that it’s wrong, but it’s much too strong to let it go now.” Tinkling piano, strings and a sighing saxophone made the extramarital liaison sound the very height of sophistication. Never has the seventh commandment been broken so smoothly.
The song, which went on to hit number one in the US, was written by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and lyricist Cary Gilbert. Gamble and Huff (good names for a production duo) were instrumental in creating Philadelphia soul, a lushly orchestral style that supplanted Motown in the 1970s.
They were inspired to write “Me and Mrs Jones” by the sight of a couple who regularly met in the bar below their office, always playing the same song on the jukebox. Perhaps that song was Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, from the 1953 film Calamity Jane. The melody of the first line Day sings, “Once I had a secret love”, is slyly quoted by the sax solo at the start of “Me and Mrs Jones”.
I doubt that the 73 legislators who voted to keep Pennsylvania’s anti-adultery laws were Soul Train viewers. But it is tempting to imagine them watching Paul sing “Me and Mrs Jones” with mounting outrage, and perhaps an intuition of defeat. It is a supremely worldly song, knowing and seductive, aware of the misdeed it describes and the impossibility of legislating against it.
“Me and Mrs Jones” has been covered numerous times. The fate is apt. Cover versions are music’s version of adultery, a coveting of thy neighbour’s song. The best ones are caught between fidelity and faithlessness. They must be true to the song being covered while also taking the liberty of adding something: otherwise the result is karaoke. A degree of adulteration is vital.
Of the many interpretations of “Me and Mrs Jones”, the most memorable is also the most faithless. It is Amy Winehouse’s “Me and Mr Jones”, from her 2006 album Back to Black. Winehouse’s version swaps the original’s rich soul for louche doo-wop and alters Mrs Jones’s gender. The lyrics are addressed to a nameless man with whom the singer is having an on-off relationship. To her annoyance he has made her miss a show by the rapper Slick Rick. She is determined that he won’t allow her to miss a show by a New York rapper she loves even more, Nas (real name Nasir Jones).
The cheating runs both ways. “Can’t believe you played me out like that,” Winehouse tells the nameless lover. But in the next breath she pledges herself to Nas (“Nobody stands in-between me and my man/ Cause it’s me and Mr Jones”). Her voice is slurred, vivacious; she follows her own tune as though two-timing the jaunty doo-wop. What a wonderful singer she was, and how awful that the one thing she couldn’t cheat was death.
For a podcast with clips of the songs, visit ft.com/culturecast
Photographs: Michael Putland/Getty Images; Leon Neal/AFP