The door swings open as we pass the café. The A/C is turned up all the way, and we are embraced by a coolly seductive rush of air. We catch an irresistible cosmopolitan groove from the jukebox and can no longer stand out in the heat. We duck in, taking a table near the front window so we can watch life pass by.
The song has just started and we smile as we sing along, relishing the lush and sultry rhythm. The rise and fall of the string arrangement is mirrored in our entwined arms, and the serpentine staccato urges us to get closer. We look directly into each other’s eyes as the evocative story reaches into our romantic hearts.
We don’t miss a word, and as we reach the last repetition of the song’s key phrase, we spot the couple in the back booth.
“Me and Mrs. Jones…we got a thing goin’ on…”
Our eyes meet with theirs, and we instinctively lower our voices. As the song goes into fadeout, we turn to see the heat waves rising from the pavement outside.
Candid, proud, and disarming in its tone, “Me and Mrs. Jones” was a #1 Billboard hit for Billy Paul in 1972. It dominated that position on the Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts for the month of December. It has been recorded by numerous artists since, including Grammy-winner Michael Bublé and alt-country chanteuse Kelly Willis.
It’s an enduringly popular song, one people sing along with regardless of their moral inclinations to the contrary. It is sweet without saccharine, sweepingly romantic, and against all odds. Its unhesitant declaration of “we got a thing goin’ on” is both intimate and celebratory. Taken within its own context, it provides an alluring portrait of infidelity in a seemingly innocent setting.
Innocence is an ambiguous quality, it must be confessed. Billy takes the issue head-on, openly declaring that their rendezvous is wrong. But a thorough reading of the lyrics, projected against the setting, indicates that so little ‘wrong’ is really happening.
They meet “every day at the same café,” he says, illustrating their dedication to one another. But no matter how secluded their booth, it offers more limitations than the wedding rings they presumably wear. The most lurid behavior we can identify is “holding hands.” They do a lot of hoping, but hope is not a crime.
The song’s arrangement furnishes a setting of intimacy and comfort. The lilting melody immerses our confidence in a sea of sustained strings as we ease into the tuck-and-roll bassline. The high-hat chips away the precious evening hours while the sparse piano fills invite us to have one more cocktail. Economic lyrics help us imagine every nuance: the café’s fluttering awning, little wrought iron sidewalk tables, large casement windows, and an ever-playing jukebox inside.
By 6:30 PM, dusk is settling in. If the café is in a major metropolitan area, then the surrounding buildings have already cast their shadows inside the room. From the sidewalk, we can see the presence of diners, but we can’t make out their faces.
Inside, however, their faces are clearly seen by the daily staff. The bartender certainly knows them, and perhaps he calls them both “Jones.” The servers, the hostess, the manager, even the busboy, all recognize them. They’re the regulars; they’ve accrued certain privileges. The staff has taken them under their wing and guards their anonymity. Their table is ready and waiting every day at 6:30. Their favorite record is never removed from the jukebox. As Doris Day once sang, “Everybody loves a lover.”
Privileged status aside, “every day at the same café” indicates something very unpleasant: The lovers’ refuge doubles as a prison, enforcing some very significant restraint. In many songs of infidelity we are privy to intimate moments in close quarters, where the lovers consummate their relationship. For example, “In Some Room Above the Street,” a 1976 hit by Gary Stewart, takes us to a neon-lit hotel room, carefully chosen by the lovers to host their very passionate affair. In such a haven, they are free to express every aspect of their love. But with Mr. Paul and Mrs. Jones, there seems to be no such oasis. Dusk can only throw shade on their relationship, not draw a blind between them and the prying public.
We don’t know how long they spend at the café each evening. We don’t know if they’ve ever met elsewhere. We don’t know if they’ve had one single quiet, private moment—and in this the song presents them as relatively innocent. There’s not one mention of sexual involvement, no allusion, no innuendo, no euphemisms. The resulting effect is that it’s easy to find ourselves rooting for the couple. After all, they’re just holding hands. That seems safe enough. As long as it doesn’t get “Out of Hand,” the dangers of which Gary Stewart also sang about, in 1976.
We can deduce that their tryst takes place in a large city. In a small town, everyone would know of their rendezvous, including their spouses. As Hank Williams says in “You Win Again,” “The news is out all over town/that you’ve been seen out running around.” This is not the case in “Me and Mrs. Jones,” judging from Billy’s confident confession. In addition, the smooth R&B style of the song indicates a very urban love affair. This is no honky-tonk, and certainly not a roadhouse. It’s a cozy bistro in Philadelphia, full of international soul.
Honky-tonks and roadhouses have inspired numerous cheating songs, to be certain. And in many of them, the lovers are discovered. An extremely familiar example of this, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1973 song “Gimme Three Steps,” portrays the polar opposite of “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The cheating woman is discovered by her mate, and the other man must flee for his life. A similar situation occurs in the 1964 hit by Jay and the Americans, “Come a Little Bit Closer.” Not one to be outdone by any man in a café or honky-tonk, Doug Sahm recounted his personal barroom infidelities in multiple songs, such as “I Can’t Go Back to Austin” and the title-says-it-all “Cowboy Peyton Place.”
In a public place such as this one, we can expect them to be cautious. They don’t attract extra attention by dancing to their favorite song. Instead, they sit snugly and scheme elaborately–and this is the point which causes Billy’s anxiety. “We got to be extra careful,” he says, “that we don’t build our hopes too high.” For outside their Naugahyde love nest, there are other “obligations.”
These obligations certainly involve spouses, and perhaps children. Billy doesn’t say any more about their respective home lives, but his word choice—obligations—is very informative, telling us how they perceive their home lives. There’s no mention of appreciation or love for anyone at home. In fact, the word love is completely absent from this song, never making an appearance even in regard to their illicit relationship.
With unhappy—or perhaps unremarkable—experiences at home, Mr. Paul and Mrs. Jones have extra reason for caution. It would be easy for them to see each other as an exciting alternative to domestic doldrums. The runaway thrill of a forbidden romance leads directly to idyllic expectations. Perhaps the hopes they are fighting include the hope that they’ve really found the perfect thing. It’s definitely a “thing,” he proudly proclaims. But he doesn’t provide an adjective.
An important discovery was made in the 1950s: how to properly stock a jukebox. Music historian Charlie Gillett writes: “These records had to have either a beat heavy enough to cut through the raucous clamor of a bar or a message desolate enough to haunt late-night drinkers not yet ready to go home.” What this means is that our lovers, with their attachment to the jukebox, are subject to myriad aural hazards.
The jukebox, an anemic and impersonal substitute for live musicians, can nevertheless influence the activity and emotion of the venue. It can instantly silence the chatter, clear the room, or fill the dance floor. A cleverly stocked jukebox can help an establishment generate repeat business, as aficionados know exactly where to hear a favorite tune or to catch a certain vibe.
The jukebox’s command of a venue’s mood was illustrated in a 1972 episode of “Night Gallery,” in a segment titled, “The Tune in Dan’s Café.”
The tune in question was Jerry Wallace’s country hit from August of that year, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry.” Through the course of the episode, we learn of ill-fated lovers Roy and Red, and how the jukebox itself becomes obsessed with them. Soon, that record—acknowledged as their song—became the only one the jukebox would play. Holding all present and future café visitors in its maudlin grip, it offered its simple message through a few choice words: “Words like love and truth and goodness/Words like till death us do part…”
These words would surely sting our booth-bound lovers, broadcasting across the room the vows that Mrs. Jones and her paramour were potentially violating. The most poignant passage, however, would be the one that hints at their brief time together: “For the hours I’ve spent here with you/Are like words from a poet’s pen.”
In 1972, the R&B poets were prolific regarding illicit relationships. For example, in July, Luther Ingram hit the charts with “If Lovin’ You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right).” Its declaration of love in spite of traditional morality was undercut by the overwhelming condemnation offered by friends and family. Coming out of Memphis, it was hardly a shot of Southern Comfort.
The previous month, Bobby Womack scored with “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” about a woman who needs more than her man is giving her. “Back Stabbers,” from the O’Jays in September, directed its paranoia at alleged friends who “sure look shady,” always “out to get your lady.” Its grim outlook was the product of the same Philly soul factory as “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Yet another Philadelphia International hit, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” depicted romantic unhappiness just in time for Thanksgiving.
A comparatively buoyant tune from October, the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around,” began its promise of constancy with very dire words: “This is our fork in the road/Love’s last episode/There’s nowhere to go, oh no.” Clearly, the jukebox could be a harsh mistress.
With so many rocks along the shore, we have to wonder where they moored their love boat. Perhaps their pier was Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” from earlier in 1972. We can only hope it wasn’t Chuck Berry’s October hit, “My Ding-a-Ling.”
“The Tune in Dan’s Café” presented a song as an echo of a tragic affair. Similarly, “Me and Mrs. Jones” contains a reflection back to an earlier unresolved experience.
As the song begins to close, Billy fights against the never-ending cycle of ”every day, at the same cafe.” He reaches deep into their shared past, to a time when they had a more free, unbounded affair. His ad lib during the song’s fadeout is a revelatory departure from the script.
And it’s obvious that he’s no longer talking to us. He’s pleading with her.
“I wanna meet and talk with you at the same place, the same café, the same time, and we gonna hold hands like we used to. We’re gonna talk it over. We know, they know, and you know, and I know that it was wrong…but I think it’s strong. We gotta let ‘em know now that we got a thing going on…”
In the scripted lyrics, he readily admits that their daily meeting is unacceptable by most standards. But in his ad lib, he seems to be singling out a significant and intense moment: “It was wrong,” he says.
His protestations indicate that she won’t revisit that time, no matter how strong their experience was. This is the first indication of a struggle in the midst of their romantic bliss: He wants to go legit, but she’ll not have it.
Does she ever honor his plea? Not within the four-and-a-half minute peek we have into their affair. Billy is stuck in limbo, evidenced by the skintight frustration of his voice as the song fades out.
Soon we hear the jukebox’s mechanism return this record to its slot. It seeks out the next selection, perhaps a classic from B. B. King, penned by Jessie Mae Robinson. It won’t make things easier for our couple.
“I want to meet you in the sunlight/Not in some secret rendezvous/Because I’m so tired of sneakin’ around with you.”