When I was a kid, Billy Preston was a Superstar. So forgive me for copping an attitude in reaction to the man’s on-line and print obituary headlines calling him “Fifth Beatle” and “Rolling Stones sideman.” Understand, I am not surprised by this and thoroughly aware of the condescending ways of mass media, but most fans who loved Billy Preston likely “discovered” him during his early to mid-`70s heyday as said Superstar on Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss’ A&M Records. And, of course, Houston-native Mr. Preston (who started piano at age 3) had, by that point, already done so much more – from being a child wonder accompanying Mahalia Jackson at 10 to playing a young W.C. Handy in the bio-film St. Louis Blues (with stars Nat “King” Cole, Eartha Kitt and Pearl Bailey), to touring with Ray Charles & Little Richard, releasing a string of “Wild Man at the Organ” albums of his own and THEN marking his historical association with the psychedelicized (and burnt out) Beatles, breathing nothing short of sanctified life into what would become the Fab Four’s final session, Let it Be (including “Get Back,” the single of which the group duly credited as The Beatles with Billy Preston - thus the “Fifth Beatle” tag he was stuck with ever since). He’d already graced their songs “Something” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with his organ work on their previous album, Abbey Road. He would later join George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh all-star benefit/documentary and accompany Bob Dylan on his wrenching, soul-bearing classic Blood on the Tracks.
That extensive prehistoric biography was completely unknown to my 7 year-old behind in the Summer of `72 when “Outa-Space” shot out of my transistor radio, sending my rockets to the moon with super funk-encoded transmissions of organ and clavinet. To see spaceman Billy perform this all-instrumental hit everywhere from “The Mike Douglas Show” to “The Midnight Special” with his Afro groovin’ like a disengaged wave of spring-coiled black on top of his head was Feel-Good Television of the first order! For a precious four more years, Billy was that sunshine-smilin’ soul brother dancin’ across the TV screen with the happy platters “Will It Go Round in Circles,” “Nothing from Nothing” and the intergalactic voodoo of yet another instrumental smash, “Space Race.” (note: I always felt “Outa-Space” and “Space Race”’s titles shoulda been switched.)
But Billy’s television image became mercifully more fleshed out when my exploration of Lps led me to some family acquaintance, relative, neighbor or friend’s mama’s copies of I Wrote a Simple Song and Music is My Life. It was then I got my chance to dig the full scope of where the impossibly upbeat Billy Preston’s head was really at. I heard the pain and struggle of “Nigger Charlie” and “John Henry,” and the blues of “Without a Song” and “I Wonder Why.” I heard the testimony of “God Loves You,” “We’re Gonna Make It” and “Make the Devil Mad (Turn On to Jesus).” Come to think of it, I had NEVER seen a SUPERSTAR’s album filled with so many songs about the power of music and unveiled references to “God” and “Jesus” until then. Wasn’t no question where Billy Preston was coming from…not a one!
The Billy Preston album that made the biggest impact on me was Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music. At the wise old age of 10, I thoroughly related to that sentiment. I was blown away to hear Billy smoothly and effortlessly move from the soul of “You’re So Unique” to the jazz of “How Long Has That Train Been Gone” to the straight up Sunday service of “My Soul is a Witness” (my all-time favorite Billy Preston song which I feel captures the very essence of who he wanted and strived to be). My respect for Mr. Preston was immense in that not only was he so cool and colorful to watch, he could play any keyboard under the sun (including one he put to his lips that I learned YEARS later is called a melodica), he could sing (his screams on “Slaughter” telegraph a century of the Black man’s torture in this country), he could dance, he could write and he could do all of these things in any genre of music he wished. The only cat badder’n than Billy was maestro Quincy Jones (and he was on A&M, too…don’t think I didn’t make a note of that company’s La Brea Avenue address – a straight shot North from my Baldwin Hills abode with St. Elmo’s Village inner city children’s recreation center at the midway point. Black folks had it goin’ on up in there!) And though “Q” is rightly credited as The Man who formally introduced The Brothers Johnson to the industry, George and Louis cut their teeth in Billy’s band first.
The strange thing about the history of Billy & Me is that when I was finally old enough to work in the music industry - first at a record store chain, then a radio station and then as a music journalist – Billy’s star had long since lost its luster. The brightest spot was his revival of “Get Back” in the widely panned film adaptation of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, blasphemous as it may sound, I never did like his one comeback hit, “With You I’m Born Again” (a duet with Syreeta cut for Motown). By this time he was having health and legal issues. And, for some reason, I just never made it to any of those Ringo Starr All-Star gigs for which he had the organ chair on lock. Post-`88 when I began writing for Urban Network, there was no “new album” for me to utilize as an official excuse to finally interview my childhood Superstar who was all but in hiding.
I did, however, reach out to him by phone for an anecdote when I was scribing the liner notes for Donny Hathaway’s self-titled second album, on which the great covered Billy’s high school-penned hurtin’ song, “Little Girl.” If memory serves, Billy was staying with his mother at the time and she’s the one who called him to the phone. I was thrilled to speak to my salad days Superstar who was warm and cordial…but tired. He gamely reflected on Donny coming by his hotel in New York after a Carnegie Hall show and they played gospel tunes on the electric piano Billy had in his room at all times. But once I felt I’d taken enough of Mr. Preston’s time, I politely got off the phone.
Billy’s name came up several more times in conversations with other artists I interviewed who praised him to no end for invaluable contributions he made to their records – Brenda Russell rhapsodizing about him wailing away on the organ (shamefully buried in the mix) on her song “Dinner With Gershwin,” Me’Shell NdegeOcello just shaking her head over how incredible he was on her now classic Peace Beyond Passion album, and Brigitte McWilliams being stoked that he was part of her acclaimed Too Much Woman sessions. Alan Abrahams, who produced Les McCann’s latter days CDs, was trying desperately to get Billy into the studio to do a new record that never materialized. It’s not without some irony that Billy got out of his sick bed to take part in sessions for Ray Charles’ swan song Genius Loves Company, and that in his final months of lucidity last year, he granted the wishes of rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond by contributing to their latest CDs. He was all too accommodating when it came to obliging the service of others.
My fondest memory of Billy Preston stems back to November 12, 1987 when my friends Tim, Reed and I trekked up to Hollywood to catch a rare glimpse of Sly Stone, booked to play the tiny, rented out Las Palmas Theatre for a sold out two-night engagement. Sly had actually shown up and performed the first night, so we fully expected to see him the following evening. However, minutes before show time, Sly was pulled from his limo just outside the venue and arrested for some violation or another. The shady promoters of the show refused refunds and the folks who’d shown up and paid their good money were pissed! Then, like a Black angel in funky street threads, came Mr. Billy Preston, humbly taking the stage, apologizing for his “detained” friend, then sitting at the keyboard to pound out impromptu solo renditions of “Will it Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing”…giving the people just a little something instead of nothing. Most folks watched, chuckled, shrugged it off then walked off into the night. But as Tim and I made our way back to the car, my respect for Mr. Preston had quietly grown another ten-fold.
My Superstar had graduated to full-fledged Hero (“Verb - That’s what’s happenin’”)!
May the soul of Billy Preston’s musical legacy be a witness to the world forevermore.