In the summer of 1972, Billy Preston’s instrumental keyboard workout, “Outa-Space” was racing up the pop charts, where it would eventually peak at number two. The track would undoubtedly inspire Stevie Wonder to pick up the clavinet keyboard and popularize its sound on untold singles that would similarly go on to define an era. Preston’s single, whilst firmly thought of as a novelty hit at the time, was as much a tribute to his success.
Perhaps best remembered in popular music circles for his organ work on The Beatles’ WHITE ALBUM, ABBEY ROAD and LET IT BE opuses, the man born in Houston, Texas, was also featured on recordings by the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Martha Reeves, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and the solo works of both George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Lest we forget, by the age of ten, he was already playing keyboards with gospel star Mahalia Jackson, and two years later in 1958, would be featured in the Hollywood biopic of W.C. Hardy as a young Hardy himself in St. Louis Blues.
Were it not for Preston’s funky Wurlitzer organ riffs, and distinctive psychedelic hammering on his Hammond, it has been said that there would have been no Sly Stone proclaiming “Dance To The Music” and The Commodores’ “Machine Gun” would have fired blanks!
In 1973 he went a place better with the single, “Will It Go Round In Circles” with its Little Stevie harmonica and gospel underbelly, reaching the apex of both the Hot 100 and R&B listings in America. The follow-up, “Space Race”, did for the Arp synthesizer what “Outa-Space” had done for the clavinet; it too topped the R&B charts (reaching a highly respectable number four on the mainstream chart), selling a million copies in the process, and would later become the theme to the popular TV series, American Bandstand.
EVERYBODY LIKES SOME KIND OF MUSIC, his tenth album in a career spanning some 25 long-players, was another self-produced set, wearing its credentials firmly on the sleeve for all to see. The words “jazz”, “gospel”, “blues” and “rock” on the organ’s song sheet clearly spell out its modus operandi; there were even elements of country and western in the form of “Sunday Morning”, and classical musical represented in the vigorous finale, “Minuet For Me”. Self-composed (with the exception of his compelling cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, “Space Race” was the album’s centrepiece. Collaborating with songwriter Bruce Fisher, who co-penned six tracks on the album - he would go on to co-write the sublime “You Are So Beautiful” with Preston - including the swinging Vegas-esque “How Long Has The Train Been Gone”, the climatic “Listen To The Wind”, the bluesy “Do You Love Me?” and “I’m So Tired”. A second 45, “You're So Unique”, a superlative blend of silky, oak-smoked grooves and swinging piano on the cusp of funk, was released, and following in the wake of “Space Race” fared well with both R&B and mainstream radio.
By the mid-‘70s the clavinet, as pioneered by Preston, had become a staple part of funk music, complementing the bass and making the bottom-end sound thicker and richer, especially when played in a counter rhythm to make the entire ensemble fill with sound. A whole generation of musicians and groups that followed owe him a huge debt.
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.