Most of us first met this latest in a long line of Fifth Beatles on or soon after April 11, 1969 with the release of a self-described little “song to roller-coast by” called “Get Back.” Never before, you see, had the Fab Four shared sacred label credit with anyone other than themselves. But there it was, printed right atop that bright green revolving Granny Smith: “The Beatles… with Billy Preston.”
However, much prior to his musical roller-coasting, William Everett Preston already enjoyed a proud and prodigious career, launched from his mother’s lap where, at age three, he began playing the family piano. Soon he was performing with James Cleveland, Andraé Crouch and Mahalia Jackson, and in 1958 portrayed W.C. Handy (alongside Nat “King” Cole) in the film St. Louis Blues. Barely into his teens, Billy was on the road with Little Richard (first running into the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany) and Ray Charles when he was hired in 1963 to perform on the Sam Cooke album Night Beat. His organ work throughout those sessions – on the version of “Little Red Rooster” therein especially – lead to his immediately being signed, on the spot, to Cooke’s fledgling SAR label.
Now, it is a seldom-recalled fact (so seldom it remains unlisted even on his official website’s discography!) that the first Billy Preston album was released on SAR’s Derby Records affiliate during June of 1963. And today, for the first time in forty-five years, those remarkable sessions are available again for download.
In a momentous year which had already witnessed the 12 Year Old Genius of Little Stevie Wonder, Billy’s 16 Year Old Soul takes a mere two minutes ten – into the opening track “Greazee,” in fact – to reveal those characteristic keyboard calisthenics the world would soon learn to love behind various Beatles, Stones, plus Streisand and so many others. In fact, these debut sessions display a mastery and, somehow, maturity on his instrument which musicians twice Billy’s age still seem incapable of summoning. The rendition of “God Bless The Child” in particular is remarkably assured for a mere sixteen-year-old, daring even to border towards the funk on certain passages (thanks in no small part to the drumming of the one and only Earl Palmer).
Similarly playful takes on mentor Sam’s “Bring It On Home To Me” as well as the Ray Charles-ified “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (speaking of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music!) show Billy swirling atop his Hammond in ways that may be more “outasight” than “Outa-Space,” but outright miraculous nonetheless.
Eighteen months later however, Sam Cooke was gone, so was SAR Records, and with it, most tragically as well, 16 Year Old Soul.
Thankfully indeed, Billy quickly reappeared sharing keyboards with Leon Russell every week on ABC Television’s legendary Shindig! pop-fest, and in 1969 was fully signed to the Beatles’ Apple label where he released two equally impressive albums, That’s The Way God Planned It and Encouraging Words – recently re-issued themselves, I must point out. Plus no doubt you’ve heard Billy quite often since then, be it on his own hits or as part of, for example, Sticky Fingers, The Concert for Bangla Desh, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, “You Are So Beautiful” (which he co-wrote with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, legend has it) and, well, even portraying none other than Sergeant Pepper in the 1978 Bee Gees/Peter Frampton movie of the same defamed name.
Right up to his passing five years ago in fact, Billy remained most sought-after and active on the stage and in the studio with both old pals (Little Richard, Eric Clapton and the Stones) and new (jumping from his sickbed to record a track with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2005). Why, even Miles Davis deigned to tip a musical hat his way with a track on his Get Up with It album entitled, yes, “Billy Preston.” Imagine!
But for and on the record at least, this long and winding story actually began back in that promise-filled June of 1963, with a most precocious sixteen-year-old soul applying his all to one dozen short and tart-sweet tracks of young fancy.
You really do owe it to yourself to spend the nearest half-hour with each and every one of these raw gems as soon as possible, so Here’s the Way….