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16-year-old soul, forty-five years later

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.

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PIGSHIT: A Clearer Than Ever Portrait of a True Legend

Most every single time the 20th century’s greatest singer-songwriters find themselves getting lionized or even litanized, it seems one towering figure is strangely, sorrowfully AWOL. Despite this man’s myriad accomplishments both on the stage, behind the scenes, in the control room or, of course, in front of the microphone, his name is all-too-rarely uttered alongside those of Lennon, Smokey, Dylan, Aretha, Holly or even Hank.

Nevertheless, January 22, 2011 would have been Sam Cooke’s 80th birthday and I spent it the only way I knew how: with lights low and relaxed beneath headphones filled with ABKCO Records’ newly-upgraded Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend, 1951-1964.