Saturday, May 10, 2014

Will It Go Round in CIrcles, Billy Preston (1972)

Some of the most interesting musicians for me are the ones whose long careers - or at least part of them - are spent working collaboratively with other famous musicians. It's always heartwarming to realize that the love of making music can overshadow the gargantuan egos that many performers possess. One such person was Billy Preston.

I'm unhappily winding down my thrilling read of Mark Lewisohn's Tune In, the first mammoth volume in the The Beatles: All These Years trilogy, and I just learned something that probably came to  others' attention at some point but escaped mine. And that's that Billy Preston's association with the Beatles began in 1962 when he was Little Richard's 16-year-old organist.

In 1957, Richard had quite dramatically renounced his former rock and roll debauchery, throwing a handful of his bling into a river in Sydney, Australia, and proceeded to devote himself to spiritual concerns and music. With the ministerial Richard as his temporary guardian, Billy joined his 1962 tour in England and Hamburg. Appearing with the early Beatles on this tour, there was reason to believe the audience would be served up at least a generous dose of gospel music even if they wanted Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly and Tutti Frutti.

It started out that way, but the promoters pressured him and by the end of the first Liverpool performance he and the audience were frothing at the mouth from the frenzy he'd stirred up, the likes of which young Billy had not previously seen.

By all accounts Billy was a child prodigy, capably playing organ by the age of 10, and brought up in the gospel tradition. When he joined up with Little Richard, he had already been on tour with Mahalia Jackson and the Rev. James Cleveland. When he was 11 he dueted with Nat King Cole on the latter's variety show; as the video reveals, obviously very much in control of his talent not just as a keyboard player but also a vocalist.

Continuing to work in the industry in both spiritual and secular genres, he became a session player for Ray Charles. He remained close to George Harrison from their first meeting as teenagers, and it was because of this friendship that Billy ended up working on the Get Back sessions. The lads' interpersonal hostilities at this point in their career were destroying them; one day George walked out when the bickering got too much for him. He would only return if certain conditions were met, one of which was that he could bring a friend - Billy Preston. He was given a co-credit on the Get Back label, and played a calming role for the band which probably prolonged their tenure just a little bit beyond what it would have been otherwise.

Billy clearly thrived and was appreciated as a sideman, but after the Beatles broke up, Billy's solo star began to shine. His ebullient Will It Go Round in Circles became his first #1. I think of him as being one of the good things about music in the 70s. And so did others as he continued to provide keyboard services to bands galore for decades. 

After George Harrison died in 2001, Billy was one of the dear friends who had the honor of appearing in the tribute Concert for George. Among the two performances in which he featured prominently, his Isn't It A Pity stands out. Billy Preston did not have an easy life, and he died sooner than he should have, but when you watch him bask in the music you know how much he - and others - were blessed by it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

She Loves You, the Beatles (1963)

Ringo Starr drum roll, please. The time is upon us. Tomorrow, February 9, 2014, it will be 50 years to the day since John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr took possession of the molecules previously known as Wendy Schweiger and rearranged them into a Wendy Schweiger whose veins suddenly coursed with more endorphins than she had experienced in all of the preceding years. 

I wasn't planning on it, being the morose sort, but I was powerless against it. Just be in the presence of a song like She Loves You, the third of five songs the Beatles sang on their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance - and tell me how it is possible to maintain the status quo after that.

This is a song that, after all this time, and with all of the sophistication that later developed in their repertoire, still represents the best of what the Beatles had to offer humanity. It started for me with their singing - a force of nature that shook me to my core. In those early days, the boys could sing in perfect unison, and then shift to vocals laden with counterpoint, where you can, say, pick out Paul's voice over John's though they are very interdependent and unison-like. It was - and is - like an elixir.

As regards Ed Sullivan, the anticipation had been building for months. I lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, where it happened that another girl in town, Marsha Albert, begged Carroll James, a DJ at WWDC, to get a hold of I Want to Hold Your Hand, after she saw a segment about them on CBS News. Somehow James managed to snag a copy of it from the UK before Capitol Records released it in the U.S., and the song took off like wildfire, putting Capitol in a bit of a pickle as they'd been dragging their feet on the domestic release. Although they'd set a date, it was a month away and they were royally hacked off at being scooped.

Between that and the news that the exotic Liverpudlian lads were coming to America in February, I was going a bit bonkers with excitement. To this day I'm not quite sure precisely what happened to cause such a furor in advance; whatever it was, though, I lapped it up like a person dying of thirst. It was a life force - the salvation of music that underpins my life to this day. 

Truly, what do you say about a song that you first heard when you were 11, and 50 years later, it makes you feel exactly the same as you felt then? That's She Loves You. Everything about it explodes with greatness - the vocals, the drumming, the guitars, the lyrics, the yeah-yeah-yeahs, the woos. They are so locked into each other, so tight as a band - they were just kids but beyond their years by the time they hit U.S. soil. And we paid them for their efforts in total adoration. When you listen to the performance on the show, the audience hysterics were at their peak for this song. Absolute pandemonium.

Yes, there were hormones involved. But 50 years later, with considerably fewer hormones in play, nothing has changed. NOTHING.