Saturday, May 10, 2014
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.