21 Recordings That Billy Preston Made Better
Billy Preston played with almost every major pop artist of his era. He was a key contributor for both the Beatles and the RollingStones. He supported great gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson, and Soul queen Aretha Franklin; rock 'n roll founder Little Richard, and early crossover artists the Everly Brothers; pre-rock icon Nat King Cole was a mentor, as was Ray Charles. In later years he brought his unique style to the Red Hot Chili Peppers not once, but twice.
Born in Texas, and grown in Los Angeles, Billy backed gospel legend Mahalia Jackson at the age of 10, A year later he made his screen debut, the result of a lucky sighting by a Hollywood talent scout, and the man playing his father happened to be Nat King Cole. Nat then had the young phenomena on his TV show, from there things rolled for Billy..
The ebullient Preston brought a healing touch to some troubled musical relationships, but it didn't necessarily heal the deep scars inside himself. He later claimed to have been regularly sexually abused when he was young by several men, including a pastor, in his life. He struggled with his homosexuality his entire life, and while close friends and musical collaborators knew he was gay, Billy remained in the "closet" until just before his death.
Like his friend, and occasional collaborator, Sylvester Stone, he was a keyboard pioneer, who created sounds that were then imitated by others. His peers appreciated, and respected him, and came to him again and again to lift up their songs. The fact that he was such a great spirit, made him a pleasure to be around, a great blessing in the studio or on the road.
Herein is a look at 21 songs that Billy elevated with his playing. His own songs and recording, would add considerably to the list.
1. YOU GOTTA MOVE - SAM COOKE - 1963
In February of 1963 Sam Cooke entered the studio for some night sessions, which were markedly different from his other solo work. Sans the usual over abundant strings, and backed by a quartet of his favorite musicians, which included legendary Wrecking Crew session drummer Hal Blaine, the sparer production allowed Cooke's glorious voice to take center stage. The resulting record, appropriately titled Night Beat, is considered one of his best. That at the tender age of 16 Billy was a strong enough musician to be considered by Cooke, a veteran recording artist, one of his "favorites", is testament to his talent. His organ playing on the record is the aural proof. "You Got To Move" is a great example, Billy's organ punctuating and coloring, rather then overwhelming the track. "Little Red Rooster" is another, especially in the organ break towards the middle. When Sam says, "I like that!", You can bet he did.
2. I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU"VE GOT BUT IT'S GOT ME - LITTLE RICHARD - 1965
In 1962, the young Billy Preston joined rock pioneer Little Richard's touring band, for a European tour. Sam Cooke was the intended headliner, and that may explain how Billy was hired. Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, arranged for his charges to open a few shows, and the first one was in Brighton. Later they also opened for Richard at their old homestead, the Star Club in Hamburg. By all accounts the 15-year old Preston, and the also young Beatles, got on famously. That story continues later. The tour also marked the beginning of the professional and personal relationship between Richard and Billy, which would endure over the decades. One of the recorded highlights of that friendship is on this song, written by the great Don Covay, which also features a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix on tremolo guitar. Billy's organ starts subtle, and builds during the middle and end.
3. LONELY TEARDROPS - JACKIE WILSON - 1965
Shindig was on the air only months more then a year, but its impact on rock (and its young audience) was much bigger then that. The house band (Shindiggers, and later the Shindogs) featured some soon to be legendary performers including: Glen Campbell, James Burton, Delaney Bramlett, and Leon Russell. Oh, and a 19-year old Billy Preston. He got to play with some amazing talent on the show, and not least of them was the electric Jackie Wilson. In this clip from the show, you can see Billy, front though not quite center, rocking over his keyboard, making a beautiful sound. Jackie takes notice.
4. GOIN' DOWN SLOW - RAY CHARLES - 1968
Billy joined Ray Charles' band in 1967, and he made an immediate impression on the legendary musician. Ray went so far as to call Billy his future successor. It was after this gig that other musicians really began to take notice, and offers started pouring in. Later Ray had Billy front the band, resplendent in lime green suit, doing his best James Brown, covering Edwin Starr's "Agent Double O Soul". The two would reunite in 2002 for "God Bless America Again", which also featured Slash on guitar. "Going' Down Slow", from the famous Paris show in 1968, gives a glimpse of the tasteful keyboards Billy brought, that Ray so appreciated, enhancing a song without dominating it.
5. GET BACK - THE BEATLES - 1970
Of all the Beatles, Billy bonded most tightly (and for the longest time) with the also young George Harrison. During the Get Back Sessions, which were originally intended as a TV show, but would eventually be "culled" and become the Let It Be album, tension within the band were high. They'd flared during the acrimonious White Album recordings. Paul was bossy, Lennon often disinterested, and they were all (except John) angry about what they saw as Yoko Ono's encroachment on their turf. During one particularly bitter fight between Lennon and McCartney, Harrison stormed out. He went to a Ray Charles show in London, and re-connected with Billy. When he came back, he told the band he would only re-join if they dropped the TV idea, and he could bring a friend. Like he had with Eric Clapton for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", he brought in Billy, hoping an outsider would inspire the others to be on their best behavior. It worked. Billy's happy go lucky personality, and serious chops, not only settled the Beatles' troubled waters for a spell, they also brought a new vibe to the music. It's most obvious in the rooftop concert that ends the film Let It Be. The soulful organ on "Don't Let Me Down" is one example. and more famously on the song "Get Back". Billy's funky keyboard elevates the song, and alters the band's chemistry ever so slightly, but significantly. Lennon, already disenchanted with group, wanted to add Billy to the band, but McCartney resisted. Either way, this was the only time anyone (other then Tony Sheridan in 1962) was credited with the Beatles on record, giving Billy the best claim of any musician to the title 'Fifth Beatle'.
6. I WANT YOU (SHE'S SO HEAVY) - BEATLES - 1969
The Let It Be album was shelved, because no one could figure out how to untangle the mess of tapes to the consent of all the principles. Sensing the end, the Beatles came to George Martin to produce one last record. He agreed, as long as they did it the way they'd usually done it - with him genuinely producing. They agreed, and it resulted in one of the Beatles' many masterpieces. Billy contributed two critical keyboard parts. One was uncredited, on George's song "Something". The other was on a whirlwind of a John Lennon song, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", to which Billy brought a maelstrom with his swirling organ. That part is elemental to the sonic vibe, and emotional connection, of the song. It was recorded with all five musicians playing live together, made up on the spot, according to Billy. Since Beatles' songs are not readily found on YouTube, I've linked an early take with Paul singing. But to get an idea of what Billy brought to this party, have a listen to the isolated organ track from the song (here) - its fantastic!
7. EVERYDAY PEOPLE - SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE - 1969
Sly Stone and Billy first met on the sessions for the Great Society single, which included the first recorded version of what would become a monster hit for Jefferson Airplane - "Somebody to Love". Sly was producing, and he brought Billy in for some drum overdubs. They became close friends (Billy had played with Sly's brother Freddy). The two keyboard innovators seemed destined to collaborate. They would record some tracks of Billy's together, with Sly arranging and co-writing. But Billy also made two contributions to the Family Stone's epic album There's a Riot Going On. Billy played an understated, but critical, piano on "Family Affair". He also contributed to one of the biggest hits of the era, playing organ on "Everyday People".
8. ISN'T IT A PITY - GEORGE HARRISON 1970
Billy's relationship with George carried on well after the Beatles. When George began recorded his solo record, All Things Must Pass, he brought Billy in to contribute to two key songs. One was "My Sweet Lord", his big hit, on which Billy played piano. The other was an older song that George had written for the White Album, only to have it rejected by Len-Mac. Arguably the emotional center of the record, its a glorious track. The original mix of the Spector production left many things lost in the pile up. But Billy's organ is clearer, and its importance in holding together the center more obvious, in the remastered version George oversaw before his death.
9. GOD - JOHN LENNON - 1970
Coming at #9 on this list, quite coincidentally but appropriately, is this Lennon song from his first solo record, Plastic Ono Band. Billy's impact, on grand piano, is obvious from the beginning The sparse instrumentation leaves the piano in front, carrying the song. The little frills, and colors he throws in would have been beyond Lennon's ability, and are so important to giving gravity, as well as a certain lightness, to a heavy song.
10. THAT'S THE WAY GOD PLANNED IT - CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH - 1971
Billy began playing gospel music with, among others, the legendary Mahalia Jackson. Faith would be at the center of his whole life, and he recorded many gospel songs, including a live "Walk With Me" with Chaka Kahn, on the TV show Good News. So its no surprise that his most electric recorded moment would be on the song "That's the Way God Planned It", which he wrote, at the Concert For Bangladesh. Backed by a band that included friends George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Ringo, and others like former Shindig bandmate Leon Russell, Billy provided the single most transformative moment in the concert with a full spirited version of his classic. Overwhelmed with energy, he leaps out of his seat behind the organ during the outro breakdown for a whirling dance at stage front.
11. MEMPHIS STEW - KING CURTIS - 1971
King Curtis is arguably the greatest saxophonist of the rock genre. Prolific, and ever present on seminal songs of the founding era, his horn has defined so many tracks, or provided them with an essential color, like the Coasters' "Yaketty Yak". I'm not aware of studio work Billy did with King Curtis, but the Fillmore West show he did with him (recorded and released on record) is legendary, and many think it's Billy's best work. Here, in a band which included not only Curtis, but drummer Bernard Purdy, he's in his element, with top of the game players, skating effortlessly across several genres - soul, R&B, jazz - and making a hell of a stew, as he does on the featured track. But the version of "Whiter Shade of Pale" likely showcases Billy's playing better, and it has the added attraction of entering pop cult permanency when it was used as theme song for the classic British film Withnail and I.
11. DOO DOO DOO HEARTBREAKER - ROLLING STONES - 1973
Billy began working with the Stones right after the Beatles. He first appeared on Sticky Fingers, bringing the organ to "Can;t You Hear Me Knocking". His impact on "Shine A Light", which first appeared on the Stones epic Exile On Main Street, is even bigger. The song's history dates back to when Brian Jones was still in the band, and writer Mick Jagger was reflecting on Brian's spiraling problems with drugs. The song's soulful vibe owes a lot to Billy, who played piano and organ. While they were mixing the record in Los Angeles, Jagger visited Billy's local church with him, which helped influence the gospel vibe of the song. On "Heartbreaker" he played electric piano, and a clavinet which was fed through a wah-wah pedal. The latter created a distinctive sound that became an iconic element of the recording.
12. NOTHING FOR NOTHING - BILLY PRESTON - 1974
Billy released his first solo record in 1963 at the age of 16. He released nearly a record a year over the next decade, including two records for the Beatles label Apple. But it wasn't until 1971's Sing A Simple Song that he had a hit, with "Outta Space". The instrumental featured his clarinet fed through wah-wah pedal, a trick he'd use with the Stones. "Will It Go Round In Circles" would give him his first #1 in 1972. The Kids & Me, his album released in 1974, provided probably his most famous song, "You Are So Beautiful", which he co-wrote on the spot with an uncredited Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boy. The song was inspired by his mother. It was Joe Cocker's version though that made it a monster hit. That album also had Billy's only other #1, "Nothing From Nothing", which when he played it on Saturday Night Live would be the first musical performance on that show, ever.
13. AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG - STONES 1974
Billy toured with the Stones for many years, playing organ, piano, and other keys. He even did the opening slot of their shows many times. The funk/soul/R&B ruled Stones of the 70s owed a lot to his energy, and musical input. "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" shows off that sensibility, with Billy playing clavinet and piano. The piano is out in front, a key element, and the funky driver, of the track.
14. AULD LANG SINE - WITH ARETHA FRANKLIN - 1987
There are so many versions of this song that its become background music, even when you're singing it on New Year's Eve. But from the first time I saw this clip, from David Sanborn's short lived show Nightflyte TV show, it became my favorite. Billy and Aretha, at her home, loose and limber, bring such a soul vibe to this standard that its impossible to resist. Billy bangs it out on the piano, and on vocals he more then holds his own with the Queen of Soul. The harmonies kill.
15. HALLALULJA HERE SHE COMES - U2 - 1988
U2's Rattle and Hum record saw them exploring American roots music in depth, on a grand field trip across the US. There's no such exploration that doesn't delve deep into gospel music, descendant of African American spiritual music, which is at the root of much popular music. This track didn't make the record, but saw light as the B-side of hit single "Desire". Billy brings a swelling organ to this gospel influenced track, immediately giving it creditability.
16. FUNNY HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY - AL GREEN & LYLE LOVETT - 1994
Billy's mentor, Ray Charles, was an early pioneer in exploring the links between country and R&B. The Rhythm, Country, and Blues project highlighted the links between the two genre by pairing one R&B singer, and one country singer, for duet on each of its tracks. Al Green and Lyle Lovett realized the the soulfulness in this great Willie Nelson composition. Billy brought the great Hammond organ, and electric piano, that is somehow both country and soul. Ray would have approved.
17. YOU'RE AN OCEAN - FASTBALL - 2000
It's easy to forget what a run of success Fastball had in the late 90s with their song driven records. By the third album though, their mojo wasn't working. Which is a shame as the single from it was a worthy hit. And it features a New Orleans styled pumping piano from Billy, at the sonic center of the recording. It's a perfect song for his talents, which elevate it to a higher plateau.
18. I WANT LOVE - ELTON JOHN - 2001
Probably the best song Elton's done in a very, very long time, the album it came from, Songs From the West Coast, was considered a return to form when it was released. He's re-united with lyricist Bernie Taupin, and drummer Nigel Olsson, and it definitely has the magic of earlier recordings. But there's also something very Beatles-y about it - the drums sound Ringo, the guitar (and overall vibe) reminds a bit of "Free As A Bird" (if that's technically a Beatle song, which is open to question). And then there's the very tasty organ from Billy that gives the sound color and feel.
19. PERSONAL JESUS - JOHNNY CASH - 2002
Johnny Cash's rich career had a glorious golden parachute in his work with producer Rick Rubin at the end. His cover of "Hurt" is probably the best of the period, and a highlight of his career. But the deeply felt cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" is a close second for the Rubin years. It arrived on Johnny's very last record, and the addition of Billy, an equally ardent believer, likely made for a very interesting recording studio. It certainly gave the track a completely different feel. The recording is spare, with just Johnny's voice, Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante on acoustic guitar, and Billy on piano. The busy piano part contrasts with Johnny's voice, and the steady acoustic, helping to create haunting sound.
20 . WHEN YOU GOT A GOOD FRIEND - ERIC CLAPTON - 2004
When Eric Clapton recorded his full album of Robert Johnson songs, it felt right and overdue. To anyone knowledgable with his career, Robert Johnson is the clear talisman that guides him. But this album was an accident, as he was preparing to record an album of originals, but didn't have enough songs to finish it. The band here is fantastic - Andy Fairweather Low, Steve Gadd, Nathan East, Daryl Bramwell, and of course Billy. George introduced the two, and Clapton called on Billy regularly for records and tour, offering Billy work when controversy or legal problems made him less desirable for employment. The record showcases a relaxed Clapton doing what he does best. And Billy brings blues A-game to the proceedings, swamping sometimes, highlighting others, tasteful always. The accompanying video, Sessions for Mr. Johnson was a real treat. If you haven't spent time with the record, or video, you should. It's loaded with highlights like the featured video, and a take on "Kind Hearted Woman".
21. WARLOCKS - RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS - 2006
Red Hot Chili Peppers seem a a good fit for Billy. He first recorded with them in 1990, on "Show Me Your Soul". His piano on the track opens up the RHCP sound, and fits the song perfectly. He recorded with them again in 2006. Very ill at the time, he was largely confined to bed. After hearing the song he immediately committed to recording it. His clavinet evens out the recording, and smooths some RHCP's usual edges. After the session Billy came home, and went back to bed. It proved to be his last recording.
I've added a Spotify playlist so you can take the songs with you, and explore them some more. Below that is the comments section - love to hear what you thought.