Monday, February 06, 2006

Billy Preston - All I Wanted Was You (MOTOWN 1470)

All I Wanyed Was You

As of this writing, Billy Preston is in a Mayo Clinic facility in Arizona recovering from a "catastrophic" case of Pericarditis, an infection of the sac that encloses the heart. He is also unable to speak due to an emergency tracheotomy.


Billy's mother was the director of the 100 voice choir of The Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and he learned piano sitting on her lap surrounded by all that sound! By the age of ten, he was playing keyboards for the legendary Mahalia Jackson.

When she was asked to star in St. Louis Blues, the 1958 film version of the W.C. Handy story, she brought Billy along and he landed the role of Handy as a boy (none other than Nat King Cole would play him as an adult...). He attended John Muir Jr. High School in L.A., which was right around the corner from the home of one of his boyhood idols, Ray Charles. Billy would visit often, just soaking it all in.

He formed a Gospel group with Andrae Crouch around this time called The COGICS (or Church Of God In Christ Singers), and was soon noticed by the Reverend James Cleveland, the "Crown Prince of Gospel". He began playing the organ for him at his Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, once again with the power of the "Mass Choir" behind him.

Richard W. Penniman, meanwhile, had turned his back on rock & roll, and was devoting his life to the Lord. He asked Mahalia Jackson to come and hear him sing at the Mount Maria Baptist Church in L.A., and she was duly impressed. That's how he met Billy.

They began rehearsing for what Billy thought to be a European Gospel Tour with former Soul Stirrer Sam Cooke sharing the bill in 1962. The Gospel end of it lasted all of one performance, after which Little Richard roared back onto the Rock & Roll stage, just slaying the audience wherever they played. The 16 year old Preston was absolutely amazed... he had never played that kind of music before.

He was a fast learner.

When Sam Cooke returned to the States, the tour continued on with various opening acts, one of which was a local band called The Beatles. They worshipped Richard, and just couldn't get enough of him. Billy and their lead guitar player, George, hit it off right away, as they were usually the two youngest guys in the room.

Little Richard left Billy literally "waiting at the station" in Hamburg, Germany (there are several versions of this story...), and, a stranger in a strange land, he sought out The Beatles at the Star Club where they had a regular gig. They took him under their wing, more or less, and made sure he made it home alright.

Sam Cooke had seen what Preston could do in Europe, and signed him up as soon as he got back as an artist for J.W. Alexander's Derby subsidiary of his SAR label. He also invited him to play on his phenomenal Night Beat album, released on RCA in October of 1963. Billy's own first album, Sixteen Year Old Soul, was issued on Derby shortly thereafter, and he was on his way.

After Sam died, his record companies kind of dissolved, and Billy began doing some work with a young friend named Sylvester Stewart, then a producer and A&R man for Autumn Records in San Fransisco. He also signed with Vee-Jay around this time, resulting in the great The Most Exciting Organ Ever in 1965.

Capitol Records then bought out his contract, and released some singles produced by the likes of H.B. Barnum and David Axelrod. The Wildest Organ In Town was his first Capitol album, and featured arrangements by his newly renamed pal Sly Stone.

The 19 year old Preston soon became a regular on the so-hip TV show SHINDIG!, just shakin' it down, and was getting quite a bit of national exposure.

Ray Charles, meanwhile, spent most of 1965 in rehab, wrestling with his mighty heroin habit. When he got back on his feet, he hired Billy to play organ in his touring band. That's him kicking it up a notch on the incredible 1966 top 40 hit Let's Go Get Stoned, as well as on the rest of Ray's Crying Time LP. He would spend the next few years on the road with Brother Ray almost constantly. This was when Charles was quoted as saying; "Billy Preston is the man I would like to carry on the work I have started".

It was on one of their swings through England that Billy got a call from old friend George Harrison, asking him to stop by his new digs at Apple. The Beatles were in the midst of the miserable Get Back sessions (as later documented in the film Let It Be), and basically hated each other's guts. George had already quit the band once, and saw Billy as some kind of welcome relief. It wasn't long before they asked him to join them, resulting in some of the best music they've ever produced.

I mean, here he is sharing label credit (something nobody else had ever done...) with what was then THE most popular act in the world, on what may well be THE B side of all B sides, Don't Let Me Down... amazing! He would go on to perform with them in their fabled farewell rooftop performance, as well as being a major contributor to Abbey Road (think She's So Heavy...).

Harrison produced Billy's first album on Apple, That's The Way God Planned It in 1969, bringing in famous friends like Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Keith Richards to play on it. The Beatles (you gotta give 'em credit here) had signed the great Doris Troy to Apple as well, and she co-wrote some of the material that she sings with Billy on the record.

In 1970. Apple would release his follow-up album Encouraging Words, and Billy would become a major contributor to Harrison's amazing "I was the coolest Beatle" manifesto, All Things Must Pass, as well as Lennon's take on the whole situation, God.

In 1971, he would play the Fender Rhodes on Sly Stone's Family Affair (along with Bobby Womack on guitar), and bring his old runnin' partner back to the top of the charts. He would also steal the show at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, and play organ behind Aretha Franklin on two of her most acclaimed albums, Young, Gifted, and Black and Live at the Fillmore West. Now that The Beatles were toast, Mick Jagger wasted no time in snatching him up to play organ on I Got The Blues on Sticky Fingers. Billy also signed with A&M records, who guaranteed him complete control of production, and released his first album with them, I Wrote A Simple Song.

They released the title track from the record in early 1972, and it wasn't doing much until they re-issued it with the B side, Outa Space, as the new A side. This groundbreaking popcorn funky instrumental (with Harrison on slide guitar) took off, climbing to #2 pop, and earned Preston his first Grammy. (He would actually earn his second Grammy that same year for his contributions to the Concert For Bangladesh Album...). Billy would also play both the piano and organ on Shine A Light, the best song on Exile On Main Street, and later take Jagger to check out Reverend Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir to show him how it's done. His second A&M album, Music Is My Life, was released at the end of the year.

The first single released from the record, Will It Go Round In Circles?, went straight to #1 early in 1973. His next album, Everybody Loves Some Kind Of Music, would send Space Race orbiting to the #4 position as well. Billy was on top, touring Europe with a band that included disaffected Stone Mick Taylor on guitar. He also appeared on Goat's Head Soup late in the year.

1974 saw the release of The Kids And Me, which would place Nothing From Nothing in the number one slot. He was on a roll, touring with his new band The God Squad, whose members would later go on to form both The Brothers Johnson and Rufus. He would perform on George Harrison's (shown here with a big fan) Dark Horse, as well as being all over The Stone's It's Only Rock and Roll.

In 1975, Joe Cocker took a Preston composition (the B side of Struttin'), and rode to the top of the charts with You Are So Beautiful. Billy's own album, It's My Pleasure, failed to create much of a stir, and he decided to go on tour with The Rolling Stones in both '75 and '76, playing some of his own material in the middle of their sets. By the time Black & Blue was released in April of 1976, Billy was an integral part of the band.

So here is Billy Preston, at the top of his game, basically giving up his own solo efforts to concentrate on what he considers to be his new band. On the label of the record it states, under the great Melody, "inspiration by Billy Preston"... I guess the fact that he plays both piano and organ and sings better than Jagger ever could on the track must have been what "inspired" them. When it came time to get paid, Billy learned that he was just another hired hand... there was no way they were going to let him become a Rolling Stone.

Billy moved on.

He released a few more albums on A&M before appearing as Sgt. Pepper in the film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1978. He starred alongside people like Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees, performing a kick-ass version of Get Back that was released as a single. While going back to his roots and recording some Gospel material, he also began to explore his Hollywood connections, performing the soundtrack for Fast Break with Syreeta Wright, which resulted in his signing with Motown in 1979.

Today's B side (the flip of Syreeta duet "It Will Come In Time") is taken from the album Late At Night recorded later that year. Although it may start out slow, and may have a little more disco flava than we're used to over here at the B side, I just freakin' love it... I mean, if you ain't up movin' and groovin' by the end of this tune, with Billy trading licks with the great David T. Walker on guitar, and that Mass Choir sound just liftin' it on up higher and higher, well call the undertaker, honey, 'cause you dead!

Billy and Syreeta would hit #4 on the pop charts the following year with a duet on With You I'm Born Again. There would be a few more Motown releases, without much chart action, before Billy landed a gig as the musical director of the house band on David Brenner's Nightlife show in the mid 80s. He would also become a charter member of Ringo Starr's first All Starr Band in 1989.

The 90s were some tough years for Billy, with various legal problems culminating in a parole violation that landed him in jail in 1997...

In 2001 Billy was diagnosed with kidney failure, after runaway high blood pressure took its toll. He would release an incredible Gospel record, Music From My Heart, later that year. He recieved a kidney transplant early in 2002, and still managed to steal the show, once again, at The Concert For George in November.

In 2004, he toured as a member of Eric Clapton's band, and appeared on Ray Charles' last album, Genius Loves Company. The kidney he had recieved failed him, and he was in the same hospital as Brother Ray when he died in June of that year.

Now required to undergo dialysis three times a week, Billy kept right on keepin' on. Here he is with Bonnie Raitt at The Grammys last year performing a tribute to Ray. In June of 2005, he was back in the studio with producer Joe Henry working on the incredible I Believe To My Soul. In the company of fellow soul giants like Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, and Irma Thomas, it is Preston's own composition, As One, that truly stands out. If you don't own this killer album (now being sold as a Katrina benefit record), you're missin' out...

So here we are once again, attempting to pay our own tribute to a man who is at the heart of so much great music... a man who was there with Little Richard and Sam Cooke... who was actually a member of The Beatles AND The Stones, and yet is not in the stupid Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

He is so much a part of our history, man, and there he is lying in a hospital bed somewhere while that silly-ass Mick Jagger is prancing around at the Super Bowl last night making a damn fool of himself.

I thought maybe Mick would mention Billy... you know, send a little love.

I was wrong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello redkelly,

great feature on Billy! I have to admit that I hardly know anything about Billy (yet) - with the exception of "Outa space".
So there's tons of information for me.
I'm wondering now which Billy album I should get me now: "The most exciting organ ever" or "The wildest organ in town", "Thats the way God planned it" or "Encouraging words". They seem all to be worth it.
You didn't mention the "Billy Preston" ablum on Buddah, 1969, though. You just don't know it?

The track from 1979 is a bit too disco-pop-ish for me. But then again I might just need some more listens.

He's at least in "my" Hall of Fame now as I now know that he's the one who plays the Fender Rhodes on "Family affair". "Family affair" is one of my alltime favorites so it's essential to know!
Thanks for your efforts,


11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to be in a minority of one, but I prefer Billy's (80s!) version of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (also on Motown) to Sam Cooke's,

6:07 AM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Billy Preston is like, SUCH a deep subject, you know? I mean when I started doing research on him, I was truly amazed by the sheer QUANTITY of great music the man's been involved in... (hence the somewhat longwinded post!)

The Buddha release you spoke of, Dominik, is not listed in this seemingly comprehensive Discography... I'd love to check it out! As far as what to buy, only the Capitol stuff (Wildest Organ/Club Meeting) seems to be readily available, the others are like big bucks imports (at least here in the states...)

...and while I've never heard Billy doin' "A Change Is Gonna Come", I bet it's awesome. I mean, if anybody's qualified to do it justice, he's the guy!

thanks so much for the feedback... it's great.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Johnny B said...

Wow. Great piece, and a lot of stuff I didn't know about Billy, including his current situation. What a shame.

And you are right on the money about "Shine a Light" and "Don't Let Me Down". And I wasn't aware that Harrison played on "Outa Space"!

Good work, man!

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi again,

you're right. Your disco link seems to be comrpehensive.
I didn't double-check (if it really exists) but I saw this mentioned Buddah LP (1969) on the discography of
And as Buddah is a "funky label", I just felt like mentioning it.
If it does exist it could very well be a good album.


9:18 AM  
Anonymous David Federman said...

Great appreciation piece on Billy Preston. I sure hope someone shows it to him. Thanks.

1:24 PM  
Blogger keaneyes said...

That's a wonderful bio/tribute to Billy.
I'm going to dig out the "Greazee" SAR single now.
Many thanks,

5:20 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

- just a note here after watching the Grammys last night...

...not a word was spoken. I really don't understand it, I mean, Billy is one of their own, having won 2 of the things... he even PLAYED on the show just last year. Maybe Sir Paul could have said something, I don't know... I mean, I didn't expect Sly to, you know, but maybe that lame announcer (whoever the hell he is), or like one of the people with the envelopes (that guy from Green Day with the eye make-up talked about Les Paul being in the hospital...), but it didn't happen.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Shirley Goodman was nowhere to be seen during that 'In Memoriam' thing they did, and she had her a Grammy, too... and Kanye West's 'thank you list' somehow overlooked Ray Charles... oh well.

That's showbiz!

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

red kelly,

as I'm from Germany and didn't watch the Grammy show (although I could have in free TV, but way too late in the night) what was that Sly Stone thing about? How was it?

Just a typical showbiz Grammy type thing so that you wanna throw up cause so many unworthy people joined in?
Let me have your impression.



11:31 AM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...


my first impression was that the whole FORUM was wrong, you know? Like if ever I was to hear of Sly appearing in public again, I'd hope it was at like WATTSTAX 3 or something... it was like they all wanted a piece of Sly... casting lots for his garment, so to speak. I'm not sure who all the lames were up there on the stage. The only 2 people I could ID for sure was Sly's sister Rose and that terrifically annoying Tyler guy from Aerosmith, who actually said; "Hey Sly! Let's Do it the way we used to!"

what's this "we" thing, bud...

Sly was resplendent in a blonde skinhead mohawk... seemed shell shocked a bit (as you can well imagine), noodling with the keys, trying out the sound... then it hit him... he grabbed the mike and got out there on the walkway, talkin' about takin' everybody higher... he was SLY!

it only lasted a few seconds, but it was there, man.

I hope he took those execs for a bundle.

- just a coupla more rants on my part (ignore me if you wanna...):

It's like the whole Grammy organization is afraid to use the word "soul"... they actually have this category called "traditional R&B" or something, but basically, in my opinion, by using this silly R&B designation to include so much different music they've come full circle back to the early postwar days when they called it "race music". In other words, if you black, then you must be R&B... not much difference, man.

That's why I hate "genres". there's only two kinds of music: good music & bad music.

So, if you were REALLY interested in paying tribute to Wilson Pickett, wouldn't you get Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn... maybe Solomon Burke, Eddie Floyd, Percy Sledge, Booker T., David Porter, Isaac Hayes...

don't get me wrong, it was AWESOME to see Sam Moore doing what he did. To see Toussaint and Dr. John play keyboards together again, to have Irma Thomas step up & duet with Sam on Midnight Hour, an absolutely GREAT moment! (then, in much the same way as Sir Paul did by coming back & singing "Yesterday" after slaying the crowd by doing an incredibly Beatle-like rendition of "Helter-Skelter") they freakin' start running the sponsor shit at the end... not just like rolling credits, but the video feed is gone as well. You can hear Irma and Sam Moore just reaching for it... hear the band building for the big finish, only you can't see them. Just like Continental Airlines or something... A callous & ugly grammy moment that is not sitting well with me & my ilk. I mean, they actually got me to sit through the whole painful show, for the first time in like 20 years, by promising me Sly and Toussaint and Sam Moore... then they just CUT IT OFF!

They really have no idea, do they?

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, redkelly, thanks for your impressions.
I feel your thoughts. I hate MTV/Grammys and all that kinda stuff and I can't watch it because I don't wanna support that kinda shit.

Irma, Toussaint, Dr. John, Sly? All that evening?
Hm, sounds good NEVERTHELESS doesn't it?

Relax, man :-).
You will never have the music world like it should be.


7:45 PM  
Blogger Side3 said...

Thanks for the Billy Preston post. I love the albums he made for Apple Records. George Harrison did a great job producing those. I had no idea Billy played keys on "Family Affair"!

12:40 PM  
Blogger Garrincha said...

Great post, lots of background information ! you did a great job.
[& mick sucks, he always did]

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Priscilla said...

Thanks for such an insightful piece on Billy Preston. Do you, by chance have obscure facts about the original SWAN SILVERTONES? Thanks again...

11:56 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Well, Priscilla, I don't know how obscure these facts are... but I can tell you that they started out as the Four Harmony Kings in 1938. They were formed by coal-miner Claude Jeter, whose incredible falsetto is said to be have influenced everyone from Eddie Kendricks to Al Green.

He changed the name to the Silvertones so people wouldn't get them mixed up with the poular jubilee group the Kings of Harmony. When they began performing on a powerful clear-channel AM radio station out of Knoxville, Tennessee, they added "Swan" (the name of the NY bakery that sponsored the 15 minute program) to their name.

The fact that they could now be heard all over the South made them immensely popular. They worked hard at their craft, rehearsing "mike technique" for hours on end, in an effort to capture "that sound". Perhaps this is why their records went over so well... they were at home in the studio.

They recorded for a number of labels (like King and Specialty), but it is their work for Vee-Jay from 1955-65 (when they added guitarist Linwood Hargrove and lead Louis Johnson) that is considered their best.

Jeter left the group in 1965 to pursue his own Harlem Ministry.

One other tidbit that is, sickeningly, invariably reported: "Young Paul Simon said Jeter's rendition of 'Mary Don't You Weep' provided the inspiration for his 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'..."

Inspiration... right.

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so sad that this musical genius left this earth. He was incredibly talented, but he was also a dear person. I have always been proud to have been in choir with him at Dorsey High School.
Billy, thank you for the gift of your music. God, thank you for Billy.


7:56 PM  
Anonymous Henry R. Kujawa said...

I've been a fan of Billy Preston since I heard him on the pop stations in the early 70's. That said, I never did quite get ALL his albums, but I did manage to track down a number of them. Last year I made a project of copying my entire Billy Preston collection to CD (most of what I have is either out-of-print or VERY expensive).

Somewhere among there is the THE WAY I AM album (1981) with "A Change Is Gonna Come", which I bought when it came out. If you'd like copies of any of the CDs, let me know. Maybe we can work out a trade!


7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In honour of the great man himself!

7:29 PM  

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