Billy Preston was a keyboard player of great renown. He was dubbed “The Fifth Beatle” due to his musical contributions on classic Beatle albums such as Abbey Road, Let it Be, and The Beatles (The White Album). He also recorded and toured with the Rolling Stones, and played on Sam Cooke’s legendary Night Beat album. In addition to his studio work with many other artists, Preston recorded several solo albums and had huge hits with “Will it Go Round in Circles”, “Nothing from Nothing”, “Outa-Space”, and “Space Race.” His duet with Syreeta, “With You I’m Born Again,” was also a big seller, though by that time he drifting more toward the middle of the pop road and full-on religious fervor.
While Preston is most famous for his association with the Beatles and the Stones, and his run of hits in the 1970s, he also recorded some wonderful instrumental albums in the 1960s. I bought one collection last year, Retrospective, that features seventeen fabulously funky tracks, highlighted by Preston’s lively organ playing. The songs on Retrospective were culled from two albums that Preston recorded for the Vee-Jay label in 1965 and 1966 (The Most Exciting Organ Ever and Hymns From the Organ). Among the album’s highlights are covers of “My Girl”, “Shotgun”, “Stop in the Name of Love”, “Downtown”, “Eight Days a Week” and “King of the Road.” And his version of “How Great Thou Art” is transformed into an extended funktified masterpiece. One odd thing about this album, however, is the cover photo that the label chose: its shows Preston sporting his famously full-on afro from the mid-70s, as opposed to the shorter 60s haircut he sported when these songs were actually recorded. By contrast, The Complete Vee-Jay Recordings shows Preston delightfully banging away on his organ at the time of these recordings, when he only 19 years old! Preston, in fact, was quite the child prodigy. In 1962, when he was 16, Preston was hired by Little Richard to be in his touring band. By then Preston had already honed his keyboard skills playing for famous gospel acts such as Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. And even before he started recording, at the age of twelve, he played the part of the young W.C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues, which also starred Nat King Cole.
Among the many classic Apple Records recordings that were remastered and re-released last year(including albums by the Beatles and Badfinger) was Preston’s Encouraging Words. Produced by his Beatle-buddy George Harrison, the album was originally released in 1970. Preston wrote most of the songs on the album, but he also performed covers of Harrison songs such as “My Sweet Lord” and “All Things Must Past.” Unlike his previous all-instrumental albums, this one has Preston singing on all the songs. One review I read called this “one of the best soul albums of all time.” That’s pretty high praise, and while this album is very good, I’m not sure if it ranks quite that high on the list of soul classics.
One of the last albums that Preston recorded before he died in 2006 was I Believe in My Soul, an ambitious multi-artist project produced by Joe Henry in 2005. I was amazed to find a copy of this CD when I was in Kuala Lumpur last month. Needless to say, I snatched it out of the bin quickly. Preston shared billing on this album with four other veteran soul acts: Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, and Ann Peebles. Even with five different artists, the result was a surprisingly strong and cohesive album, highlighted by gems such as Toussaint’s steaming instrumental version of “Turvalon,” a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You,” by Ann Peebles, a cover of the Tom Jans gem “Loving Arms” by Irma Thomas, and Mavis Staples doing the Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Keep on Pushing”. Definitely an album worth looking for.