Billy Preston: Working The Way God Planned It
By David Nathan
Live show review and interview in London, January 1972
Billy Preston has been here all the time, yet he's only just arrived; and after many years of building his way up the bumpy road of success, serving his musical apprenticeship with such names as Sam Cooke, Little Richard and Ray Charles, the young and truly gifted performer is finally coming into his own.
A pretty bold statement, perhaps, especially when new 'superstars' are being 'discovered' and acclaimed every week on the generally fickle musical scene and even on the soul scene. And the proof? Listen to his debut A&M album (self-produced and nearly all self-composed) and you can see for yourself. But anyone who was fortunate to go to Billy's press reception on Monday January 24 at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, will confirm that in Mr. Preston are all the qualities and musical talent of which true stars are made.
Any audience at a press reception is pretty tough to please because it consists on the whole of industry people who have seen it all before and they are not at all easily impressed. It takes some talent to get such an audience calling for more – but that was what Billy achieved at this one! And any further proof needed? Well, it must mean something when an artiste of Dionne Warwick's stature deliberately misses a plane to see one of her fellow artists perform, as she later revealed.
Since joining A&M Records some five months ago, Billy has got his own group together and the sound they produce (bearing in mind the gentleman's own brilliant organ and piano artistry) is funkier and tighter than you could ever imagine. This was in fact the first time Billy had performed here on his own since leaving the Ray Charles revue, despite the fact that he spent some months here whilst with the Beatles' Apple Records some two years ago.
The presence of Dionne Warwick (here for television and negotiating a deal for her own Sonday record label) and former Apple Records' star Doris Troy in the audience certainly created some really electric vibrations and when both ladies exhorted Billy with cries of "Right on!" and so on, and sang along too, the atmosphere was truly tremendous. Kicking off with an instrumental 'Them Changes' and moving on to his own adaptation of 'Hey Joe' – entitled 'Hey Brother', Billy indicated that his true musical talent is at long last being fully recognized and appreciated. Bill Withers' 'Grandma's Hands' was given a fine, rousing performance and when Billy sang his latest single, 'I Wrote A Simple Song' (from his album of the same name), you knew he was playing with real conviction and feeling.
The lyrics, by the way, should be studied carefully – they are the soul answer to Melanie's 'Look What They Done To My Song, Ma'!! Dogged by mike problems, Billy carried on, undaunted, to give a superb instrumental version of 'Summertime' including in it a take-off on Bach and his former mentor, Ray Charles.
Featuring another of his newly-recorded tunes, 'I Should Have Known Better' (not the Beatles one), Mr P. continued to inspire everyone to clap and generally join in and when he did a medley dedicated to "the people I've been fortunate enough to work with" and consisting of 'Let's Go Get Stoned' (the Ashford-Simpson song made famous by Ray Charles – which included some fine audience participation from Messrs Warwick and Troy!), 'Let It Be' (for the Beatles) and 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' (for Aretha – more about that later), the whole place was really rocking.
No show would be complete without his British hit, 'That's The Way God Planned It' and Billy had everyone really in the palm of his hand! Two new tracks from his A&M LP followed, 'The Bus Is Coming' being a particular standout. Not many people are aware that Billy was the first to record 'My Sweet Lord' (he used the Edwin Hawkins Singers on the London-cut track) and hearing him perform it, you wonder why he didn't have the big hit with it. Billy Preston is one of the very few artists who manage to draw out all the power of gospel music and pour it into their stage performance and religious beliefs completely transcends the whole impact of his work – doubtless there were more than a few non-believers who just couldn't ignore the feeling that Billy exuded during the song. And as if that weren't enough, he went on to do some nifty choreography featuring some real gospel 'strutting' and in fact he invited everyone to his own 'private' church service!!
Watching him in action, you might well be forgiven for thinking that you were in a church rather than at a press reception. All credit too, to Billy's musicians who managed to keep a perfect balance throughout and who must be one of the finest backing groups around. The reaction at the end of Billy's act was overwhelming and he certainly left everyone feeling limp and exhausted. As Dionne put it when she congratulated Billy afterwards, "You sanctified us!" and that was an understatement.
The changes in Billy's music have not come about suddenly: he's been working towards his present acceptance for some time now and he admitted that he has a stockpile of several songs he's written over the last five years. In fact, although his new LP is only just out in the States, his next one is already recorded. "Up until now," he said, "there has simply been no outlet for my songs" and this is one of the reasons why Billy and Apple parted company.
Apparently, his contract had not expired, but he felt that in view of all the internal problems Apple and the Beatles were facing last year, his own product was suffering as a result. "Although they didn't want to let me go, we mutually agreed that things were not going how they should and so I got a release from my contract". In addition, Billy could not have been all that happy that his own original version of 'My Sweet Lord', recorded as a single, was only released on his second Apple LP, Encouraging Words and was only pulled off the album in the States when George Harrison had his version out.
So how did he come to sign up with A&M – a company not renowned for its r&b involvement? Apparently, Billy says, the lack of R&B product at A&M was simply because no one had really offered it to them and in addition, there were several advantages in his deal with the company which seemed to attract him. For instance, the A&M complex in Los Angeles (where Billy lives, incidentally) features all the different aspects of a record company in one area – record pressing, company photographers, studios etc; and in addition, he feels that there is a great deal of 'family' atmosphere within the company. Looking at his new LP, you can see what he means since it features Merry Clayton and Quincy Jones, both A&M artists. In fact, working on his first album for the company was a fine experience since knowing all the people on it as friends – Clydie King, and Patrice Holloway are another two 'helpers' on the LP – Billy had little difficulty in communicating the sound he wanted to create.
Over the last year or so, Billy has worked sessions with more than a few top names. Early last year, King Curtis invited Billy to help out on recording sessions featuring himself, Aretha Franklin and Esther Phillips and it's Mr. Preston's soulful playing you can hear on the two live Fillmore West albums – Aretha's and King Curtis'! He says working with Aretha was "a gas, she's such a natural person and in whatever she does she is constantly topping herself". By the way, this wasn't the first time Billy worked with Aretha – he remembers when Aretha was a featured singer with her father's gospel caravan and they worked together in Los Angeles.
Straying a little from the soul scene (Billy quite rightly refuses to categorize his own music as only R&B – he acknowledges that musical tags are unnecessary). Mr Preston was also invited to work on sessions with Barbra Streisand by her producer, Richard Perry, and found her an equally agreeable and natural lady to work with.
At about the same time as he changed record labels, Billy also severed his connections with Ray Charles' management and although he still retains a fine personal relationship with his former idol (for whom he still has a very great deal of respect) there remain several legal problems to be sorted out. He is now managed by Diana Ross' husband, Bob Ellis, and since getting his band together (all friends whom he has known for some time), he has performed at several important venues throughout the States, notably at the Bangla Desh concert (which resulted in his much-acclaimed recording of 'That's The Way God Planned It') and at a capacity concert by Carole King at the Greek Theatre in L.A. as well as impressing everyone at the 1972 Midem Festival. And just to prove that soul music is universal. Billy reminisced about the club he played early last year in Australia, where he got a fine reception! His immediate plans include a college tour with Delaney & Bonnie and he is seriously considering the possibility of a 'live' recording here in Britain on his next visit, since he considers British audiences to be far more responsive than many others.
Perhaps the singularly most impressive aspect of Billy Preston is his very evident religious conviction and faith. He really believes that his talent is a gift and likes to take every opportunity to play inspiring music whenever and wherever possible and he admits that his present "coming of age" has been a long time coming. He's certainly way overdue for the recognition he deserves and as an all round showman and entertainer the soul scene has, in him, someone to be very proud of. And as Dionne Warwick so aptly put it when talking of Billy's signing to A&M. "They certainly have all the raw natural material to work with in Billy!" – and if you see him in action, you'll definitely agree that Billy Preston has paid his dues and has finally arrived!
1972 videos include none other than George Johnson of Brothers Johnson as part of Billy's band...