Nov 102021

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted songwriter and keyboardist Billy Preston into its ranks last month for Musical Excellence, the other inductees seemed to get all the attention. That’s fair (after all, Preston passed away back in 2006), but it’s also in keeping with Preston’s long and sometimes overshadowed career. Despite writing hit records that blended soul, gospel, funk, and R&B with rock, he tends to be pegged not as a star, but as a stellar session player supporting the actual stars.

That’s valid, too. From the ‘50s through to the early 2000s, Preston does seem to have played with all the greats, from Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles to Sly Stone; in the rock world, he partnered with the Beatles and the Stones, The Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name just a few. But we will lean on Billy’s original songs, and on Billy as leader, in our collection of Preston covers.

Hall of Fame recognition is fine, but Preston is in our spotlight and in our earbuds for a better reason: it’s because the world is getting a booster shot of the Beatles Let It Be this season, and Preston is all over the recordings. October saw the release of the “Deluxe Edition” of Let It Be (all six CDs of it). Later this month, it gets even better: director Peter Jackson releases his re-cut of the Let It Be documentary film. Retitled The Beatles: Get Back, and quadrupled in length from the original 1970 cut, the production will let us see Preston’s flashy soloing on “Get Back,” his soulful backing on “Don’t Let Me Down,” and maybe some vibing and jiving with Ringo.

The band had befriended Preston back in 1962, when they were unknowns opening for Little Richard, who brought the 16-year-old gospel-playing keyboard phenom from L.A into his touring band. It was Preston’s personality as much as his musicianship that got him invited (by George Harrison) to sit in on the project. His joyful, grounded presence and mile-wide smile arrived at a time when the Beatles were quagmired. Reunited with Preston, spirits lifted in the Beatles camp. The results were so good that they credited the project’s first single to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” He stayed on to play the rooftop concert (the band’s last show), and contributed to the follow-up album, Abbey Road, the band’s last effort. Preston then featured on some of the post-Beatles solo outings by John, George, and Ringo, but by then he was emerging as a gifted songwriter in his own right.

Riding high on a string of hit singles in the early to mid-seventies, Preston became the first musical guest ever on Saturday Night Live. His heyday as a songwriter may have peaked with a song most people don’t even know he wrote, “You Are So Beautiful,” covered so famously by Joe Cocker. All during these years and beyond, Preston recorded with and toured with the Rolling Stones; he came up with the signature bass line to the Stones’ last number 1 single, “Miss You.” Not that he was credited for it–Stones bassist Bill Wyman insists that Preston should have gotten credit for other songs in the Jagger–Richards catalog as well.

Preston’s career was pushed off course by the ’80s–health problems, addictions, other dramas you can read about elsewhere–but now and then he rallied and put on powerful performances even into his late fifties. Perhaps the most memorable one was during the Concert for George in 2002, the posthumous tribute to his old friend from Hamburg, 1962, and London, 1969.

Speaking of powerful performances, let’s get to some covers of the late great Billy Preston, and a couple of covers by the man himself.

A.J. Croce–Nothing From Nothing (Billy Preston cover)

At about the same time that Preston’s singles were hitting the Top Ten lists, A.J. Croce’s late great father, Jim Croce, was a fairly constant presence in the same charts. A.J. clearly has a fondness for the music of that period, not just his father’s: he’s recorded quite a few songs from the time, including Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade,” and Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing.” A.J. has toured with Ray Charles and other major soul and blues musicians, so that’s another reason the Preston selection is a great fit.

The track kicks off Croce’s recent By Request covers album, and a fine opener it is. A.J. doesn’t mess around with Preston’s version, but delivers a straight-ahead take that highlights his considerable R&B chops on acoustic piano. Vocally, he brings Ray Lamontagne to mind, not Jim Croce, and that’s a good thing.

Martin Sexton—Will It Go Round in Circles (Billy Preston cover)

In “Will it Go Round in Circles,” Preston claims to have a dance with no steps, a song with no melody, a story with no moral. WTF? A song about defying expectations is bound to attract an artist like Martin Sexton, who is himself is a conundrum. “Call him a soul shouter, a road poet, a folkie or a rocker and you wouldn’t be wrong” said the LA Times.

He may be a lo-fi kinda guy with rustic inclinations, but Sexton is fully at home with more urban and funk/gospel material like Preston’s. In this live version, Sexton even throws down a bit of “Shining Star,” by Earth, Wind & Fire. The two songs blend beautifully, it turns out: both are spiritual affirmations joined to sweaty dance-floor grooves backed by kick-ass horns. Sexton takes them on with nothing but his voice and guitar, and yet nothing seems to be lacking. Just as Preston advised, Sexton lets the music move him around.

Joe Cocker—You Are So Beautiful (Billy Preston cover)

As Joe Cocker belted, crooned, and croaked out a song, his arms flailed about spasmodically, as if his nervous system was shorting out. (If you’ve never seen Joe Cocker, check out his performance on SNL where he is joined and lovingly mimicked by John Belushi. But understand that one man is joking and one is dead serious.) It’s said that what Cocker had in mind whenever he sang was his idol Ray Charles at the keyboard. Guess who else idolized Ray Charles?

It’s ironic, and yet perfectly fitting, that Charles’ protégé Billy Preston composed the song that gave Joe Cocker his biggest hit of the 70s. Cocker’s version is a classic case of the cover version becoming the definitive take; he commands the song so thoroughly that everyone forgets who wrote it.

Actually, we have Billy Preston’s mother to thank for “You Are So Beautiful.” She’s the person Preston wrote the song about.

Billy Preston—All Things Must Pass (George Harrison cover)

Billy Preston recorded this George Harrison classic before George himself, releasing it on Billy’s second album on the Apple Records label, Encouraging Words (co-produced with Harrison). The collapse of Apple Records hindered the album’s roll out. Preston also recorded “My Sweet Lord” for this album, again before George got around to his own version. Preston gives “All Things” a gospel feel, naturally enough, and it works well. Major stars from the gospel world were on hand to assist, namely the Edwin Hawkins Singers, of “Oh Happy Day” fame.

Billy Preston—Uptight (Everything’s Alright) (Stevie Wonder cover)

It’s hard to overstate how Preston’s musicianship thrilled audiences in the mid-sixties. He was sought out by everybody from Aretha Franklin to Sam Cooke to Sly Stone (that’s Preston’s electric piano on Sly’s biggest hit, “Family Affair”). Rick Wakeman has said that Preston’s playing was a huge influence on the development of Prog Rock. This instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder’s first big single “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” captures a sense of the excitement.

It also testifies to the excitement over the teen-aged prodigy still known as “Little Stevie Wonder.”) This is Billy Preston before he hooked up with rock bands and emerged as a songwriter of note. It’s also an act of generosity: Preston acknowledging someone with vast talent coming up behind him. Even Preston might have been blown away to see the creativity Wonder was able to tap into once record labels got out of his way and let him do his thing. As high as Preston was soaring during the early to mid-seventies with his composing and performance accomplishments, Stevie Wonder flew higher still.

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  2 Responses to “In the Spotlight: Billy Preston”

Comments (2)
  1. LISTEN, too:

    Nothing From Nothing — Pink Turtle

    Will It Go Round in Circles — Charlene Howard

    You Are So Beautiful — Emmerson Nogueira

    Blackbird — Billy Preston

    BILLY PRESTON Forever!

  2. Almost forgot, but — That’s The Way God Planned It — Joe Bataan

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