[This article first appeared in the February 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard.]
IN A BUSINESS where “paying your dues” is a prerequisite to success, Billy Preston has paid his with interest. He was musically nurtured in the rocking black gospel churches of the South, worked his way up through endless backwater road shows, and finally went on to recording for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other rock superstars. Ray Charles once said that Billy would be the man to carry on in music where Charles himself left off. Today, Preston enjoys a stardom all his own, based on a style that is characterized by rainbows of synthetized sound blended into a variety of musical idioms.
Preston was born in 1946 in Houston, Texas, but was raised in Los Angeles, where show business crept into his life early on. His mother, who played Sapphire in an Amos ’n’ Andy road show, owned an upright piano, which Preston began to play at the age of three. By the time he was ten, he had played with famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and was preparing to act the role of young W.C. Handy in the movie Birth of the Blues. Before the age of fifteen, he was playing organ and piano and leading his own church choir.
Preston first went on the road as accompanist to Rev. James Cleveland, the king of the male gospel singers. After two years with Cleveland, Preston joined Little Richard’s act, playing his first rock and roll in such hinterland towns as Liverpool, England, where he met and befriended the then pre-legendary Beatles.
Eventually, Preston recorded three gospel albums for Vee-Jay Records (now out of print) and settled down to a relatively anonymous gig with a drummer in a Los Angeles club. He was heard there by some people from the Shindig television program, who signed him up to play with the show’s house band, the Shindogs. Preston’s exciting performances soon earned him a regular solo spot on the show, and opened the door to another job—backing up the great Ray Charles.
Charles, who used to live around the corner from Preston’s family in Los Angeles, recognized Preston’s talent for the organ from the start. By giving him at least one featured song at each concert and personally managing Billy’s business affairs, Charles gave Preston a boost toward his ultimate success.
The Beatles, who remembered Preston’s English performances, added him to Apple Records’ stable of musicians in the late Sixties. This further propelled him into the spotlight.
Probably more than any other young keyboardist, Billy Preston has succeeded in transplanting elements of the church music he played in his youth into a popular rock context. He can be heard in such albums as I Wrote A Simple Song (A&M, 3507), It’s My Pleasure (A&M, 4532), Music Is My Life (A&M, 3516), and, most recently, Billy Preston (A&M, 4587).
A few years ago, you were trying to put together a gospel tour that would bring church music to colleges and concert halls. Why didn’t that tour ever happen?
When I do a gospel concert I don’t like to charge admission, and the promoters wanted to build it up to be a big money making event. I didn’t want it to be that way. In my rock shows, I play a gospel segment, but that’s all it is—a segment. If I do a gospel show, I don’t want to treat it like a rock show. I don’t want to charge people to hear God’s music like everybody else does.
Do you play gospel in a different style than you play rock?
I use different stops in different parts of the tunes, but I always put a little gospel in whatever I play. I play gospel pretty much through rock; it’s very easy to do that.
What does your background in religious music add to your rock playing?
It gives it a little joy. Gospel is not as stereotyped or as written-out as rock. There are not charts, so you play more by feeling.
Do you play rock mainly for commercial reasons?
Yeah. But I also enjoy playing rock. I don’t think it makes me a sinner. Some people don’t like you to mix it up, but it doesn’t bother me, because I find God in all music.
Do you think College audiences could relate to the music you would play for them on a gospel tour?
First of all, I wouldn’t take a tour like that to a college or a place where I thought people wouldn’t have any interest. I’d go to places where people wanted to hear gospel. I wouldn’t force it on anybody. In my rock concerts I always play “That’s The Way God Planned It,” and that goes over pretty good. I don’t know. Most people would be able to relate to it.
What kind of musical training do you have?
I started playing by teaching myself piano at the age of three. Then I studied music in elementary school. I had a teacher once who taught me classical pieces, but I didn’t study very long, because my ear was so good. He would play the exercise for me once and I could memorize it without practicing.
Do you still do technical exercises?
No. I don’t do them at all. I don’t practice. I used to do it in school—you had to then.
You put so much energy into your ‘live’ performances. Do you find that that energy gets in the way of your playing?
I don’t think so. Music and entertainment are all tied together. I like music to be visual when I go out in front of people. It’s not the same as just listening to a record. It’s entertainment when I play for an audience. I like that much better than working in the studio, because the stage is where I am really free and satisfied. I do enjoy the studio—you can relax, take your time, and work on the tracks.
How spontaneous are your ‘live’ performances?
We have sort of an outline to work from, but it doesn’t always happen that we follow it. Deciding what to do next is dependent on the audience’s reaction. You know, when you are out there so much, giving all the time, you get drained. You don’t get anything given back to you, so you’ve got to go home for a revival. That’s why I took about a two-year rest between solo tours. I enjoyed the rest, too. I’ve been touring all my life—I’ve never had a vacation.
Are you interested in branching out into other styles of music?
Yeah. I’d like to do Jazz and classical music. I like Jamaican music—all kinds of music for that matter—and I want to be able to do it all. I’m gifted enough to play it, but I don’t just because I’m established as a rock artist. I’d still like to be accepted as being able to play other things. I’ve written some jazz things already. I’d like to go down to a jazz club somewhere and play them with some good sidemen.
How many other styles of music do you listen to?
I listen to country stuff sometimes. I don’t know the singers’ names, though. I like the messages the songs put across. I don’t particularly care for some of their voices, though!
Who was your greatest influence?
Probably Ray Charles. I was really a fanatic for him. His style was more gospel—I could relate to it, since I was in church all the time.
Which keyboard instrument do you enjoy playing most?
I guess the piano, because it’s basic to me. It’s the first instrument I ever played.
What keyboards are you currently using?
I have a Hohner Clavinet D6, a Rhodes 88, a Yamaha grand piano, a Polymoog, a Moog Series III C synthesizer, an ARP Pro Soloist, a Hammond B-3, and a Mini Korg synthesizer. They are all patched into a separate board that controls the whole sound. I get a clearer sound that way.
What do you think about modular synthesizers like your Moog IIIC and ARP 2600?
They’re very good, but I prefer pre-patched synthesizers, because they are easier and quicker to use onstage.
You used to play a Univox piano. Is it as hard to play as some people think?
Not really. The touch is light. It’s not as hard to play as the Rhodes, I would say. I played it standing up, but the angle wasn’t any problem either. You get used to that pretty fast.
How do you amplify your organ?
I have two Leslies that are boosted to 400 watts.
How do you feel about the Hammond B-3?
I don’t think any organ can take its place. They make a lot of good organs that have a similar sound, but the Hammond is my favorite. I have two B-3s. One is a new one that was cut down and put in a portable cabinet for me; the other is an old one that I’ve had for about ten years. I think the older ones sound better than the newer ones.
What about drawbar settings?
I just grab a bunch to get the sounds I want. I don’t think about them that much. I don’t use the presets.
How do you set up your keyboards onstage?
Well, I play a lot of keyboards simultaneously, so I put all the keyboards around me. What I’m going to do now onstage is put a mirror overhead so people can see my hands as I play. They miss a lot by no seeing the fingers.
One last question about gospel music—is it just a musical influence, or is it more a way of life for you?
It’s much more than just an influence. I’m a strong believer, and the music I play really isn’t my music. It comes from God through me, and then out to you.
Check out this clip of a young Billy Preston on the Nat 'King' Cole television show.
Billy Preston at the organ delivering his rendition of How Great Thou Art.