April 12, 2018

Featured 45: Billy Preston — That’s The Way God Planned It

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The answer to a great rock trivia question is Billy Preston. The question is- who is the only keyboard player to play for both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones? But Billy Preston is much more than the answer to a trivia question.

Billy Preston was highly regarded among his peers. Besides playing with both The Stones and The Beatles, he also played with Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin and Sly Stone. Prior to becoming one of the most sought after keyboard studio musicians in all of Rock music, Billy Preston learned his craft from some of the best including Ray Charles and Little Richard. His recording career started while he was still in high school when he recorded for the legendary Sam Cooke.

The touring with Little Richard was a huge turning point in his life. In the early 60’s the Little Richard tour was launched in Europe. Part of that tour was playing in Hamburg, Germany. The opening act for Little Richard were The Beatles.

Legend has it that it was Billy Preston who made sure that all The Beatles were feed during this lean time period. Whatever the reason, that concert led to a friendship between the super group and Billy that lasted for years.

At one point Preston became known as the fifth Beatle because of his work on LET IT BE, THE WHITE ALBUM and LET IT BE. When The Beatles decided to start their own record label, Billy Preston was their first signing. He was closet to George Harrison who produced Billy’s first solo LP and single, “That’s the Way God Planned it”. For that reason the keyboard wizard was asked to play at Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh and at the concert for George after Harrison’s death.

Unfortunately Apple Records was not the best managed record company in the world. Like so many records released on the label, “That’s the Way God Planned it” was not a huge hit in the U S in 1969. It reached only to 62 on the charts. It did reach number 11 on the UK charts.

It wasn’t until after Billy left Apple Records and was signed by A & M Records that he finally got the success he deserved. That success came in the form of the instrumental “Outa-Space” that went to number 2 on the U S charts in 1972. Ironically with success of that record “That’s the Way God Planned it” was re-released. It didn’t do any better than the initial release making it only to number 65. This great song should have gone gold just like “Outa-Space” or the next three releases that went gold. In 1973 “Will it go Round in Circles” went to number 1. Five months later “Space Race” scored the number 4 spot and in 1975 “Nothing from Nothing” hit the top of the charts.

After the single “Struttin’” went to number 22 on the charts in 1975, Billy had almost a five year absence from the hit parade. In 1979 he teamed up with Syreeta and had his last hit. “With You I am Born Again” climbed to number 4 and was to be the last time Billy made the top ten.

It didn’t keep him from playing with a wide range of artists from Neil Diamond to Red Hot Chili Peppers. He even played on gospel records. In addition the song that he wrote for his mother, “You are so Beautiful” made into a huge hit by Joe Cocker.

One can only wonder what God’s plan was for Billy Preston when his music stopped when he died of kidney failure was at the age of 59. His music will live on forever.


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