Graham Reid | | 2 min read
By the time keyboard player Billy Preston ended up on the Beatles' Apple label in the late Sixties he'd already had quite some career.
A child of the church, at 10 he played behind gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and two years later was in the movie St Louis Blues which starred Nat King Cole (as WC Handy) and Pearl Bailey.
His first solo album Sixteen Year Old Soul came out on Sam Cooke's Derby label (for whom he played organ) and not long after he joined Little Richard's band for a European tour.
That was in '62 and it was supposed to be a gospel show but they ended up at the Star Club in Hamburg for a two week residency and that was where he first met the Beatles (who pumped him for information about Little Richard). Lennon later recalled Preston "looked about 10".
Then Preston played organ with his hero Ray Charles for many years (and recorded other albums, mostly instrumental) and it was when he was in London with Charles' band in '69 that George Harrison saw him at the Royal Festival Hall ("He had grown to be six foot tall!")
Preston called Apple, Derek Taylor invited him to the office and the same day he was playing along with the Beatles on Get Back, then Don't Let Me Down . . . and for a brief moment the Beatles even considered inviting him to join the band. Tensions were high between the various Beatles and Preston's cheerful, spiritual nature had a calming effect. And he could play.
He was there for the famous rooftop performance and when the single Get Back appeared it carried the credit "The Beatles with Billy Preston".
Apple got him out of hs contract with Capitol and he started recording this, his debut album for Apple with George Harrison producing. Harrison and Preston co-wrote Sing One For the Lord which ended up on his subsequent Apple album Encouraging Words where he also had the first stab at Harrison's My Sweet Lord and All Things Must Pass.
This album was also something of a superstar session, typical of the times. On hand are Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (playing bass), Ginger Baker, and backing singers Doris Troy and Madeline Bell.
And Preston hits a point somewhere between gospel, soul and funk-pop. Hey Brother lifts its intro lyrics from Hey Joe, he does a sensitive and soulful reading of Dylan's She Belongs to Me, and the title track was a big radio hit at the time.
The Apple remastered reissue adds four extra tracks including a different, slower and more soulful version of the title track and a free-form jam on As I Get Older.
Later Preston -- who died in 2006 -- would enjoy some big pop hits (Will It Go Round in Circles, Nothing From Nothing), played with the Stones, influenced Miles Davis (who named a track on his Get Up With It street-funk album after him) and then there was a slow decline into addictions and ill-health.
But his solo career really began here in the company of old friends and new admirers.