Kubernik: Billy Preston's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

Keyboardist/singer and songwriter Billy Preston (September 2, 1946-June 6, 2006) is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in October for a Musical Excellence Award along with LL Cool J, and Randy Rhoads.

Tina Turner, Carole King, the Go-Go’s, JAY-Z, Foo Fighters and Todd Rundgren are to be honored in the Performer Category. Kraftwerk, Charley Patton and Gil Scott-Heron will receive Early Influence Awards, while Clarence Avant will be the recipient of the Ahmet Ertegun Award.

The 36th annual ceremony will take place on October 30th at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, Ohio.

I remember attending a December 1965 taping of the landmark television series Shindig! in Los Angeles on Prospect Ave, at the ABC-TV studios.  The Shindig! band propelled Preston’s pumping organ, pushing the throbbing and urgent vocals of Gloria Jones on “Heartbeat,” who was a founding member of the Blossoms.

There were so many memorable moments on Shindig. This Jones and Preston monumental seismic telegenic event is sonic and visual evidence of Los Angeles-driven R&B and soul.

Jones also recorded “Tainted Love” a big regional hit in the Southern California region, and later a worldwide smash when Soft Cell covered it. Hollywood High School’s Ed Cobb of the Four Preps wrote these riveting tunes for Jones.

Tunesmith Cobb’s legacy includes Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts,” which yielded renditions by the Spencer Davis Group, the Small Faces, George Clinton, the Clash, the Jam and Alicia Keys. Cobb also produced and wrote the Standells’ garage rock anthems “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Preston portrayed W.C. Handy in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues, later toured Europe with Little Richard, and recorded with Sam Cooke; his organ drives Cooke’s version of “Little Red Rooster” that Willie Dixon penned.

Billy attended Susan M. Miller Dorsey High School in the Baldwin Hills/ Leimert Park/Crenshaw area of the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Composer Jerry Goldsmith, jazz great Eric Dolphy, professional footballer Keshawn Johnson, the Beach Boys’ Mike Love, Love co-founders Johnny Echols and Arthur Lee, and Shalamar’s Jody Watley are distinguished alumni. I learned how to swim in the very late fifties inside the Dorsey pool.

Arthur Lee and Johnny Echols in the early sixties played in bands and jammed regionally with Billy Preston, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, then Jimmy James, who was at the time backing the O’Jays at The California Club in downtown Los Angeles.

“We liked the Beatles from the time Billy Preston came back from Europe and knew about them,” underlined Echols in a 2014 interview we conducted.

“I had played with Billy before Love and he was a good friend and I met them in 1965. They sent us backstage passes for the Hollywood Bowl show. I went with a fantastic jazz musician Michael Boliver.

“Love had contract offers from MCA (Decca), we were thinking of signing with them, and Columbia, and we chose not to because of the simple reason that Elektra Records was the only company that would let us own our publishing and masters. We learned that from Little Richard. ‘Do not let them take your music.’ So I insisted.”

In the late sixties Billy Preston was in the studio with the Beatles on Abbey Road and Let It Be and one of many highlights in the 1971 The Concert for Bangladesh charity shows, bringing the house down with a stellar gospel-fueled “That’s the Way God Planned It.” His gospel, rock, soul, and funk shaped work is heard on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Over his career Preston signed to several landmark record labels: Vee-Jay, RAR, Capitol, Apple and A&M Records. Billy’s “Outa Space” and Will It Go Round in Circles?” were hits in the R&B and pop music charts. He toured with the Rolling Stones in the mid-seventies. As a songwriter his “You Are So Beautiful” composition was first cut by Joe Cocker and later by Kenny Rogers and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.

Over the decades I’d see Billy around Hollywood and Los Angeles on occasions at A&M Records. The last time was a 2006 35th anniversary party to on the Warner Bros. studio lot celebrate The Concert for Bangladesh.

In 1975 I conducted an interview with Billy at his Topanga Canyon home around the ’75 Rolling Stones tour of America for the August 2, 1975 issued of the now defunct Melody Maker titled Billy Preston: Like a Rolling Stone.

"In Boston the head of the dragon broke and the air pressure blew me off the stage right into the front row," says Billy Preston, guest keyboardist on the Rolling Stones' 1975 tour of America.

The massive journey is almost over, but Preston thinks back to a few months earlier when rehearsals were just starting.

"Well, we didn't rehearse in the traditional sense. There were times when it didn't seem like we were ever gonna get it together. When we got on stage everything started falling into place," said Billy, whose gospel/spiritual based free-form rock and roll style fits perfectly within the Rolling Stones' music. Besides lending his talents to the last few Rolling Stones' albums, Billy toured with the group on their European '73 tour. He also did his own 45 minute spot.

"I like this tour much better. There's not as much work, mainly 'cause I'm not doing a solo set. One thing that is happening in this show that didn't happen last time is Bill Wyman playing synthesizer, Ronnie plays bass on a number and Mick plays guitar on “Fingerprint File.” This band is loose and things happen all the time. The Stones are also doing a couple of my songs and Ollie plays drums. I thought it would be nice to do something old and new. Lots of people told me how much they dug Keith riffing on one of my tunes. It's been really beautiful."

   Billy lives in the hills of Topanga, way above the smog of Los Angeles. As we stroll around his ranch, he compares the Stones' current live effort with last year's George Harrison tour where most of the time Billy salvaged the often boring/voiceless show.

"I like more of a livelier show and the Stones are much livelier than George. Although I enjoyed playing on the Harrison tour, this one is more fun, faster paced and more of a rock and roll thing.

"The Stones are a lot more R&B orientated. It feels like I've been playing with them for years. We're a family. All the guys are hanging out together and definitely getting off on each other. Keith is really enjoying playing with Ronnie. This time round people are a lot happier. The music isn't as laid back and Keith and Ronnie are really clicking. The band is doing a lot of things they've never done in America. It's been a pretty good tour so far, not nearly as exhausting as the last few I've done."

Over drinks Billy talks of his new record, It's My Pleasure. The album is an extreme departure from his previous A&M albums His first long player for the company, I Wrote A Simple Song, co-produced by George Harrison, Preston, David T. Walker and arranged by Quincy Jones, yielded  “Outta Space,” and from the same disc, 'Will It Go Round In Circles' struck gold.

His next outing Everybody Likes Some Kind Of Music, combined with intensive gigging helped bring “Space Race” to the top. Last year he charted with The Kids And Me, with 'Nothing From Nothing' gaining the most exposure.

The all-star cast includes Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright, Shuggie Otis, Ollie Brown, and George Harrison. The record was produced by Robert Margouleff and synthesizer wizard Malcolm Cecil.

First hearings of Billy's new work are alien; a deliberate move into electronics replacing the noted Preston ivory tinkling with very few hints of his patented organ playing. This LP is a new trip for Billy. Preston on vocals, acoustic piano, clavinet, Fender Rhodes and TONTO (The Original New-Timbrel Orchestra) lay out a visual plastic journey complete with guest stars, entertainers, intermission and even acknowledgement to the backstage staff.

"I had been working back to back with Bob and Malcolm when they were working with Stevie at the Record Plant and I was doing my last album. They invited me to see the TONTO instrument, but I could never get it together.

“Then last Christmas Day I came by and from that day on I've been in love with it. Right then we decided to do an album together. I like the instrument. It's a synthesizer but an original sound. It blends in a lot of different things. It consists of 12 synthesizers linked together and played simultaneously. This to me is something I've always dreamed of, playing the horn and string parts," says Preston, who's a lot happier in the studio these days.

"The machine gets me excited and curious. The synthesizers I used before were more or less preset and easy-to-change sounds, but this one is really wired up. I finally met the guys who make and built it. It's beautiful, I wish I could have used it last night at the Forum," laughs Billy.

Billy Preston photos by Henry Diltz

On the new album, Billy did some things with Syreeta and an ex-Beatle is listed as Hari Georgeson.

"I did 'Fancy Lady’ with Syreeta. I didn't have any lyrics to the tune so she wrote them overnight and volunteered to sing with me the next day in the studio. The song with George happened months ago. I cut that track 'That's Life', during the time we were rehearsing for his tour.

“Shuggie Otis is featured on three tracks playing guitar and Billy really felt comfortable jamming with Johnny Otis' son.

"I go back a long way with Shuggie's father. He's cool and I really dug playing with all these cats."

What emerges is a flow or stream of musical thought by Preston and friends who bring soul to a computer. The two sides are pretty diverse and one sees the album as old-school thought versus experimentation and growth.

"There's always a search for concept. The mood and flow of the album is what you're concerned with. We set up the album where one side is a boogie thing and the other side more or less laid back. It was planned that way at the beginning. I'm pleased with the results," says Billy

"I feel my sound is getting more mature and more relaxed. I'm happier. There wasn't any apprehension getting away from what I did the last few times out. I'm looking for new areas. Thanks to Bob and Malcolm, I can finally get a valid situation where the piano sounds like a piano. This is the best thing I've done. The horns aren't cluttering up some of the music like in the past. It's me in 1975."

Harvey Kubernik is the author of 19 books, including Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic And The Music Of Laurel Canyon and Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972. Sterling/Barnes and Noble in 2018 published Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s The Story Of The Band: From Big Pink To The Last Waltz. For October 2021 the duo has written a multi-narrative volume on Jimi Hendrix,

Harvey wrote the liner note booklets to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special and the Ramones’ End of the Century.

During 2020 Harvey Kubernik served as a Consultant on the 2-part documentary television series Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time directed by Alison Ellwood.