“Why can’t we be humble like the good lord said?
He promised to exalt us…for love is the way.
How can men be so greedy when there’s so much left?
All things are God given…and they all have been blessed.”
Never an artist to shy away from his gospel roots, Billy Preston created a new sound by melding the sounds of the church with the beat of the dance floor. His prodigious use of the Hammond organ has become his trademark, making him one of the most in demand studio musicians of the modern rock era. He began his career before entering his teen years, backing Mahalia Jackson on tour and later being featured in the cast of the film “St. Louis Blues” in 1958 as a young W.C. Handy. His ability to move between the worlds of gospel and rock was an asset as the sixties loomed, as Preston soon was touring with Little Richard and sitting in as a resident organ player on ABC Television’s “Shindig”.
Session work was an important part of Preston’s career and it brought him to the attention of George Harrison, who welcomed him into The Beatles sessions for the “Let it Be” and “Abbey Road” albums. Harrison had seen Preston perform with Ray Charles in London, and felt his presence would help to alleviate the stress ever present at Abbey Road Studios. The musical influence of his organ playing added a new dimension to the songs and brought a gospel flavor to The Beatles sound. His appearance on these albums helped to cement his status as a rock icon, but also earned him a recording contract with Apple Records. The George Harrison produced “That’s the Way God Planned It” was released in 1969, with George Harrison, Keith Richards, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton making up his backing band. Preston wrote the title track, one of several Gospel tinged tracks on the release. What sets his religious music apart is the spiritual nature of the lyric. Never a heavy handed lyricist, he focuses on humanity as a whole, never excluding any belief or religion from his messages of love and harmony.
Billy Preston went on to record multiple top ten hits throughout the seventies, ‘Will It Go Around in Circles’ and ‘Space Race’ among them. He also wrote the classic ‘You Are So Beautiful’ for Joe Cocker, an international smash. Continuing to work with George Harrison on the 1970 release “Encouraging Words”, he was the first artist to commit ‘My Sweet Lord’ to vinyl. He also appeared at the “Concert for Bangladesh”, performing ‘That’s the Way God Planned It’ and playing organ for a majority of the historic show. Spending much of the seventies and eighties performing with the Rolling Stones, both on tour and on record, Billy Preston died of complications from liver and heart problems in 2005. Leaving behind a body of work that helped to introduce gospel music into the popular lexicon, Preston will continue to be a musical influence.
The 1969 studio version:
From the “Concert for Bangladesh”: