Here’s a clip of 60s and 70s go-to keyboard dude Billy Preston with his 1973 smash single “Will It Go Around in Circles”, the studio version of which as taken from his 1972 Music is My Life album. You can find this more easily on the recent compilation Ultimate Collection.
This is a song from my childhood, all over the radio just as my memories were beginning to form in earnest. My family had taken a trip somewhere, and I remember reading a Tom & Jerry annual (kind of like a hardcover graphic novel, but for kiddies), sitting by an enclosed pool and hearing this tune coming out of an AM radio. I’ve always loved it; a super funky groove, piles of bluesy keyboards, and an exuberant vocal from Preston. Who knew the guy could be that talented an organist/pianist, and be able to sing too?
Preston started playing in public from the age of ten in church, often for visiting gospel acts. He recorded on Veejay records by the 1960s as a sessioner, was a regular on the TV show Shindig, and of course was a touring musician with a number of notable R&B, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll figures of the time.
His role as a sideman brought him to Britain on package tours, which is where he met with the British rock musicians, some with whom he would continue a career as a highly sought-after sideman by the next decade. Billy Preston’s contributions to the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions alone made the guy a legend, effortlessly incorporating his keyboard lines into songs like “Get Back”, which is arguably the defining element to that song.
Besides his contributions to the work of others, his solo career in the early 70s promoted his talents to an even further degree. With hits like “Outa-Space”, “Nothing From Nothing”, and his songwriting efforts in penning “You Are So Beautiful” with Bruce Fisher (made famous by Joe Cocker’s version) Preston’s name is now firmly established on the rock and R&B landscape for good. He was the first musical guest on the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975, his solo artist chops beginning to make waves and set him apart from other prominent session players.
In 1980, he had another hit with the song “With You I’m Born Again”, which showed his talents as a smooth soul singer, dueting with Syreeta Wright – it’s kind of a guilty pleasure of mine. It was his last big hit, even though he continued to perform and record into the 80s, 90s, and more recently in 2006 with producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette) on I Believe to My Soul, which also featured Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, Ann Peebles, and Irma Thomas. It would be his last project. Billy Preston died that same year, age 59.
It’s hard not to name drop when writing about Billy Preston, as I’ve showed pretty well here. But, one of Preston’s traits, and his legacy, is that he managed to touch the careers of so many musicians from so many corners of the pop music universe.
For more music and information check out billypreston.net.