Billy Preston died yesterday. There's bound to be a little frenzy around his name today, and then he'll drift into a kind of trivia question obscurity. Occasionally one of his songs will waft from the radio, and amuse or annoy you according to your tastes; he was alteratingly trivial and silly and funky and soulful and bubblegum and gospelish. You're bound to entertain at least some people, blasting all that into the ether; and the popularity of his friends, the Beatles, and the songs he played with them, will ensure that whether you know his name or not you'll hear him for a long, long, time.
Billy Preston was born in 1946, and never really did anything but play music, right from the first. I've seen the odd picture of Little Richard in his prime, touring some godforsaken and forgotten place, lounging in a cheap hotel room between shows, his band crashed out on every horizontal surface; and there's Billy Preston in the corner, probably no more than fifteen years old, out on the road with the men. Wild men, at that.
Little Richard made friends with the Beatles, and they made friends with Richard's phenom sideman, and when Apple records was formed by the Beatles to ostensibly allow them to escape from the music business, Billy Preston cut the first version of My Sweet Lord, George Harrison's lovely little paean to gospel songs. It was a flop. But Preston's version is so much better than Harrison's; it informs it with the soul that George could write, but didn't have the easy talent to perform. Listen to Preston play it:
There was a period in the early seventies where you couldn't go ten minutes without hearing Billy Preston come out of the radio in one form or fashion or permutation. He played with everybody. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The aforementioned Little Richard. Sly and the Family Stone. Bob Dylan. Hell, he hung on long enough to play with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And on top of all those snippets of him, you could hear him play his own lively disposable pop numbers, all huge hits, one after another:
I Wrote a Simple Song; Outta-Space; Will It Go Round in Circles; Space Race; Nothing from Nothing. He won a Grammy for Outta Space. From 1972 through 1975 he seemed to be on the radio all the time.
Like many people in the entertainment industry, Billy Preston succumbed to drugs and booze, and was profligate with his money. He eventually got caught trying to burn down his house for insurance money. He was addicted to cocaine and booze, and pleaded no contest to assault. His life was a wreck, and then his health was a wreck.
He eventually seemed to straighten himself out, and began playing again. He was still immensely talented and well regarded. But his earlier abuse of his body seemed to overtake him, and got him in the end.
Sometimes it seems that demons attack the most vulnerable souls. It was nice that Billy Preston could make our lives a little sunnier. I hope a little of that sun shone back on him, and he could feel its reflected warmth on his face before he left. After all, we all knew him as a smile that came right out of the radio.