Something from nothing
July 14, 2004
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
http://www.suntimes.com/output/rock/cst ... ton14.html
As Ray Charles lay dying from liver cancer last month at Cedars-Sinai
Hospital in Los Angeles, keyboardist Billy Preston was staying in the
same hospital. Preston had a bacterial infection that hindered his
weekly kidney dialysis. Preston underwent a 2002 kidney transplant.
Preston's illness knocked him out for three weeks on as keyboardist
on the current Eric Clapton tour. Preston returned last week and will
be on board Saturday night when Clapton performs at the United Center.
That's the way God planned it.
Nearly 35 years ago Charles anointed Preston as his successor, saying
onstage, "Billy is the man I would like to carry on the work I
started." Preston met Charles while they were taping the mid-
1960s "Shindig!" music series. Preston played with Charles for three
years and was featured on the Genius of Soul's 1966 record "Crying
Preston was too sick to attend Charles' funeral. "I wanted to be
there so bad," Preston said last week before a Clapton stop in
Columbus, Ohio. "Ray's manager came by to see me in the hospital,
which lifted me up."
This has been a tough summer for Preston, 57.
Last week, his singing partner Syretta Wright died after a long
battle with cancer. She was 58. Preston and Wright had a 1980 hit
on "With You I'm Born Again," which originally appeared on that
year's "Fast Break" soundtrack.
"This has been a sad period," Preston said. "It took me a while to
get over Ray, and now Syretta. But the spirit is always alive. It's
shocking to think I won't see Ray again. I'll always honor his name.
Before I met Ray, he lived around the corner from my school [John
Muir Junior High in Los Angeles], and I'd go by his house all the
time. None of the other kids knew he lived there. Nobody was as crazy
about him as me."
Preston was born in Houston but reared in Los Angeles. His mother,
Robbie Preston Williams, played piano for the 100-voice choir of the
Victory Baptist Church in Houston. At age 10 Preston played with
Chicago gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. But Charles was always close
to the family's collective heart.
"My mom had [Charles classics] 'Hallelujah! I Love Her So' and 'I've
Got a Woman.' It sounded like gospel music. I was playing in church
and my mom was playing in church. I used to imitate him," he said
with a Charles-like growl.
Preston last saw Charles in late May before he went on tour with
Clapton. Preston plays with Gladys Knight and Norah Jones on "Genius
Loves Company," the all-star Charles duet album, due Aug. 31 on
Concord Records. Charles, Preston and Jones lead off the 12-track
record with "Here We Go Again." The album was recorded at Charles'
studio in Los Angeles and also includes Willie Nelson and Charles
tackling "It Was a Very Good Year."
"Ray was very weak, but he was a very strong man in terms of humor
and character," Preston said. "Everything he did, he made it his."
Preston has done the same thing.
Of course, he is known as "The Fifth Beatle" for his work on the
Beatles' "White Album," "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be," but Preston was
also a sideman on the Rolling Stones 1975 tour, and he toured with
Sammy Davis Jr. He wrote Joe Cocker's hit "You Are So Beautiful."
Preston met Clapton in 1969 when he recorded "That's the Way God
Planned It," his Apple Records debut. "George Harrison called him in
to play on my sessions," Preston said. "That was the first time I met
Eric, and we've been friends since."
Preston also joined the Band in 1976 when they all played behind
Clapton on his "No Reason to Cry" album.
Don't expect Preston to play any solo hits such as "Outa-Space"
and "Will It Go Round in Circles" with Clapton. "I don't have to work
as hard as I would like and I don't know if I'm physically able to do
so," he said. "I have my solos, and it's a joy playing with this
band." Clapton's band includes Texas guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and
longtime bassist Nathan East.
Preston's organ playing is reminiscent of Jimmy Smith in the way he
delivers hard bass lines with his feet and fluid solo lines from his
right hand. Preston is also easygoing when the topic turns to Beatle
questions. "Musically, my favorite moment was on the roof [of Apple
Studios, 3 Savile Row in London] for 'Let It Be,' " Preston
said. "That was the last time they played together. It was John's
idea. He wanted to play for everybody."
Preston has strong Chicago ties. During the mid-1970s he toured
Europe with Billy Preston and the God Squad. Members of the God Squad
later broke off to form the Brothers Johnson ("Light Up the Night")
and the Chicago-based Rufus. After embarking on a 1962 European tour
as Little Richard's keyboardist (with Chicagoan Sam Cooke as opening
act), Cooke signed Preston to his SAR/Derby label, where he
recorded "The 16-Year-Old Soul." "I did my first album when I was
16," Preston said. Chicago's Vee-Jay Records (the first American home
of the Beatles) next approached Preston in 1966. He cut the
instrumental album "The Most Exciting Organ Ever!," later released on
Life has been more than exciting for Preston.
He was placed on a five-year probation after pleating no contest to
assault with a deadly weapon and cocaine possession in 1992. In
November 1997 he was sentenced to three years in prison after testing
positive for the drug while on probation. While in prison in 1998, he
also pleaded guilty to having taken part in an insurance scam that
dated to the early 1990s. "Everything that has happened to me, I
say, 'That's the way God planned it,' " Preston said. "The ups and
the downs. That's life. You have to go through it to get to it."
Next up for Preston are the dual releases of an all-gospel album and
a Beatle tribute album with new songs Preston wrote in memory of John
Lennon and George Harrison. (Both will be available in the fall at
http://www.billypreston.net). In 1972, Preston released Lennon and
McCartney's "Blackbird" as a single on A&M Records. "I've learned so
much from all the lessons I've been through," Preston said. "It's
given me so much music, too."