Billy Preston - Let The Music Play
Billy Preston R.I.P.
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I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of the great Billy Preston. If you grew up in the 70’s, Preston was a very familiar face, having hit the charts a number of times with tunes like ‘Outta Space’ and ‘Will It Go Round In Circles’. It’s not hard to conjure up an image of the Billy Preston of the 70’s, with his impossibly large afro and infectious, gap-toothed smile. While most of the music blogs I follow featured a tribute of some kind, this space remained unfortunately Preston-less. This was due in large part to the fact that I already had some posts n the hopper, and because I couldn’t quite think of any tunes that hadn’t already been covered in some way. This weekend I started to pull out and record some new material for the coming weeks, and while flipping through my Hammond boxes, I came up with something I think you’ll dig. It was only in adulthood that I found out about, and started to listen to Preston’s early work. Through the 60’s, from the time he was a teenager up until just before he collaborated with the Beatles on ‘Get Back’, Preston made a series of instrumental LPs featuring his work on the organ for the Derby, VeeJay and Capitol labels. Though none of these records would meet with any chart success, a few of his numbers, especially ‘Billy’s Bag’ (on VeeJay) would become dancefloor faves with the Mod and Northern Soul crowds in the UK. Though I was aware of this material for a while, the first record I was actually able to get my hands on was his first Capitol LP ‘The Wildest Organ in Town’. Arranged by (and featuring uncredited contributions from) Sly Stone, the LP was recorded not long after Preston’s run on the US pop showcase Shindig. This LP - like his previous work for VeeJay - featured a mix of cover versions of pop and soul tunes and a few originals. So, the years went on, and – Hammond fiend that I am – I grabbed Preston’s early stuff whenever I was able. Some years ago, during that period of acquisition, my pal Haim played a Preston 45 for me that I had never heard before, which immediately blew me away. ‘Let The Music Play’, which was released in late 1966 (and was recorded for Preston’s second Capitol LP ‘Club Meeting’, which I have never seen in the field), is less a Hammond tour de force than a jubilant, soulful vocal number that verily explodes with energy. Arranged by HB Barnum, the tune opens with a wailing organ, horns and vibes. Preston starts the vocal (I tend to think that the second voice in the background may be Stone, but it’s just as possible that it’s Preston doubling himself), and the verse - about a miserable life redeemed by music – is excellent, but it’s not until the chorus, with it’s wild “Hey!”s that sound as if they are panned from channel to channel, that things take off. The horn chart is powerful, and the backing track sounds as if it were recorded live in the studio with little or no overdubs. It’s probably my favorite Preston side, and ought to be better known. Preston must have liked the song since he re-recorded it in the mid-70’s. The version of Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’ on the flip side, sounds like a live recording and has a loose, “churchy” feel to it. It’s a great companion piece to ‘Let the Music Play’. As I said before, I’ve never seen a copy of the LP ‘Club Meeting’, I have seen the 45 turn up now and again, and ‘Wildest Organ In Town’ and ‘Club Meeting’ have been paired up for a CD reissue, as have his VeeJay recordings.