Saturday, March 12, 2011

The indiscreet charm of Billy Preston

He was the child prodigy who played with Mahalia Jackson at age 10, Nat King Cole at 11, portrayed W.C. Handy as a child in film at 12, backed Sam Cooke and Little Richard by 16, and then had that little stint as the "Fifth Beatle" at 23.

That's the résumé; The legacy of Billy Preston we can write for ourselves. Mine would include his Clavinet-standard studio improv "Outa-Space," those iconic electric piano performances from the "Let It Be" sessions, his surprisingly creative piano work on the Stones' career-twilight albums, a canon of hit-worthy compositions under his own name, and the countless other classic contributions he made across the rock and roll era.

But playing is only part of his story: It's been argued that his gregarious and infectious personality was at least partly responsible for holding together the centrifugal egos of John, Paul, and George during the "Let It Be" sessions. You don't get to play with as many greats as Preston unless you've a substantial personality. But what resonates most about the legacy of musicianship, I believe, is his obvious and deep love of playing; It's the irreducible component of truth in all great musicians' art. See this in action along with a jubilant and manic energy that rises to escape velocity levels in this 1969 performance from "The Concert for Bangladesh":

Also on the bill were Dylan, Clapton, George Harrison, Leon Russell, and Badfinger. It was often written that Billy stole the show; That was probably an understatement.

No comments: