“That’s the Way God Planned it”
(from July 26, 2006)
On June 6, 2006, we lost the greatest gospel organist of all time. Billy Preston died of kidney failure after being in a coma since November of 2005.
Since there is an abundance of information out there on the web, from biographies to discographies, etc. I won’t go into much detail here …
(One of the best short bios I’ve found:
google “Billy Preston” for more information)
Billy Preston was much more to many artists and fans than just a “gospel organist”, but I am talking about him from my own perspective here (I will elaborate later). I’ll never forget the first time I heard him; I was sitting in the lower lounge on the MS Song of Flower, a cruise ship I was working on at the time. It was the middle of a day at sea and I was just idly passing time hanging out with my good friend and bandleader Stu. A powerful, punchy downward piano riff cut into the the room, each chord coming down lifted me up higher and higher out of my seat — then the organ came bursting in and poor Stu just vanished into thin air … there are no visuals to speak of in my memory of that moment — all I remember is sound swirling around me, and that I was suddenly on a raving mad quest to find out what that sound was. Turns out it was “Will It Go ‘Round In Circles” by Billy Preston. I couldn’t wait until we docked in Hong Kong so I could run to HMV and find more …
Despite the fact that he made such tremendous contributions to popular music throughout the 60s and 70s, it was pretty difficult to find exactly what I was looking for from Billy Preston under his own name — sure he put out some great stuff, but a lot of what I loved to hear were just organ textures and fills in the background, in a more supporting but still very present setting. Not long after I came back to Canada after the ship, I was in a record store in Edmonton minding my own business, and a sound caught my attention (much in the same way as a stern teacher with pointy glasses grabs a child’s ear to make them listen and listen up good — I was frozen in place — to move away from the source would have caused me great pain!). I demanded to know what CD was playing over the system. The clerk looked it up and said “Eric Clapton” — I said “Ok … who’s the organist????”. He didn’t know. But as soon as I could verify it, it made prefect sense.
I don’t need to ask anymore … the touch, the attack, the sound – rich and warm yet so powerful, the perfect small sequence of chords right out of a Southern Black church … it’s absolutely unmistakable. And it takes my breath away every single time.
It’s no secret that Billy Preston was the victim of a vice or two; I can barely even begin to speculate as to why so many of the great artists we look up to were so messed up on drugs and always getting thrown in the slammer. I suppose it was partly a result of the social and societal conditions they were brought up in, as well as the experimental caution-to-the wind attitude towards drugs, and the whole culture of that era in general. I’m a little white-ish girl from Edmonton who grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, so I have no further insight to contribute to that discussion. HOWEVER, I have met and dealt with people who did live through that (and who are actually still alive and breathing on their own, miraculously enough!). Even though they are technically clean, it feels as if there is something not quite there anymore; as if a part of their humanity has been worn raw from years of abuse to the body and the spirit. They are unpredictable and alarming — pleasant and courteous one minute, irritable and enraged the next. I never had the chance to meet Billy Preston so I can’t say for sure, but it seems that unlike many who went down the same troubled path, he didn’t let that get the better of him. Despite his personal demons, he rose above it and always wore a big smile. He addressed the crowd as his “friends”, and sang and danced his heart out, almost right up until the end. He had said “I do believe that God has his hands on me and that he has work for me to do.”
Which brings me to the point I made earlier about Billy Preston being the heaviest Gospel organist of all time. I’m not going to get into a big religious discussion here, but I will say that I believe worship music in particular is extremely powerful; somehow all the individual ego-fuelled hang-ups that usually plague performers (come on, we’ve all dealt with these issues at one time or another, otherwise Kenny Werner’s “Effortless Mastery” wouldn’t have been such a big hit — and you KNOW it!) are put aside to serve something much greater. Music is an extremely crucial part of a religious service, yet it functions as a means to an end — a soundtrack to the act of worship — thereby eliminating any sense of “me me me” and drawing everyone present to let go of themselves and travel into a deeper awareness of God/Atman (a collective soul)/the Universe. The great Mavis Staples said that even when she is singing a secular song, she’s still singing to the Lord. No matter what your particular creed is, if you ever hear Mavis, your spirit will be moved, guaranteed! (Case in point – The Band’s final concert “The Last Waltz” – if you don’t cry when she starts to sing the second verse of “The Weight”, you just ain’t human!). I say that Billy Preston is a Gospel organist because no matter if he’s performing with The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, or playing his own love songs or groove tunes, he exudes that same transcendent spirituality that can be felt during the most intense moments of a Southern Black church service. He always played and sang to his Lord, and never lost faith even under the heavy burden he carried through much of his life.
It is with deep regret that I say I never got to see Billy Preston live in concert; I would have especially loved to see him perform duo with Mavis Staples — for me it would have been the ultimate spiritual experience. Sadly, I have to accept that this is the way it is, and I can take comfort in the fact that he left behind a massive recorded legacy by which I may continue to learn from him, enjoy his music and receive his poignant message of passion, love, perseverance and faith.
Rest in peace Billy Preston, and may God bless your soul.