Wednesday, November 30, 2005

My New Old Hero

... who is, of course, Billy Preston. Who's Billy Preston?

1. A session pianist for the Beatles (Get Back, Let It Be, A Bunch of Stuff on the White Album)
2. The creator of dazzling keyboard-driven instrumentals (Space Race, Outta Space)
3. The writer and performer of some of the most interesting 70s soul songs (Nothing From Nothing, Will It Go Round in Circles)
4. A damn fine songwriter (You Are So Beautiful)
5. Many other things

In this blog entry I will address each of these themes, followed by a general discussion of what makes Billy Preston so cool. Finally, I will demonstrate that Billy Preston is awesome, and has always been my hero, even though I didn't know it.

1. As an electric piano nerd, I have a special place in my heart for Billy Preston - his playing on the Beatles' album Let It Be (1970) constitutes the earliest recording of a Fender Rhodes, the most famous electric piano. In this respect Preston plays a similar role to one that one of my other heroes, Ray Charles, plays for the Wurlitzer electric piano - "What'd I Say" (1959) being the song that popularized Wurlitzers, and electric pianos in general.

2. The two instrumental songs mentioned above are great, though dated. I'm not sure if this adds to or distracts from their overall quality. Whatever. "Space Race" in particular has a beautiful melody. And "Outta Space" exploits everyone's favorite trick of running a Clavinet through a wah-wah pedal. Did I mention I was an electric piano nerd?

3. "Nothing from Nothing" was on a few commercials several years back. I'd never heard it before then, and was struck by its simple elegance. Though firmly a creature of its time and place, it transcends 70s soul with gentle musical wit.

4. His most famous song is undoubtedly "You Are So Beautiful," but hardly anyone (including myself scant months ago) knows he wrote it. He also recorded it, and his recording is at once more restrained and more soulful than Joe Cocker's famous version - if there were a musical equivalent of "chewing the scenery" it would apply perfectly to the Joe Cocker recording. Incidentally there have always been rumors that Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys' drummer, co-wrote this song. This is part of the posthumous apotheosis and hagiography surrounding Dennis Wilson ("he was the only Beach Boy who could surf," etc.), which makes me skeptical. Unless Preston himself were to confirm it, I would take it with a medium-sized grain of salt.

So this adds up to quite a career, albeit a quiet one. One consistent quality of his music is a seeming effortlessness that I find in a lot (but not all) of the music I like. Sometimes when I hear a great song for the first time I feel either like I've known it for my whole life, or that it sounds inevitable - of course that song goes like that; how could it not? My only qualm is that if a songwriter achieves this sort of grace, the result might seem unoriginal or boring, and might even escape attention. But I feel Billy Preston's music avoids this pitfall.

1 comment:

rokhl said...

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