This is the first in a series of blog posts on Unsung Heroes: those people who really float my boat but have been unceremoniously thrown on the scrapheap of history. Unsung Heroes casts a brighter light over their magnificence.
There are lots of lists out there of ‘the coolest/hottest/best-dressed guys on the planet’ and they normally include people like Harry Styles, Brad Pitt or Don Draper. This is not the sort of ‘cool’ I want to talk about. I’m talking about something primal, mesmerising and edgy: the dark priests of cool. And it’s not just a black vs white thing either – although Miles Davis, James Brown and Omar Little are definitely members of the fraternity, so are Marlon Brando and Jim Morrison.
These men all have something ethereal and dangerous: it’s the way they hold themselves; the things they say; the way they dance; and the roles they play. They ooze cool in everything they do. I’m not going to enter into a cuttin’ contest about who’s in the club and who’s not, I just want to put forward the case for one often-neglected candidate for the club: Billy Preston. Don’t know him? Then be prepared to kneel down and beg forgiveness!
An openly-gay African-American man, Billy grew up in the spotlight at a time when it wasn’t easy to openly gay, even in showbusiness.
As an 11-year old, he performed live on TV with Nat “King” Cole and pretty much showed Nat how to work the ropes. I don’t know what he did between the ages of 11 and 14 – probably sat around playing the 1950s version of Mortal Kombat 3 – but at age 15 he skipped school and went on tour to Europe with Little Richard. On that tour, a young up-and-coming band called The Beatles were one of the support acts. Of this meeting, John Lennon said (in The Beatles Anthology): “It’s hard for people to imagine just how thrilled we, the four of us, were to even see any great rock’n’roller in the flesh and we were almost paralysed with adoration for both of them, and the side show was that Little Richard’s organist was Billy Preston. He looked about 10 then.” Billy and The Beatles would re-unite in the late 1960s, but more on that later…
Although he was known Billy could also shake it like no-one else. Watch this clip of him with Ray Charles (who Billy righteously referred to as ‘his musical Jesus’) on “Double O Soul”. Oh yeah, did I mention that Billy could belt out a pretty fine soul tune as well. But it’s his dancing that is truly mind-blowing. He’s basically inventing his own genre of dance right there on stage. In a lime-green continental suit, no doubt! My favourite move is that one-legged Flamingo Shuffle at 0.44. One can only hope that Ray is able to appreciate Billy’s brilliance by feeling the vibrations in the floor board underneath him. He shows off some more of the same dance licks at the end of this tune. And I know there is a lot of debate about the inspiration for Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, but I think Billy has a reasonable claim to it: if you don’t believe me, then watch his moves at the start of this number.
So what: he sings and dances and tickles the ivories. Who can’t? Try this on for size: he also is the only person to get a songwriting credit with The Beatles. After re-uniting with his pals in London in 1969, Billy was invited to come and perform on what became known as the “Let it Be” record session. But most people don’t know that the tune “Get Back” was officially released as a single by “The Beatles with Billy Preston”. And yes, he’s on the rooftop playing that legendary last-ever Beatles performance on the Savile Row rooftop of Apple Records (his cameo is at 1.18).
To add to his achievements, Billy was a regular recording (and touring) keyboard player for The Rolling Stones in the period immediately after The Beatles split, playing on seminal albums like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street (yep, that’s him on Shine A Light). He also formed what could quite possibly be the coolest super-band of all-time: this track from his 1969 album That’s the Way God Planned It featured Billy (vocals and keys), Eric Clapton (lead guitar), George Harrison (rhythm guitar), Keith Richards (bass) and Ginger Baker (drums).
Even Miles Davis (one of the venerable high priests of dark cool) – who was not known for giving away compliments lightly – recorded a song in his honour (“Billy Preston”) on his 1974 album Get Up With It.
Billy was also on all the best TV shows: he was a musical guest on the 1st Saturday Night Live; was the regular dude on Shindig (see him shakin’ it all about here – with some uber-cool gogo dancers – on the Little Richard tune “Short Fat Fanny”) AND made guest appearances on SoulTrain which was even cooler than Countdown (which had the dubious reputation as being the coolest music show on Australian TV in the ‘70s. This clip has some nice snippets from another ‘Dark Prince’: Iggy Pop).
Oh, yeah, that’s right: I had forgotten to mention that mention that Billy was up there with quite possibly the best ‘afro of the ‘70s. [Actually, I take that back: the drummer in Billy’s band had an ever more outrageous afro: see 2.05 in this clip from the Johnny Carson Show in 1973].
Things started getting weirder in the 1970s. Billy was spending a lot of time with Dennis Wilson who was the fast-living black sheep of the Wilson (Beach Boys) clan. A little-known fact is that the song “You Are So Beautiful” (made famous by Joe Cocker) was actually written by Dennis Wilson and Billy Preston. Apparently, the song was written spontaneously at a party in LA in the early 1970s. This wasn’t long after that Dennis befriended Charles Manson, who apparently stayed with his “Family” at Wilson’s Sunset Boulevard home in the year prior to murdering Sharon Tate. The incident apparently (and understandably) completely freaked Dennis out and he never really recovered: he died in a whirlwind of booze in 1983 after diving off his yacht in Marina Del Ray. [As an aside, his only solo album – 1977’s Pacific Ocean Blue – is regarded as a lost masterpiece and is well worth a listen].
By the late-1980s, Billy’s life was in free-fall: he was arrested for insurance fraud after attempting to burn down his own house in 1991. And he was treated for alcohol and cocaine addictions. And there was a sexual assault on a 16-year Mexican boy which would also blight his life. He would receive 9 months in drug treatment and 3-month house arrest for the sexual assault.
Some sort of a resurrection occurred in the 2000s: he cleaned up his act (although serious physical damage had already been done) and toured/recorded with good mate Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. By then, however, his body had just about given up the ghost. He died in 2006 after months in a coma as a result of kidney failure.
My nomination for “Dark Prince of Cool” Hall of Fame status: Mr Billy Preston.