For pop historians, Billy Preston is a missing link connecting the greatest records in rock ’n’ roll history. Sure, that statement might reek of archetypal music-journo hyperbole, but the fact remains that Preston has had a hand in creating the holy trinity of pop records: The Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. The prospect of getting Billy to offer fly-on-the-wall comments about some of rock’s most glorious, moving, important, revolutionary moments would give any record collector a serious chubby. Until you actually talk to him.
“The Rolling Stones, those are some party people.” Preston muses when asked about the making of Dylan’s 1975 milestone, Blood on the Tracks.
No, Mr. Preston, I was asking about the making of Blood on the Tracks.
“What? Is that Michael’s record?” he asks.
No, that’s a record by Bob Dylan.(Michael who?)
“I don’t know, I forget a lot of sessions from way back then,” Preston admits. He pauses, then adds with canned sincerity, “It was great to be able to play with them and experience their style — I played the songs and felt out what they needed.”
Though disappointing, you can’t really blame Preston’s spotty memory. The 56-year-old keyboard, bass and songwriting master has been hard-giggin’ since he started with Mahalia Jackson at the ripe old age of 10. In the 46 years since he has played and recorded with everybody, from cultural icons like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Aretha to disposable pop tarts like Christina Aguilera, Nikka Costa and Fastball. To Preston, a gig’s a gig.
“I guess I was aware that there was something in my playing that people enjoyed,” he says matter-of-factly. “And it was real cool to play with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but in a way it is the same thing with everyone. They call me for a session and they let me play. I guess by now they know my reputation and my musical integrity and they know I can add to the song. It doesn’t matter if it’s Johnny Cash or Quincy Jones.”
When Preston is pressed to identify the moment he realized he was a star he recalls, “The Beatles called up and told me that they wanted to put a record out. When I saw my name on the record with the Apple that was a surprise. That was when I knew something big was happening.”
Preston’s phone kept ringing. Clapton called. Dylan called. Everyone called.
A call from the Stones led to Preston’s longest joint venture with a band. Between 1970 and 1997, Preston appeared on many of the Stones’ most coveted albums including Sticky Fingers, Goats Head Soup, and Exile on Main Street.
Recalls Preston, “In the studio [with the Stones] was pretty cool. They would record at all times of the day and night and in any country. But they would hit the studio and when they felt like it; there was no rush and if they felt like recording they would do it. They had some money and didn’t worry about a thing. With them it was very relaxed — it was like a big vacation to work on those records.
“The Stones, they were rock and rollers, man. They are die-hard rockers and blues enthusiasts as well and I learned a lot of them about the old black players. They respected my playing a lot and working with them was mostly a party. They were totally different from working with the Beatles — the Stones were party people. Funky and fun all the time. The environment with them is like a huge party at all times. Back then, there was always something happening, like a circus happening. There were a lot of people just hanging out in hallways and hotel rooms and it was always a party — even when they weren’t there. There were crowds that would sit outside your room all night long. The Beatles don’t party.”
Maybe his long run with the Stones’ party carnival accounts for some of the foggy synapses. It assuredly accounts for the hard time he served on a drug conviction in the late ’90s and other less savory run-ins with the law that are rarely publicized.
“Music has always gotten me through hard times,” he says candidly. “God gives me a lot of tunes and songs and ideas. I have a studio in my house and I like to go down there and play with different sounds and ideas.”
And it’s Preston’s own musical ideas that have made him a Grammy-winning solo artist and deft performer in his own right. Even if the mountainous volume of Preston’s catalog has some of his memories a little tangled up, his reflections on 10 lifetimes of musical achievements come down to one statement.
“There has never been anyone telling me what to do. It is a rush, an exciting thing — you play like what you feel like playing. It’s something that God has blessed me with.”
See Billy Preston on Sunday, July 6, 2 p.m. in the Fisher Building parking lot (3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit) as part of the Comerica TasteFest. For info, call 313-972-1101.Nate Cavalieri is a Detroit area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]