Billy Preston, a trusted Beatles and Rolling Stones sideman who has also recorded several solo hits, won the Musical Excellence Award tonight at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland .
Preston’s award was announced by Ringo Starr, who was in two groups with Billy Preston – the Beatles, of course, and also his own All-Starr Band.
“I like to say that Billy never put his hands in the wrong place,” Starr said via a pre-recorded message. “He was an amazing singer, songwriter and human being.”
Preston joins fellow award winners Todd Rundgren, Carole King, the Go-Go’s, Foo Fighters and Tina Turner as part of the 36th Rock Hall Induction Class.
He almost seemed predestined for this sort of honor, joining Little Richard’s touring group as a teenager in 1962 and appearing on Sam Cooke’s Night beat album a year later. Cooke signed a recording contract with Preston, and he released the album on the organ. 16 years old soul at an age when most children still think of the first cars and the ball.
Along the way he met the young Beatles – and ended up becoming a lifeline a few years later as they went through the rough patch that eventually produced their latest album. He then gave the Stones a soul boost, both in the studio and on the road.
“It was a Beatle – and a Rolling Stone,” Starr marveled. “He was like a part of the band and that’s why he played a few tracks because he was Billy and he gave us a different feeling,” he added, noting that “the last time the Beatles played live, Billy was with us on the roof. “
Yet Preston most important influence and association remained Ray Charles, who so brilliantly fused the African-American twin musical styles of R&B and gospel. Charles first took the young keyboardist on a series of landmark tours around the time of Preston’s first recordings, which included the aptly titled The most exciting organ ever from 1965.
A year later, Preston appeared on Charles’ The time of tears LP, with the Top 40 hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. Something clicked. On his tour, Charles reportedly said, “Billy is the man I would love to continue the work I started.” In some ways he did.
Preston, who called his workgroup God Squad, pretty much stuck to Charles’ model – releasing records that mixed both the rhythms and spiritualities of his youth. But Preston came of age in the burgeoning funk era, and it provided a significant new element to his emerging sound – and his look.
He scored a series of shattering singles between 1969 and 1974, while also establishing a memorable character during the carpet shag era. There was his dizzying, mushroom-shaped hair, which shivered and swayed as he played with total surrender and uninhibited.
Just below shone a mile-wide smile, so magnetically appealing that it sometimes threatened to obscure just how talented Preston was as a musician. This contagious sense of joy ultimately masked a series of personal issues, which Preston battled throughout his all too short life.
The 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will air on November 20 on HBO alongside simulcast radio on SiriusXM rock & To roll room of Radio fame.
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