BILLY PRESTON: 16 YR. OLD SOUL (1963)
1) Greazee (Pts. 1 & 2); 2) Lost And A'Lookin'; 3) I Can't Stop Loving You; 4) Born To Lose; 5) Ain't That Love; 6) Bring It On Home; 7) God Bless The Child; 8) Pretty Little Girl; 9) In The Spring; 10) Good News.
Most people in the world — certainly, almost all of the people outside the U.S., myself included — have only heard of Billy Preston due to his involvement in the last period of the Beatles' activity in 1969, including participation in the Rooftop Concert, and, perhaps, due to his later friendship with George Harrison, stretching all the way from the Bangla Desh Concert period and right down to the posthumous «Concert For George» thirty years later. Not everyone knows, though, that Billy was not just a random figure picked out for no good reason: he'd known the Beatles from their Hamburg days, where, in 1962, they crossed paths with Little Richard and his touring band. But most importantly, even though messing 'round with the Beatles certainly gave Preston's career and notoriety a shot in the arm, he was already a noted presence on the R&B scene.
In fact, he was noted as early as 1957, when the young prodigy did a ʽBlueberry Hillʼ duet with Nat ʽKingʼ Cole on TV (check it out here — in case of difficulty, the young prodigy can always be recognized by the large funny gap in his front teeth: that, and the fluent organ-playing technique, have forever remained two of his permanent trademarks). Then came supporting gigs with everyone who mattered, from Mahalia Jackson to Little Richard to Sam Cooke, and eventually, in 1963, came the solo debut on the small Derby label — an LP of fully instrumental tunes, focusing exclusively on Billy's organ and piano playing. (Technical note: 16 Yr. Old Soul is frequently ignored in the discographies, due either to the limited nature of the original release, or chronological confusion — it was re-released in the UK in 1969 under the title Greazee Soul — but this is definitely where it all begins).
Now, actually, from a technical point of view the record was somewhat groundbreaking: instrumental albums with a keyboard fetish were nothing new for the jazz world in the early 1960s, but in the — still quite young and fresh — world of R&B, recording a whole set of vocal-less numbers was practically unheard of, and the very fact that little Billy got such a proposition would suggest that there was something really special in his keyboard playing. Or, perhaps, that he was just too shy to sing in the studio, and would rather have his trusty organ do all the singing. Otherwise, one would rather expect somebody of Ray Charles' caliber to be the first in line.
In any case, 16 Yr. Old Soul is not exactly a masterpiece, but it is also much, much better than one would think, just by looking at the song titles and learning the basic facts. The thing with Billy was not that he was a top-of-his-class «virtuoso», or that he'd mastered everything there was to piano and organ playing, but that he had his own way of making the keys sing. Listen closely to his inspired take on ʽGod Bless The Childʼ, for instance, and you will notice that he has Billy Holiday's original in his head all the way, trying to capture the nuances, the shadows, the echoes, varying the tones, the pitches, the force, everything — basically, doing the sort of thing that every instrumental jazz performer would do, of course, but with as much invention and feeling as the best of 'em, if not necessarily with the same technicality.
The one major highlight is the instrumental ʽGreazeeʼ, four minutes of moody blues-waltzing spent exploring the world of threatening riffs and flashy solos, showing Billy's easily recognizable «whirlwind» playing style already fully established: at his most revved-up, he does it all, from creaky Morse code passages to tricky bends and glissandos... well, maybe not that tricky, but they do rock in an openly aggressive manner — in the world of the electric organ, ʽGreazeeʼ is quite the equivalent of Link Wray in the world of the electric guitar, and it lets you know, from the very start, that the young Billy would be mingling more and more with the rock crowds.
Some of the tracks are too dependent on Billy's jazz piano mentors, whoever they might have been (ʽLost And A'Lookinʼ), but whenever the band hits a fast / tight groove, he always ends up shedding superfluous academicity and just plugs along — ʽAin't That Loveʼ and ʽGood Newsʼ, in particular, are great showcase for Billy's «abandon». And second best are those tunes where the point is to capture the spirit of the former vocal part in the keys — like the already mentioned ʽGod Bless The Childʼ or Sam Cooke's ʽBring It On Home To Meʼ. Plus, I have no idea what ʽIn The Springʼ, credited to Lowell Johnson, was originally supposed to be, but here it's a lovely, uplifting, optimistic piano anthem to start a day with.
Despite all the originality, 16 Yr. Old Soul did not make much of a splash, being targeted towards the pop rather than jazz market — and the pop market was relatively indifferent to instrumental albums, unless we're talking real hot white teen dance music like The Ventures. But it is still an absolute must for those who appreciate Billy's talents, because it already shows an accomplished master of his trade: Billy would never go on to learn to be a first-rate songwriter or unpredictable innovator — all he had for himself was sincerity, passion, technique, and a great ability to channel other people's feelings through his own soul, and in one way or another, it's all here already. Not a jaw-dropping masterpiece, just a highly pleasant musical show that fully deserves its honorary thumbs up.