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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Billy Preston: The Most Exciting Organ Ever


1) If I Had A Hammer; 2) Lowdown; 3) Slippin' And Slidin'; 4) Drown In My Own Tears; 5) I Am Coming Through; 6) The Octopus; 7) Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying; 8) Soul Meetin'; 9) Let Me Know; 10) Billy's Bag; 11) The Masquerade Is Over; 12) Steady Gettin' It.

It is quite likely that each of us has an individual opinion on what exactly is the most exciting organ ever and to whom in particular it happens to belong... but hang on there, this is a Billy Pres­ton review and we are actually supposed to talk about his contributions to the world of key­board-based music, or are we not. The album, with one of the most provocative titles ever, was released a few days prior to Billy's 19th birthday on the VJ Records label (notorious for being the first overseas label to gain rights to Beatles' recordings, before EMI got around to their senses), and is often considered his first «proper» album, even though it really is the second.

And there is relatively little substantial difference between Billy at 16 and Billy at 19, except that now, almost half of the tunes are original instrumental compositions for the organ (ʽI Am Coming Throughʼ gets to have its title chanted in group harmony form, but that's about as far as it goes with vocal presence). None of them are particularly memorable or interesting per se — the themes are fairly basic — but even the most rhythmically and tonally generic, like the basic blues shuffle of ʽLowdownʼ, are all quite pleasant for those who like Preston's style in general.

Of course, his «conversing organ» style is best appreciated where he is emulating classic melo­dies: my favorite bit is the attempt to emulate Little Richard's singing intonations on ʽSlippin' And Slidin'ʼ — not a lot of rock'n'roll excitement here, but the comic-seductive vibe is carried over very well, by heavily taxing the organ keys instead of the vocal cords. ʽIf I Had A Hammerʼ is somewhat less recognizable, but even more inventive in exploring the organ's capability to beat the human voice as primary message-carrier.

Overall, though, the whole thing is surprisingly less exciting than 16 Yr. Old Soul. Maybe it is because of the backing band, which seems sort of slack and disinterested, acting like a mere dummy (at least on 16 Yr. Old Soul there were actual guitar solos, competing with the organ). Maybe it is because the choice of covers is a bit off (I mean, who the heck is interested in Don Covay's ʽSoul Meetingʼ?), and the originals aren't quite up to par. Or maybe it is because, in the end, the whole thing sort of comes across as just a blunt publicity campaign for the Hammond.

On the other hand, there is no need to be condescending. Billy's level may be incomparable with that of, say, Jimmy Smith (it is always tough to compare the levels of «pop» and «jazz» musici­ans, even though so few people actually listen to the latter), but this is his vision, and there was nobody else around with a vision like that in 1965. The Hammond, with its thick sound and extra elec­tronic capacities, could do lots of tricks for the rock and pop world that an ordinary piano could never reproduce, and Billy, both here and elsewhere, is quite keen on discovering as many of these as possible — pitch, tone, strength, modulation, whatever. What the hell, in a way, this could be the most exciting organ ever. I mean, I like Rick Wakeman and all, but maybe whatever he brought into this world should be described by some other word than «exciting». A thumbs up here, for reasons that go beyond «historical», even if not too far beyond.

Check "The Most Exciting Organ Ever" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Most Exciting Organ Ever" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. "there was nobody else around with a vision like that in 1965"
    That's a bit of a hollow statement. Alan Price had a vision on how to use the organ, but yeah, it was not a vision like Preston's. A lot more exciting though.
    And to satisfy my DP fetish: you might check The Artwoods as well, with a certain Jon Lord on keyboards. Obviously not a vision like Preston's either - but a lot more exciting again.
    Preston in comparison was Mr. Pleasant, wanting to become A Well Respected Man.

    1. The point has not been gotten.

      In 1965, Alan Price was a bit player in a vocal-oriented R&B band, as was Jon Lord, Rod Argent, Manfred Mann, etc. The issue of whether these people had better training, technique, wider set of influences, etc., or were more exciting than Billy Preston, is irrelevant to the matter. This album pursues a different purpose.

  2. I actually was more impressed by the latter half of the album, which is unusual for the time, as SOP for albums was to "front-load" the singles and better tracks and throw the filler on the back end. Soul Meetin' is alright, but I really liked the groove he got on Billy's Bag (who knows what was actually in said bag, but still good). Masquerade actually has some crazy moments of dissonance and pathos for an instrumental organ album. And I liked his approach on "Don't Let the Sun.." because he actually made it sound kind of happy as opposed to the melancholy (but still superior) reading for Mssrs. Gerry and Pacemakers--although the studio chatter at the end was an interesting touch.

  3. Just one small correction: it's Vee-Jay Records, not VJ. Vee-Jay garnered some acclaim in the history of American labels, not only for being the first to bring Beatles recordings to the US, but also for being one of the very few labels that were directly African-American owned.

  4. I'm glad you like organ-based instrumental albums... It only gives me hope that you'll review Booker T. & the MG's soon (if my alphabet is correct, that'd be pretty soon, right after Bob Dylan... at least, I don't know of many that could come between Preston and Dylan or between Dylan and the MGs).