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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Billy Preston: Wildest Organ In Town


BILLY PRESTON: WILDEST ORGAN IN TOWN (1966)

1) Midnight Hour; 2) Uptight (Everything's Alright); 3) A Hard Day's Night; 4) Ain't Got No Time To Play; 5) Love Makes Me Do Foolish Things; 6) The Duck; 7) Advice; 8) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction; 9) I Got You (I Feel Good); 10) It's Got To Happen; 11) Free Funk; 12) The In Crowd.

The ever more swinging years find Billy Preston still too shy and afraid to try something that de­viates from the established formula. He does continue to acknowledge the arrival of new trends, styles, and fashions — covering contemporary pop hits by the dozen — but he does not dare to sing, still limits his own songwriting to just a small handful of half-assed instrumentals, and, most importantly, still shows little interest in playing with a daring, competitive backing band.

In fact, most of the backing players were not even listed in the credits here — with the exception of Sly Stone, not yet a man of «The Family», but already a player on the scene, who is also credi­ted for arranging most of the tracks and co-writing two of Billy's three numbers. Curious trivia bit: ʽAdviceʼ is probably the first recorded song on which you get to hear Sly's trademark "I wanna take you higher" bit, even if the excitement and enthusiasm on this track is on kindergarten level compared with later Family Stone developments. For some reason, the two artists find it funny to interweave the riff of ʽLouie Louieʼ into the melody — in a certain sense, ʽLouie Louieʼ does take you higher, but I wonder if my sense is the same as theirs.

Anyway, the only real difference is that, the farther they go, the less these organ rearrangements closely resemble and mimic the originals — ʽSatisfactionʼ, for instance, is practically unrecogni­zable until the brass section starts playing the main riff, at which point you understand that Billy was actually translating Jagger's vocals to an organ setting all along. But he really transforms it into a loose, festive R&B number (somewhat similar to Otis Redding's take), completely chan­ging the spirit of the Stones to something more celebratory and less spiteful. (Which is not neces­sarily a good thing, but a fairly common one with R&B adaptations of British Invasion tunes, so we might just as well make our peace with the procedure).

Many of the covers are R&B standards in the first place, though, and cannot be transformed too deeply — ʽIn The Midnight Hourʼ, ʽI Feel Goodʼ — so, in the end, it is still more intriguing and curious to look at Billy handle the other stuff. If ʽSatisfactionʼ rolls along like a merry dance groove, then ʽA Hard Day's Nightʼ, on the other hand, gets slowed down and played in almost dirge-like fashion, which is only logical, if you ask me: this is the kind of rhythm that would be more appropriate for someone who has just had «a hard day's night», «working like a dog». Yes, it's sort of sad that the song loses energy, spirit, catchiness, memorability, and every other reason to exist in the process — but nice, logical, reasonable try anyway.

On a final note, beware of ʽFree Funkʼ: despite the title, this is really a slow soul ballad, «freely» quoting from ʽGeorgia On My Mindʼ and something else that I do not recognize. Not that the word «funk» had a straight, unambiguous musical meaning in early 1966, of course, but even back then, it would probably be associated with something carnal and sexy rather than a slow moving, spiritually-oriented soul groove. Maybe the record people accidentally switched the title with ʽIt's Got To Happenʼ — since both are original non-hit compositions, who would be giving a damn anyway?

Overall, if you only want to have one album of Billy Preston instrumentals, this might just as well be it, or just about any other one would do (I would still lean towards 16 Yr. Old Soul — back then, at least, this formula was still fresh and far away from being run into the ground). A year later, Billy would follow it with Club Meeting, another similar «experiment» that hardly merits its own review (the two LPs have been reissued on a single CD in recent years), except for a brief mention that it does have a few vocal parts, the first real Billy Preston singing on a Billy Preston album. He also does ʽSunnyʼ and ʽSummertimeʼ. (I bet you're already as thrilled as I am).

It is a little sad, actually, that in the end, Billy had to spend most of the century's greatest musical decade in such a state of skepticism over his own abilities — the years to come would prove that he had much more to offer the world than credible, mildly imaginative organ reworkings of other people's ideas. Who knows, maybe if he had spent those «magic years» honing his individuality and creativity in more aspects than one, he could have grown into a major star of the business. Then again, idle speculation on the subject is none of our business, either. Simple fact is — early Billy Preston is best enjoyed in a minimal dosage. One LP only, or, better still, a self-made com­pilation. Preferably without ʽGoldfingerʼ on it.

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