BILLY PRESTON: MUSIC IS MY LIFE (1972)
1) We're Gonna Make It; 2) One Time Or Another; 3) Blackbird; 4) I Wonder; 5) Will It Go Round In Circles; 6) Ain't That Nothing; 7) God Loves You; 8) Make The Devil Mad; 9) Nigger Charlie; 10) Heart Full Of Sorrow; 11) Music Is My Life; 12*) Slaughter.
Heavier on the Afro hairstyle, but somewhat lighter on sharp funk, Music Is My Life is neither a very interesting title for an album, nor a very good album as such. It does, however, establish the basic formula of a «typical post-gospel Billy Preston hit single»: a cheery, colorful, brass-aided R&B dance number, impressive in form, lightweight in spirit. That is ʽWill It Go Round In Circlesʼ, heavily derivative of the early, nonchalant, happy days of Sly & The Family Stone, well-rounded and catchy, but not at all meaningful, as illustrated by the lyrics already: "I've got a story, ain't got no moral / Let the bad guy win every once in a while / Will it go round in circles? / Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?". Nice lines, good spinning groove, but the fact that it became one of only two of Billy's songs to hit No. 1 (and that the second one would be appropriately called ʽNothing From Nothingʼ) is rather telling.
It is the best song on the album, though — and the second best one is a little slower, a little more New Orleanian in style, and called... ʽAin't That Nothingʼ (go figure): almost as if some subconscious pressure was driving Billy to acknowledge that he has grown up to become a master of amicable, innocent, sometimes even charming «R&B-fluff» whose faint magic is hanging on little other than his amicable, innocent, charming personality. Well, that and a few memorable-through-quirkiness brass flourishes every now and then.
In comparison to this «fluff», attempts at getting somewhat more serious every now and then are not necessarily rotten, but generally fail to impress. The full-bodied funky arrangement of ʽBlackbirdʼ is creative, with a well-arranged mish-mash of guitars, organs, and harpsichords, but it also illustrates the «less is more» principle — the song hit far harder when it was just Paul and his quiet acoustic guitar, whereas here all the focus has been dissipated, with the noblest of aims, perhaps, but the feeblest of results. The funk-gospel numbers (ʽGod Loves Youʼ, ʽMake The Devil Madʼ) are tepid, hard-to-scale grooves. The ballads (ʽI Wonderʼ) are sort of second-rate Al Green without a great vocalist to propel them upwards.
And then there is ʽNigger Charlieʼ, a song apparently written in «honor» of the then-current blaxploitation movie The Legend Of Nigger Charlie (two stars from Ebert, in case you're interested) — six minutes of an «ominous» funk jam, with generic «black pride» lyrics alternating with some very boring piano / guitar interplay. I mean, either you are really into hot funk, and then you got to make that wah-wah guitar loud, screechy, drunk-off-its-head, or you are into moralizing, and then you do not make a song like this run over six minutes. This is neither a good groove nor a successful message — what were you thinking, Billie?
Bottomline: other than the two friendly danceable numbers, the only other thing worth of minor interest on this album is the title track — not so much a proper «song» as a pseudo-improvised «musical credo». Just Billy at the piano (sometimes jumping over to the organ), playing snippets of various melodies in various genres and humming to himself about how music is... well, a gas and all that. Again, nothing phenomenal, but charismatic to boot (and the whole enterprise probably inspired him to plan his next album, which, as an album, would be far more interesting than this here collection of a few mild successes and many languid misfires).
If you do insist on getting acquainted with Music Is My Life because music is your life, be sure to get the re-issue that adds the single-only ʽSlaughterʼ from 1972 as a bonus track — that one is a genuine «hard-funker», with a mad, outta-this-world bassline, a proto-industrial synth grind pattern terrorizing the listener, and an aggressive, tear-down-the-wall organ «slaughtering» from Billy. God only knows why he never managed to get that angry while recording the LP. Friendliness is all right and all that, but a rock'n'roll artist has just got to go angry-crazy every once in a while, even if he happens to be the famous Billy Preston, «The Positive Vibe That Delayed The Beatles' Split». Hence, a thumbs down for the album as a whole — but if Billy wants me to say that I really like him, no problem. I really like him. Swell guy.