BILLY PRESTON: THAT'S THE WAY GOD PLANNED IT (1969)
1) Do What You Want; 2) I Want To Thank You; 3) Everything's All Right; 4) She Belongs To Me; 5) It Doesn't Matter; 6) Morning Star; 7) Hey Brother; 8) What About You; 9) Let Us All Get Together; 10) This Is It; 11) Keep It To Yourself; 12) That's The Way God Planned It; 13*) Through All Times; 14*) As I Get Older; 15*) That's The Way God Planned It (alt. version); 16*) Something's Got To Change.
The royal gift to Billy for joining the Beatles on «The Rooftop», and for generally keeping their spirits up a bit throughout early 1969, was a contract with Apple, and probably an unwritten pledge on George Harrison's part to finally promote him as a «real artist» instead of merely «the wildest organ in town». For that matter, That's The Way God Planned It might be considered the first «genuine» Preston album — one on which he finally composes and sings most of his own material the way he wants to, much like Where I'm Coming From would be the «comeout» album for Stevie Wonder one year later (although the analogy is far from perfect, since Stevie had already been singing a long time by then, and his emergence as a serious artist was far more gradual than Billy's — and that's not even beginning to compare the overall qualities).
Anyway, this is one of Billy's best albums indeed, but it still isn't particularly great or anything, recommendable mostly for the enthusiasm and out of curiosity. The major problem, of course, is that Billy just wasn't a particularly good songwriter or a particularly awe-inspiring singer. His vocals, now that they are put up front, are those of an honest, hard-working soul / R'n'B guy, but they do not exactly dethrone Otis Redding, and only capture a tiny percentage of the shades of a Marvin Gaye. And his writing is very much hit-and-miss: as fluent as he always remains on the organ, there is hardly a single melodic line on the entire record that forms a memorable picture — and the vocal hooks come sort of unnaturally: already on the first track, the call-and-response trick of "do what you want to!" — "I will love you anyway!" sounds like its two parts actually belong in different songs, and were spliced together in a sincere, but unsuccessful fit of experimentation. In short, do not look to Billy for compositional genius. Not everyone got an epiphany from being close to the Beatles for a short period of time.
Even then, That's The Way God Planned It is a lot of fun. Not just because Preston was obviously very glad to be making this record, and, if anything, his sense of joy is fairly infectious, but also because he got to record it with a star-studded cast — George Harrison, Eric Clapton, even Keith Richards (on bass!) and Ginger Baker make guest appearances throughout. Since the primary emphasis always honestly stays on Billy and his keys, it doesn't matter all that much that they all left traces (I am sure nobody will be able to track down a «definitive Keith Richards streak» in the basslines), but it may be felt indirectly in the overall atmosphere: for instance, I am fairly sure it is George adding the subtle weeping licks to ʽThis Is Itʼ, contributing to making it one of the most morose-sounding proto-disco numbers ever recorded.
The big breakthrough, and the only track worth hearing again and again, is, of course, the lengthy title track. Nowadays, most people (like me) are probably only familiar with the live version that Billy got to perform on George's Concert For Bangladesh — that was a good performance indeed, but it failed, or did not even try to, reproduce the multi-layered grandeur of the original. Here, it is not even the main part of it that matters (although it certainly is Billy's finest attempt at conquering the gospel genre), but the long coda where Billy battles it out with Clapton — the two trade rapid-fire guitar and organ punches between each other that are far more breathtaking than the chorus mantra. Herein I move to have the track renamed ʽThat's The Way «God» Planned Itʼ, considering that it features some of the best licks that «God» laid down that year, getting in fine shape before the glorious experiences of 1970.
Out of the rest, I could, with a little effort, single out: ʽThis Is Itʼ for the Harrison-related moodiness already mentioned; ʽEverything's All Rightʼ with its little comic debt to ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ (the happy-boppy mood always works well for «silly Billy»); and ʽIt Doesn't Matterʼ, which sets a fairly gritty groove (and if that's still Ginger behind the drums, no wonder the massive drum sound plays a strong hand in it). This is, however, negatively compensated by several covers that mostly fall flat — Dylan's ʽShe Belongs To Meʼ, where the jerky, aggressive attitude makes no sense; and an exaggeratedly sentimental delivery of W. C. Handy's ʽMorning Starʼ that shares all the irritating clichés of early 1970s «mainstream family entertainment» of American roots-a-pop. Also, ʽHey Brotherʼ is really ʽHey Joeʼ without the Hendrix — I suppose the «tribute» must have been intentional, but it doesn't work anyway.
Still, on the whole, this is a thumbs up, and not only because of the title track, but also because of Preston's general charisma. Some people are more than just the sum of mediocre songwriting, merely competent singing, and professional mastery of an instrument — see the Grateful Dead for further reference — and with Billy, you will just have to add a mix of simplicity, sincerity, and sympathy. You might not remember these songs on an individual level, but unless you are completely immune to the basic charms of gospel-flavoured R&B (and I could understand that), That's The Way God Planned It will still aromatize the air around you with some old-fashioned joyful niceness that is not in the least «fake» or «synthetic». And, to quote Mr. Billy himself, from one of his joyfully nice, forgettable songs, "for this, I want to thank you".
Check "That's The Way God Planned It" (MP3) on Amazon