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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Billy Preston: Late At Night


1) Give It Up, Hot; 2) Late At Night; 3) All I Wanted Was You; 4) You; 5) I Come To Rest In You; 6) It Will Come In Time; 7) Lovely Lady; 8) With You I'm Born Again; 9) Sock-It Rocket.

Mediocrity notwithstanding, it has to be recognized that Billy never really made a truly «bad» disco album, despite becoming so deeply stuck in the genre and still sticking to it even at the height of the «disco sucks» backlash. In fact, his last disco-era album, and also his first for Mo­town after the expiration of his A&M contract, might be his finest — despite the utterly god­awful album sleeve (which would still be overwhelmed in godawfulness by the next album, but we do have to remember that the visual standards of mainstream cool do not always correlate with mu­sical quality... well, they tend to, but they don't always do it... well, they usually do, but there are exceptions... well, yeah, it's like about 95% to 5% exceptions, but still... well all right, probably more like 99.1% to 0.9%... well, we do have to be open-minded about it, don't we?).

Two ballads, one instrumental groove, and six disco-dance vocal numbers. The only song that made any sort of impact here is ʽWith You I'm Born Againʼ, the sentimental oh-so-adult con­tem­porary duet with Syreeta written for the forgotten comedy Fast Break. The song quickly over­shadowed the movie, became a big international hit, and allegedly raised the birth rate in several countries by a few percent — the last statement is a guess, but even professional haters of the sappy ballad style will have to admit that Syreeta's honey-purr, carefully wrapped in harps and violins, does have the properties of a sexual stimulant (not so sure about Billy's contribution — friendly charisma is one thing, but as a «ladies' man», he is no Al Green or Marvin Gaye, whereas Syreeta really has one of the sexiest voices of her generation). The melody, alas, is almost unbea­rably mushy, but this was the age of Xanadu, after all.

The album in general sounds nothing like the hit, though — it's packed with bubbling disco grooves that are not in the least offensive, as Billy's large backing band still plays it out like a real band rather than a set of sonic robots producing basic rhythms for aerobic purposes. Funky guitar and keyboard leads, brisk Latin percussion, hot live sax breaks, vocal hooks — nothing outstand­ing, as usual, but everything perfectly listenable. Actually, ʽGive It Up, Hotʼ that opens te album is almost close to being outstanding — the chorus, dominated by Gloria Jones and her backing girls, raises the playfulness bar much higher than the first forty-five seconds could suggest; at least, the girls push the limits a little further than Billy usually does by himself.

Of the other songs, the funniest ones are those where Billy still indulges in his «kids-and-I» spi­rit, adding ska-influenced choruses or breaks over the disco skeletons — particularly ʽIt Will Come In Timeʼ, which is not really any less deserving than ʽNothing From Nothingʼ. On the other hand, the instrumental ʽSock-It Rocketʼ is disappointing: it sounds no different from all the vocal num­bers where the biggest attraction is the vocal hook, but... no vocal hook, and Billy's synthesizer improvs are getting less and less imaginative with age.

Overall, this is one of those albums that can actually make one lament over the passing of the «classic» disco age — at least you can occasionally get yourself a human-driven rhythm section, and such ideas as «guitar / bass interplay» or «no pre-programmed keyboards» are still in the air. Basically, you can overcome the limitations of the disco beat if you still preserve the notion of good taste — but you just can't beat a MIDI protocol. Mild, but certain thumbs up.


  1. The only thing that ever made me lament the passing of Disco was the rise of Rap.

  2. In december 1979 I was sixteen. I totally had forgotten about With you I'm born again, but some 20 seconds brought it back in my memory. Until now I hadn't realized that it was the same guy that had played with the Beatles and all! That also shows that Syreeta's voice didn't do anything to activate my teenage hormones. It looks like GS and I react on different stimuli in that respect. At the end of the 70's I thought the two girls of ABBA much sexier, though I wouldn't have admitted back then, and Ann Wilson of Heart of course . To remain in the same genre as Syreeta: Minnie Ripperton has a voice I still clearly remember after 37 years. The same for Diana Ross and her Theme from Mahagony (or whatever, I'm too lazy to look it up).
    I just checked - With you I'm born again wasn't that big a hit in The Netherlands, it's highest position was 4 and it lasted only 9 weeks. I don't have any idea who exactly bought the single. The girls at my school were much more into Grease and Olivia Newton John - and ABBA indeed.
    So even in this genre - soul ballad - Billy Preston shines qua mediocrity afaIc.

  3. That album cover suggests that Motown was trying to turn Billy Preston into Billy Dee Williams. The only thing missing is a smooth, cold Colt 45!*

    *Colt 45 the malt liquor, not the gun! Look up Billy Dee's classic commercials on Youtube.