The Get Back film has brought Billy Preston back into the spotlight again. Billy was an amazing musician and person. He always seems like a happy man with a wonderful smile, great fashion, and someone that tried to spread peace, love, and kindness to everyone. And obviously, he had a big amount of talent -- his keyboard playing is great beyond words. I spotted this interview with him from 1985 with Beatles Unlimited and thought it was interesting.
Interview with Billy Preston
By Mees Van Ditzhuyzen
Billy Preston is always a welcome guest on the European continent. He manages to hop over quite regularly to do some concerts or promote a new record. IN May Preston visited the Netherlands to sing his new single “Here There and Everywhere” on a few TV programs and do some live shows in discotheques. A good opportunity for us to have a talk with probably the only man to work closely with both Beatles and Stones. The interview took play on 14 May 1985 at “De Bios” in Amsterdam. Special thanks go to Indisc Records for their kind cooperation and to Arthur Mathezing for his editorial assistance.
Q: First a few questions about your cooperation with The Beatles. Was the first time you met them in Hamburg?
B: I met them a little bit earlier than that, in Liverpool, probably a week before Hamburg. They were on a show with Little Richard and Sam Cooke and that’s who I was touring with. We became friends because they would always come up to me and ask me about Little Richard and Sam and America and everything.
Q: Did you lose sight of them for all those years until 1968 or 1969?
B: No, I ran into them again in L.A. when they first came there, on their first trip to America, and I saw them in San Francisco, and we hung out and I went to the Cow Palace concert with them. Then I didn’t see them anymore until 1969 when I was in London with Ray Charles. He was doing a concert at the Festival Hall and George Harrison was in the audience. He didn’t know I was in the show and kept wondering if it was me. He sent a message backstage for me to call Apple the next day. I did and he invited me over. When I went down to the studio they were recording and asked me to sit in.
Q: Up until then you had made some records with organ instrumentals for Capitol, so you had to change labels.
B: Yes. That happened overnight. They asked me if I wanted to be on Apple and I said that I did but that I was on Capitol. The next day they said, “You are now on Apple.”
Q: What that, your music changed as well.
B: That was the first time I had a chance to sing and to do my own songs that I had written. It was a great outlet for me.
Q: There is a story that George Harrison wrote “What is Life”, especially for you but that in the end, he recorded it himself.
B: You mean “My Sweet Lord?”
Q: No, it’s on the same album.
B: He never told me that. We did kind of help him with “My Sweet Lord.” It originated in a dressing room. We were on a tour with Delaney and Bonnie and they asked me how to write a gospel song. So I started playing some gospel changes and that’s how the song became a song.
Q: No influence from “He’s so Fine?”
Q: You’ve played with the Stones for six or seven years, and with several Beatles on a couple of albums. Yet there’s a lot of influence from the Beatles: covers, a tribute on your latest album. But I don’t see any influence from the Stones.
B: That may be on the next album. I’ll get around to all of them, they’ve all been an influence to me. The tribute was to thank them for giving me the opportunity.
Q: What was touring with the Stones like?
B: Oh, it was fun. Wild times, all the time.
Q: People were surprised you played with the Stones. After all their lifestyle was very different from yours.
B: Yes, very much so. But it was exciting for both of us. The first time they ever played in the key of E Flat was when they played my song “Outa Space” They were thrilled because of that. When I did that song in the show and started dancing, Mick Jagger would come out and chase me around the stage and he had a thing he used to swing over the audience.
Q: Are you still in contact with the Stones?
B: I haven’t seen them lately, because I’ve been busy working on my own stuff. I had to kind of shy away from being with them sometimes because they took up a lot of time, and I had my own career.
Q: You played with the Beatles on a few McCartney songs and after that, you played with John, George, and Ringo on their solo albums. But you never played with Paul.
B: Paul was always in Europe, and I didn’t have a chance to catch up with him. The last time I saw him was at a Stones concert, but we said we’d get together, but in practice, it’s very hard.
Q: Still he did invite a lot of superstars for “Broadstreet.”
B: A lot of times they just don’t know where I am. Ringo thought I lived in New York.
Q: Speaking of superstars: you weren’t involved in the USA for Africa project.
B: I was over in Europe when they recorded that, so I missed out on that. But I just did something similar with all the stars who were born in Texas, Charlie Pride, and a lot of football players. It’s also a tribute for Africa, but it hasn’t been released yet.
Q: You worked with Syreeta a lot, but you’re not on their latest album.
B: My sweetheart, she’s great. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make it this trip because she’s recording right now. Her latest album is a solo album. We’d like to do something together again, but at the moment we are both trying to get our careers going. Sometimes when you do too much together people think that you are a permanent due.
Q: Stairsteps, an old George Harrison group, have a lot of musicians on your albums.
B: The group was great. I saw them years ago when I first went to New York to the Apollo Theater. They were little kids then. I ran into them a little while later and they’d broken up and quit the business. I got them together again, introduced them to George and he encouraged them to do an album, which I co-produced for them. A couple of them are still playing today, making disco records.
Q: And then of course there’s Ray Charles, the man who started it all.
B: Ys, that’s my idol, man. We have plans to do something together, but again the schedules are so hard to work out. But as soon as possible we’ll get together.
Q: On your more recent albums there were no superstars There was a trend for a while to invite a whole lot of guests on albums. For instance, you have worked with Stevie Wonder, Joe Walsh, the Crusaders…
B: I will do something like that eventually, but on my latest album I concentrated on doing most of it myself. With the synthesizer and everything, you don’t really need a whole lot of musicians.
Q: Do you have any idea how many records you’ve made?
B: I’ve been recording since I was 16, and I’m 38 now. So maybe an album a year.
Q: You were with A & M Records for a long time, then things were a bit messy: Motown Records, Mirror Records, two gospel LPs. Why was all that?
B: I had been with A & M for 7 years which is a long time. It ended because it seemed they had done as much as they could do and that we couldn’t get any further. Sometimes it’s good to change because I work with a lot of different audiences, and that gives me a variety of things to play, and sometimes it’s hard to be pinned down. Some people don’t work together unless they’re on the same label, and you have to look for the right combination of people, and someone who will back your records, things like that.
Q: Did Motown give you an entrance to all the Motown stars?
B: They worked pretty much together as a team, but it was hard for me to be an individual in that type of situation because I never worked that way. I did try, but it didn’t work. I had to move on.
Q: Will your new album have only your own songs or will there be covers?
B: Most of them I’m writing together with other writers, mostly lyricists. I write all the music, and sometimes I have an idea, a verse, a chorus, or something like that and I have them finish it with me. There’s about three songwriters I work with pretty regularly One is Ralph Benatar, and there’s a lady, Sylvia Smith, who’s another good lyricist to work with, and there’s Bruce Fisher.
Q: Do you have any plans for more film music? You were involved in “Fast Break.”
B: Yes, we did a film called “Blame it on the Night,” but I don’t know when it’s going to be released. It’s a kind of rock n roll film. Mick Jagger had some time to do with it, writing the screenplay or something. And I make a cameo appearance in it.
Q: Do you think you attract different audiences, doing gospel music on one end and disco on the other?
B: I don’t know. I like music. Period. Different people like different kinds of music, but I’ve been blessed to play all kinds, and I like playing classical music as much as playing reggae or anything else.
Q: Classical music? Any favorite composer?
B: Rachmaninov. My first classical piece was by him. I have a song called “Minuet For Me” on one of the albums for A & M.
Q: Does your involvement in gospel music mean that you’re religious, and how do religion and play with the Stones go together, with their rather rough reputation?
B: They’re very sweet people, underneath the image. I asked them why everyone thinks they’re devils, and they said “We just let it happen. That’s our publicity, that’s what made us famous.” They are really nice guys, but I always preach to them. I believe in God. I believe that everything that happened for me has been a blessing from God because I never auditioned or sought fame or anything like that.
Q: Did you have discussions with George Harrison about religion?
B: Yes, he shared Krishna with me. In fact, in his studio, he has a picture of Jesus, one of Krishna, of Buddha, everybody. He’s sharing his beliefs with me. Not that I’m going to cut my hair and shout “Hare Krishna” all day long.
Q: Is there another life next to music?
B: No. Music is my life. I’ve been playing since I was three years old. I never worked at any other job, I don’t know anything else but music.