A key element that cannot be overlooked in the development of the Stones’ sound, both on record and on tour, was the absorption of keyboard player/performer extraordinaire Billy Preston into the Stones’ orbit.
by Marshall Bowden
In 1976 The Rolling Stones are touring Europe with a setlist emphasizing their latest album, Black and Blue. This period is frequently seen as a creative nadir and as the time that the Stones ceased to be a culturally important band, having become increasingly self-referential and less interesting. While it is true that there is filler on Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, these records start to emphasize the band trying its hand at more contemporary Black musical styles–funk, smoother R&B, and reggae. That emphasis expanded with Black and Blue, a record that was more oriented towards the groove rather than the song.
In exploring styles of Black music more recent than the blues and R&B that the Stones had originally imitated, the band began working with some different backing musicians. A key element that cannot be overlooked in the development of the Stones’ sound, both on record and on tour, was the absorption of keyboard player/performer extraordinaire Billy Preston into the Stones’ orbit.
Preston’s career can scarcely be reduced to the length of the current piece. As a child prodigy, he played gospel organ for Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland, and at the age of 12 appeared in the film St. Louis Blues, playing a young W.C. Handy alongside Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, and Ruby Dee. He played the organ in Little Richard’s touring band, meeting the pre-famous Beatles in Europe and befriending them, excited as they were to meet American roots rock musicians. Following a stint with Sam Cooke, he became the house organist on the youth coup TV program Shindig, where he was featured as well as playing behind a wide array of popular musicians who were guests on the program.
In 1967 while touring the UK as part of the Ray Charles band, Preston was invited by George Harrison to join the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions. He recorded several tracks with the group, playing Fender Rhodes electric piano, an instrument to which he could apply both his organ and piano skills, and he played with the band on their final performance atop the Apple Records offices. When the single of “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down” is released the label reads “Beatles with Billy Preston” and John Lennon is in favor of making Preston a full member of The Beatles.
Preston continued to work with all the members of The Beatles even after they broke up and all had solo projects. He was also signed to Apple Records and recorded two albums for the label. He was particularly close to George Harrison and participated in both the Concert for Bangladesh and Harrison’s 1974 tour of North America.
But during the period 1971-1976, Preston had another high profile gig. He contributed to every album The Rolling Stones cut during those years and he became a regular member of their touring ensemble, replacing Nicky Hopkins, who had health issues.
Preston’s first appearances, on Sticky Fingers, are both as part of the ensemble, adding swirling texture to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (Nicky Hopkins plays piano on the track) and being mixed behind a horn section on “I Got the Blues.” Preston only plays on one track from Exile on Main Street, but it’s a touchstone song, “Shine a Light,” the penultimate track on the two-LP release. Mick Jagger brought Preston in to overdub piano and organ on the track as well as adding backup singers to create a gospel group effect. supposedly inspired by a visit to the church where Aretha Franklin was recording what would become the live gospel album and film Amazing Grace.
“Shine a Light” is a real epiphany, a diamond at the end of the long, weary road that is Exile on Main Street. Preston gets to set the tone immediately, backing Jagger’s vocal with declamatory blues/rock piano and a soothing gospel organ that springs directly from his early years with Mahalia Jackson. Even after the band kicks in, Preston maintains control of the track. There’s a guitar solo, a good one, but the energy belongs to Preston and Charlie Watts as they lift the old Stones plane up and off the ground for one more soaring flight. There’s also the organ plus acoustic piano combo that bands began to sport around this time. The Band, Procol Harum, and Emerson Lake & Palmer all had such a lineup. It’s a classic rock sound that more recent artists like Sheryl Crow have used to give their music a similar feel to that of the early 1970s.
Next up is Goats Head Soup, an album that was first marked by some reviewers as a step down from the previous release though time has been relatively kind to this record. Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart are all over this album, and Billy Preston might not have appeared on the record at all but for his proficiency with the clavinet. Preston had already a hit record with his instrumental “Outta Space” which featured a clavinet run through a wah-wah pedal. On the Goats Head Soup track “100 Years Ago” Preston’s clavinet is the only keyboard, adding a fuzzy quality to the track, which otherwise seems to have a country feel, at least until Mick Taylor’s wah-wah guitar solo. But the most amazing track to utilize Preston’s clavinet is “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”, a barn burning, full-on funky track that tosses everything into the mix: clavinet, rock guitar, gospel backup singers, and some stark, violent imagery.
It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is Mick Taylor’s final album as a member of the Rolling Stones and it tries to consolidate the band’s straightforward rock with Jagger’s wish to expand beyond the group’s version of blues-rock. The opening salvo of three tracks points towards a return to form, but the rest of the album edges farther out along the edge of trial and error. Preston plays a major role on the hit version of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” playing a Motown-inspired piano as well as adding clavinet. By now the clavinet was firmly established as part of the funk soundscape thanks to Stevie Wonder and many other artists as well. But It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll has its share of dreck, including, for many, the album’s final track, “Fingerprint File,” a song written in response to revelations that the FBI kept active files on many counterculture figures. A throwaway track to a lot of Stones fans, but it is a solid soul-funk jam that keeps reappearing in various guises moving forward. This track is the real gateway to Black and Blue, the 1976 album that completed the down escalator ride many saw the Stones as having been on since completing Exile on Main Street.
There is some evidence that Black and Blue will come in for some overdue reassessment soon. No one is going to argue that it is the best Rolling Stones album, but as a transitional album, it occupies a unique space in the Stones’ discography. Keith Richards stated, speaking of Goats Head Soup, that the band felt they no longer really had to worry about hit singles and could explore music they wanted to play. That happened on Goats Head Soup as the band explored funk, modern R&B, and reggae, combining it with a ballad and a couple of flat out rockers. Contributing to the jam atmosphere on Black and Blue was the fact that the sessions were also used to audition a few prospective replacements for Mick Taylor.
Billy Preston was given more free reign than ever. He plays piano on the funk opener “Hot Stuff” and the rock closer “Crazy Mama,” and adds a synth line to “Memory Motel.” But the two tracks where his influence is deeply felt are the two tracks that open side two, “Hey Negrita” and “Melody.” Preston plays piano and organ on both. Though “Hey Negrita” is a guitar-driven track featuring Ron Wood, Preston lends some tasteful piano fills and generally helps establish the track’s groove. “Melody” features Preston on piano (foreground) and organ (background) as well as on vocals with Jagger. Though the song is listed, like the other originals on Black and Blue, as written by Jagger/Richards the track carries the note ‘Inspiration by Billy Preston.” That’s not a songwriting credit that gets you royalties, and when Bill Wyman recorded the song with his side band The Rhythm Kings he credited it to Preston. Billy also played on two tracks from this time that didn’t resurface until the band’s 1981 album Tattoo You: “Slave” and “Worried About You.”
Billy Preston went out on tour with The Rolling Stones for both the American tour in 1975, which focused mostly on It’s Only Rock & Roll and introducing Ron Wood as the newest member of the band, and the European tour in 1976, which focused on the newly released Black and Blue. For both shows Preston was given a feature spot during the performance, a mini-set of around ten minutes during which he would play songs from his own albums, including “Outta Space,” “That’s Life,” and “Nothin’ from Nothin’.” He can also be heard on the Stones album Love You Live which was pulled from performances on the ’76 tour. Preston left the Stones afterward, reportedly unhappy with the lack of credit for “Melody” and other contractual issues.