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That's The Way God Planned It

Billy Preston inspired love and admiration everywhere; people just adored him. If ever a musician became his music it was Billy. He had the funk from his feet to his fingertips. He was truly gifted, a child prodigy born to play. He had a wonderful singing voice too, full of soul. As a dancer, his gospel strutting was electric, organically choreographed, just exploding with energy and passion.

Billy played the organ and the electric piano for fellow artists twice as famous and sometimes twice as old as himself. His session work is so celebrated that it can overshadow his own music. Hopefully, this reissue, and that of his second album for Apple Records, Encouraging Words, will help redress the balance.

Billy had always sung, but until he signed to Apple for That’s The Way God Planned It, released in the UK in August 1969, most of his output had been instrumental. By this time, Billy was a flourishing songwriter, creating tight funky melodies and deep soulful ballads, always with direct informal lyrics. He was 22 years old, and it had taken him over a decade to reach this point. His apprenticeship had been a long one.

Billy drew the attention of the greats as a child. At aged 10, he played behind gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, and at 11 he duetted with Nat ‘King’ Cole on US TV. At 15 he played organ for Little Richard and Sam Cooke, and then for his hero Ray Charles. His instinctive playing graced key works by The Beatles and later The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Plenty more too.

Billy couldn’t help but fall in with the famous, although it was never something he courted. His first album, Sixteen Year Old Soul, came out in the States in 1963 on Derby Records, a label owned by Sam Cooke. “I’ve never asked anybody to help me or give me a break,” Billy said in 1975. “Whatever I don’t have now I believe will eventually come. Why? I have to say it’s God… the God in me”. This belief is the lyrical thrust of his classic Apple single ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’.

One such divine plan began in Germany in 1962. Billy skipped school to join a Little Richard tour of Europe, which that November took up a two-week residency at the Star-Club, Hamburg. On the same bill were The Beatles. Back home they’d just released ‘Love Me Do’; and like Billy, they too were fervent fans of Little Richard. Speaking in 1975, John Lennon recalled being in close proximity to Richard and Gene Vincent at the Star-Club: “It’s hard for people to imagine just how thrilled we, the four of us, were to even see any great rock’n’roller in the flesh and we were almost paralysed with adoration for both of them, and the side show was that Little Richard’s organist was Billy Preston. He looked about 10 then.”

It was here that The Beatles and Billy became firm friends, as Billy remembered later: “They used to come backstage and ask a lot of questions about Little Richard and America and we would jam some in the rehearsals. That’s how we got tight”. It was mutual admiration from the start. The Star-Club revue featured an extensive line-up, but as Billy admitted: “I only watched the Beatles.” He added: “They were never predictable… They used to dedicate ‘A Taste Of Honey’ and ‘Love Me Do’ to me, as they were my favourite numbers”.

Fast forward to 1969, and Billy was in London playing organ for Ray Charles. George Harrison caught Ray’s show at the Royal Festival Hall and spotted someone he recognized in the band. George said in The Beatles Anthology book: “I thought, ‘That guy looks familiar,’ but he seemed bigger than I remembered… I thought, ‘It’s Billy!’. Since we had last seen him in Hamburg in 1962, when he was just a little lad, he had grown to be six foot tall”.

George put out the word to get in touch with Billy, and coincidentally, Billy had decided to catch up with his old friends at the same time. He phoned Apple, and was invited along to 3 Savile Row. As Apple’s Derek Taylor wrote in a press release for Billy: “An hour later The Beatles are recording a song called ‘Get Back’. Paul McCartney, bearded and hair brushed back in unconscious awareness of a pre-moptop era, turns to Billy… who has just arrived, and extends an invitation to join in on the piano…”.

Those sessions were not the most relaxed that The Beatles had ever held, but Billy’s sudden presence, his natural ebullience and his instinctive, effortless playing quickly enlivened the proceedings. Said Paul in The Beatles Anthology: “Billy was brilliant — a little young whizz-kid. We’d always got on very well with him. He showed up in London and we all said ‘Oh Bill! Great — let’s have him play on a few things’. So he started sitting in on the sessions, because he was an old mate really”.

Speaking in 2003, Ringo said: “Well, Billy was, and still is, the most incredible musician. That we also knew him helped, but he just plays the right thing. Billy knows what to play and he always has. We met him when he was 16, 17, with Little Richard, but it really enhances the track what he does because it’s not only great, it’s not busy… So thank you Billy for all your help.”

After assisting his friends on ‘Get Back’, and on ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, Billy remained at The Beatles’ sessions — originally for the Get Back album, which became Let It Be, and which decades later became Let It Be…Naked. He also joined the mammoth recordings that yielded ‘Something’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ for Abbey Road. The Beatles even discussed adding him to their line up full-time. That didn’t happen of course, although in essence it actually did for a while: “They made me feel like a member of the band”, Billy remembered later. For what turned out to be their last ever live performance, Billy was indeed the Fifth Beatle. “Musically, my favourite moment was on the (Apple) roof for Let It Be,” he said. The real seal of approval came when ‘Get Back’ was issued as a single in April 1969. The label carried the unprecedented credit, ‘The Beatles with Billy Preston’.

Billy was offered a contract with Apple Records. “I said yeah, but I’m on Capitol, so the next day they said you’re now on Apple, just like that.” It was a watershed moment: “That was my first chance to produce and to do my songs,” said Billy, “and also to sing because in the beginning I was an instrumentalist.”

Three unreleased tracks from his Capitol sessions, recorded in Los Angeles with producer Wayne Schuler, were included on That’s The Way God Planned It: the soulful ‘I Want To Thank You’, the wisely-worded groover ‘Keep It To Yourself’, and ‘Hey Brother’. Versions of several others, including ‘Do What You Want’, ‘I Want To Thank You’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ and ‘What About You?’ had also been recorded at Capitol, but were remade from scratch for Apple.

New sessions for Billy’s songs — held at Abbey Road and at Olympic in Barnes, south west London — began as soon as George’s commitment to the Get Back / Let It Be project was over. By mid February 1969, a batch of new songs was complete; three of these, ‘Encouraging Words’, ‘Right Now’, and ‘Sing One For The Lord’, a unique Harrison-Preston songwriting collaboration, would be held over for Billy’s second Apple LP.

For That’s The Way… George Harrison was officially in charge of production, but it was a loose arrangement, as Billy stated in his Apple bio: “We work together and it’s a beautiful combination. Usually he just wants to be out there playing all the time.”

Derek Taylor, Apple’s press officer, visited Billy just after the London sessions began. He wrote: “Preston’s hotel room has been quiet until now. He moves over to the record player and plays an acetate of himself jamming with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Keith Richards and George Harrison. Says Billy: ‘They’re all playing on the album I’m making; and Madeline Bell and Doris Troy are doing the backing vocals’.”

That album is this album, That’s The Way God Planned It, remastered in 2010 and featuring a never-before-heard bonus track.

All but two of the 12 songs here are Billy Preston originals, and three of them were written in collaboration with Doris Troy: the feel-good ‘Everything’s Alright’ was issued as the follow-up single to ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ in October 1969; ‘Let’s All Get Together Right Now’ is a universally-themed anthem that could have come from the mighty pen of Ray Charles; while the lyrics to ‘This Is It’ read as if they were an entry from Billy’s 1969 diary: “I’ve made it!”. (After George heard Doris’ spirited backing vocals at these sessions, he offered her a deal with Apple too.)

The two cover versions on the album are Bob Dylan’s bittersweet ‘She Belongs To Me’, and ‘Morning Star’, by ‘father of the blues’ W.C. Handy. Billy played the role of Handy as a child in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues, while Nat ‘King’ Cole played Handy as an adult and sang ‘Morning Star’ on screen and on the soundtrack album.

The full force of Billy’s musical prowess was brought out by George Harrison the producer on this album. Witness, in particular, Billy’s powerhouse performances on ‘What About You’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter’, and the opener ‘Do What You Want’, which features Eric Clapton on lead guitar; Eric also plays on the title track. (Billy went on to re-make ‘Do What You Want’ for his self-titled 1976 album on A&M Records.)

When issued as a single, ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ became Billy’s breakthrough hit in Britain, reaching No. 11 in July 1969 . It had been a long road up to this point. But it was also just the beginning.

As Billy said in 1986: “Everything that’s happened to me has been the way God’s planned it ’cos I never auditioned, I never worked any other job but music and people would call me to play with them. I never like begged or asked, you know, and I feel it was a blessing. And this is the way God planned it.

BONUS TRACKS
‘Through All Times’ was recorded at Capitol Records with Wayne Schuler producing. The instrumental ‘As I Get Older’ was co-written with Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, produced by Ray Charles, and was issued as the B-side to ‘All That I’ve Got (I’m Gonna Give It To You)’, Billy’s third Apple single (Apple 21), in January 1970. The alternative version of ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ dates from the sessions at Olympic Studios in March 1969.
The previously unreleased ‘Something’s Got To Change’ was written by Billy Preston with Arthur Fullilove and Melvin Ray Jernigan, and was first recorded by Ray Charles in 1967. Billy’s version dates from early 1970 and was produced by Billy and George

Facts

Producer
George Harrison (Except tracks 2, 7, 11 & 13 Wayne Schuler; track 14 Ray Charles)
Recorded at
Olympic Studios (Except track 16 at Trident Studios)
Released (UK)
22/08/69
Released (US)
10/09/69