Say the name Billy Preston, and two images come to mind: the unofficial “fifth Beatle” who played with the band during the famous rooftop concert and played the legendary solo on “Get Back”; or the 1970s star who scored hits such as “Will It Go Round in Circles,” “Nothing from Nothing,” “Born Again,” and “Outta Space.” But in between these two phases, Preston recorded two albums for the Beatles’ label, and George Harrison co-produced the two LPs. The first, 1969′s That’s the Way God Planned It, received more exposure through Preston’s enthusiastic performance of the title song during the Concert for Bangladesh. However, his second and final album for Apple, 1970′s Encouraging Words, managed to fall through the cracks during Apple’s gradual implosion. With 2010′s release of remastered Apple albums, Encouraging Words has deservedly earned a new listening.
A gifted organist, piano player, and songwriter, Preston first met The Beatles while playing with Little Richard in 1962. After reconnecting with Harrison in 1969, Preston found himself sitting in on the infamous “Get Back” sessions, where the feuding band members tried to create a roots rock album. Preston’s presence became so important to the Beatles that they awarded him with co-billing on their “Get Back” single. John Lennon even recommended that Preston become a permanent member of the Beatles, which obviously never happened. But Harrison appreciated Preston’s work enough that he signed Preston away from his previous label, Capitol, and co-produced the singer/songwriter’s two Apple albums.
Harrison’s clout also allowed Preston to play with top musicians, including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann, and members of Delaney and Bonnie’s band. All of these musicians, including Harrison, provided funky backing for Preston’s gospel-drenched, soul-filled vocals. Each track on Encouraging Words serves as an unofficial tribute to his mentor, Ray Charles; imagine Charles covering Let It Be’s “I’ve Got A Feeling,” and you get the idea of Preston’s approach. Harrison’s fingerprints adorn the album as well with tracks like “Sing One for the Lord,” where the Beatle plays solo guitar straight out of his later hit “What Is Life.” Preston’s piano solo derives straight from the church, while he expertly leads the choir.
He gives a similar treatment to the first version of “My Sweet Lord,” where he turns the All Things Must Pass classic into a rocking hymn. Many do not realize that it was Preston who first recorded the song, not Harrison. While Harrison’s acoustic makeover became the bigger hit, Preston’s gospel-filled take does equal justice to Harrison’s uplifting lyrics. In another great act of generosity, Harrison gave the pianist another song: “All Things Must Pass.” Many years later, Preston would perform both that song and “My Sweet Lord” for the tribute Concert for George, successfully combining the spiritual and secular aspects of both tracks.
While Encouraging Words’ covers inspire awe, Preston’s original songs deserve equal praise. “Little Girl” proves that Preston could convincingly sing the blues and communicate passion and longing. This slow burn ballad sounds reminiscent of Otis Redding ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The blues continues with “The Same Thing Again,” with Stax-like horns adding some grit to Preston’s lyrics describing the ups and downs of love. Not all of Encouraging Words’ songs concern heartache and melancholy; “Let the Music Play” contains sheer joy, with Preston’s organ and unusual harmonies during the chorus propelling the hard-driving song.
Another outstanding track is “I Don’t Want You to Pretend,” which starts out as a slow, moody tune, only to erupt into Preston’s ebullient piano playing and a bass-laden drum beat thumping during the chorus. The title track involves just that–encouraging words about staying in school, keeping the faith, and being thankful. His slightly raspy vocals inspires listeners to keep their heads up, with his piano adding a touch of gospel to the proceedings.
Despite positive reviews, Encouraging Words failed to reach a massive audience. In fact, it sadly became the most obscure album of Apple’s major artists, barely cracking the bottom of the album charts. However, it did reach number 50 on the Billboard Soul LPs chart on March 13, 1971. No hit single emerged, and it was buried amid Apple’s escalating struggles to stay alive. But the album certainly furthers Preston’s musical goal, as he stated in a 1970s interview posted on Apple’s website:
My message is to change the image of most entertainers as “stars,” singing lollipop shit. I want to give people something that they’ll really remember, to help their lives, to try and make them forget about all the rest of the shit that’s going on, to give them something solid — and what I’m talking about is God — a good, solid message that makes you think.
Encouraging Words accomplishes these objectives and more; it contains positive, very human messages while incorporating foot-stomping funk, soul, and gospel. Other than The Beatles’ albums, Preston’s second disc remains my favorite of the Apple Records catalog. Pick up the remastered version and treat yourself to the work of a joyful, truly inspired–and greatly missed–artist.