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.