Billy Preston

I Wrote a Simple Song/Music Is My Life

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Considering his church background and strong spiritual beliefs that result in songs titled "God Is Great" and "God Loves You" on both of these albums (remastered and reissued as a double disc under one cover at a bargain price in 2010), keyboardist/singer Billy Preston was as much a proponent for the secular rock, pop, and jazz of Little Richard, the Beatles, the Stones, and Ray Charles, all of whom he worked with. The latter eclectic soulman provides the basic blueprint for Preston's voice, and some of the songs on his 1971 A&M debut, I Wrote a Simple Song, right down to a version of "My Country ‘Tis of Thee" modeled after Charles' similar take on "America the Beautiful." He visits his religious roots on a funked-up "Swing Down Chariot," but the album finds its surest footing on the funky "Should've Known Better" (not to be confused with the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better"), the political yet bubbly "The Bus," and especially the percussive, impossibly catchy instrumental "Outa-Space," Preston's biggest single to date. String and horn arrangements by Quincy Jones, David T. Walker on guitars, and George Harrison on occasional lead guitar ensure that this is a professionally recorded session, even if it is somewhat scattered in its direction. Some tunes, such as the preachy let's-make-the-world-a-better-place platitudes of "The Looner Tune," don't help matters, but Preston is always committed to the material with vocals that are energized, honest, and passionate. Two years later, he followed with Music Is My Life, which contained his first and only U.S. number one hit, "Will It Go Round in Circles." In general, it was a funkier, less eclectic release, perhaps because of the participation of the Brothers Johnson on bass and guitar. A highlight is a cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird," a tough, Sly Stone styled approach that turned the song from hushed folk to thumping R&B in an audacious and successful reimagining of the Lennon-McCartney tune. Two religious tracks appear with the schlocky disco leanings of "God Loves You" in stark contrast to its lyrics, and the slower, almost swampy burn of the nearly six-minute "Make the Devil Mad (Turn on to Jesus)," a more effective way to deliver the message. The album peters out due to weaker material in its final third, but Preston works well with string accompaniment on the snoozy ballad "Heart Full of Sorrow" and closes with the autobiographical gospel title track backed only by his acoustic piano (and a little organ) where he expresses his commitment to playing music and his talent as bestowed from above.

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