BILLY PRESTON: PUTTING A JOHN HENRY ON YOUR HEART

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Billy Preston: John Henry
Without a Song
God Is Great
From I Wrote a Simple Song (A&M, 1971)

Billy Preston is one of those soul men who I’m constantly rediscovering (and damn happy when I do). I guess I don’t associate him on the same level as a Donny Hathaway or a Curtis Mayfield yet I’d be hard-pressed to ever remember being disappointed by his output and certainly, Preston’s career – especially his connection to the Beatles – is simply remarkable. I’m still bugging out at the idea that he was the first to record “My Sweet Lord” (though his version isn’t one of my favorites).

I grabbed this LP – which I hadn’t had before – at a local record store and even though “Space Race” was the big hit off it, there’s so much great material on here, the song didn’t even rank in my top 5 off the album. At this point in his career – early ’70s, just signed to A&M – Preston had a particular sound, rooted in a bluesy groove (really well heard on “Without a Song” and “God Is Great”) that I can’t get enough of. Vocally, there’s something very down home and plain about his voice – not quite as blue collar as, say, Bill Withers, but uncomplicated, earnest and effective.

My joint on here: “John Henry.” Not only do I love the songwriting but there’s something so intensely joyful about it, as irresistible a love song as any I know.

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