We rarely remember our first developmental moments. First time eating, first time talking, first time walking. But one first I will never forget is the first album that I remember hearing, and this memory has changed my life forever.
Billy Preston, a singer and keyboardist whose work spanned multiple genres, was widely considered to be the fifth Beatle and was the only non-Beatle musician to be credited as a co-performer on any of their releases with the group’s 1969 single, “Get Back.” Preston was a child prodigy and never had any music lessons, but was an absolute master of the Hammond organ. His playing was easily identifiable as he injected his soul and spirituality into his craft. Highly respected and recognized by his peers and fellow musicians, he was a bona fide industry star.
His sixteenth studio album, “Late at Night” was released in 1979, and was deemed a commercial failure at the time, despite the hit duet “With You I’m Born Again” with Syreeta Wright becoming a top five charting single on the Billboard Hot 100. Randomly enough, my mom had this album in her “jukebox” bag of era-defining cassettes. At the suggestion of her good friend, she bought this obscure album. When she pressed play, the intro track “Give It Up, Hot” lightning electrified through the speakers, hitting me like nothing I had ever experienced before. For a five-year-old kid, this was the greatest thing I had ever heard in my entire life.
Listening through the rest of the album, these songs flooded my auditory senses one by one, filling my mind with groovy basslines, punchy orchestral strings, and energetic, up-tempo instrumentals. I replayed this album over and over, and I gradually learned the words to every single song. At the time, it was hard to believe that something that sounded this great could exist, and years later I reflect on how so many people who have never heard this album, never experienced the same feelings that I did when I first listened.
In my early twenties (2000), I was fortunate enough to meet Billy at a show he did in Fort Lauderdale. It was shocking to witness him playing in a venue that could best be described as a strip mall dance studio with about sixty people in attendance. Far beneath the star power that he once held. This was Billy Preston, the same guy who had performed with The Beatles in front of 30-40,000 people! After his first set, he took an intermission and went to a small, partitioned room across from the stage. Nervously, I made my way to the back, trying to work up the courage to speak to him and tell him how much his music meant to me. After rehearsing my lines, I approached a cigarette-smoking, hunched-over man. In a heartfelt manner, I said to him “Mr. Preston, I just want you to know that your ‘Late at Night’ album meant so much for so many reasons.” What I perceived to be a broken man quietly said back to me, “that means a lot to me kid, thank you.” There was so much more “why” I wanted to explain to him, but my past lined up with his past and that appeared to be too painful for him.
“Late at Night,” to me, was how I thought music should sound, and nothing ever sounded like music to me unless it was this. Who would have thought that an album by an artist that wasn’t even of my generation would shape the way I listened to and enjoyed music for the rest of my life? I don’t remember Mr. Preston as the man I met one night late into his life, I remember the man who formed my first memories and planted the seed of music. A seed that has continued to grow and germinate, leading to my deep love for R&B and soul. Even in other genres I listen to, I search for that rhythm, I always look for those soulful elements that I otherwise would have never picked up on, had it not been for the “Late at Night” album.
Why you act so blase
Life will slip away
Let me show you how
Turn up the heat right now
Give it up, hot!Like the songs you hear on King’s Passage? Then check out the KP Jukebox playlist on Spotify!