By Ray Chelstowski
By the time Billy Preston was 20 he had experienced more than most do in a lifetime. A self-taught musical prodigy he made an appearance on Nat King Cole’s NBC network show performing the Fats Domino song “Blueberry Hill.” He was only 11 years old. By the age of 15, Preston was on the road touring with Little Richard. However, it was his contribution to Sam Cooke’s critically acclaimed album Night Beat that convinced Sam to get Preston in the studio to record his own material. Those sessions became the long lost record 16 Yr. Old Soul, released on Cooke’s own label.
Preston wouldn’t remain “lost” for long. In 1965 Capitol Records got him back into the studio and there he laid down a bunch of tracks. Nine of them wound up together on the brilliant album The Wildest Organ InTown. They are mostly modern day hits seen through the lens of soul music- and a hefty Hammond B3 organ. Produced and arranged by Sly Stone songs like James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” take on a party persona arriving here like the output of some fantastic pre session warm up jam. A cover of “Hard Day’s Night” is slowed way down and is rightfully compared to Vanilla Fudge’s take on “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Preston applies the B3 with passion and just a bit of drama, but nothing that keeps the record from being an all-out fun ride.
Alongside the covers are some Preston/Stone compositions like “Advice” and “Free Funk”. These songs wonderfully compliment the better known material and tip a hand to what great creative output was waiting to be unleashed from them both. The two would quietly collaborate again in the future (Preston played keys on “Everyday People”). But nothing as involved as this.
The record was rereleased in 1970 on the budget label Pickwick as Organ Transplant. It’s not a very long ride. Each side clocks in at just over 10 minutes. That aside, it is a reminder of how at his core Preston was a world class performer (he would later demonstrate that his songwriting chops weren’t too bad either). His capacity at the keyboard was something that would ultimately make him the most sought after side man in popular music. From these sessions Billy would join the Ray Charles’ band and then reunite with the Beatles who he had just met in Hamburg. From there, the rest as they say is history. Organ Transplant precedes all of that fanfare, and simply puts a spotlight on a remarkable talent that was just about to enter chapter two of a profoundly prolific career.