August 8 – The Day A London Crosswalk Became A Tourist Attraction

If you happened to be in London 53 years ago this morning, you might have seen rock and roll history being made out on the street. One of rock’s most famous album covers was created on this day in 1969…just by having The Beatles walk across the street.

The Fab Four were close to wrapping up the recording of the last album they’d make, Abbey Road and of course Apple Records were anxious to strike while the iron was hot and get it done and out to the fans who were perhaps starting to wane just a wee bit that year. The recording was been done at the EMI Studios located on Abbey Road , not far from Grove End Road and Regent’s Park in London’s north end.

On this particular day, it’s said they were working on the John Lennon song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” , which he’d written about Yoko. The album was close to completion but lacked a name and image. They’d had a tentative idea of calling it Everest but when the label decided that the appropriate cover should be them in the Himalayas, the band changed its mind and opted for the simple one they used. Given Abbey Road to work with, creative designer John Koss came up with the idea of having them walk across the real Abbey Road. That was easy and didn’t require a lot of extra time spent together, so John, Paul, George and Ringo liked it.

That put the pressure on photographer Iain MacMillan, who was hired to do the shot. Since it was a real road through a busy city, and the band were at each other’s throats and wanted to be done with it, he had to be quick. City police gave him 10 minutes during which they’d shut down the road to stop traffic and let the cover take shape. He had them walk across several times, and after climbing up a small ladder to get the right angle, took just six photos. Paul looked at the contact sheet through a loupe and picked the one which would make history.

The now-iconic cover came out more or less just like Kosh had imagined, including the lack of info. It was unusual to say the least, in lacking the band name or title on the front. The record company was irate apparently, but Kosh insisted the band was so well known no title was necessary for fans to recognize it for what it was.

He was right of course. When the album came out about a month or so later, it was an instant success and well-liked for some of the standout tunes, including the single “Come Together” (lyrics of which had just been written by Lennon during the bed-in he and Ono had in Montreal) and George’s best contributions to the band catalog, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” He also recorded a demo for “All Things Must Pass” for the record, but it was turned down and was made into the title track of his mammoth post-Beatles solo debut.

Now, while some merely saw it as a cover photo, showing the band members and what they looked like in the here and now, others read into it much more deeply. There was already a conspiracy theory saying that Paul had died and been replaced by an impostor and the cover fueled the fire. The “Paul is Dead” lobby pointed to the VW Beetle in the background. The license plate had the number/letter combo “28IF” as a part of it… because Paul would have been “28 IF” he had lived they suggested!

More telling to them, the outfits the Beatles wore for it. To them, it suggested the imagery of a funeral. John led the way dressed in white… a priest or minister. Then came Ringo, in a black suit…like an undertaker. Trailing was George, dressed casually in jeans… ready to dig a grave. And then there was the third one, Paul (or the impostor Paul, they believed.) He was barefoot… like a corpse ready to be buried. And what’s more, he was holding a cigarette (note that if you have some of the newer copies of it, the smoke has been airbrushed out) …with his right hand! Since Paul was left, they theorized that the real Paul would always hold a cigarette with his writing hand. Wrong hand, wrong Paul. Simple.

Of course, to most it now seems “rubbish” as the Brits would say. MacMillan has shown some of the alternate shots taken which show Paul wearing sandals for other photos; he was apparently hot and found the footware too tight and kicked them off for a couple of photos. And when the Beatles played on the Apple roof months later, Paul was playing his bass left-handed as always which would be very difficult for a right-handed impostor the suspicious believed had taken over.

A fun story for a great album, and a photo which lives on almost as strongly as the music on it. Not only did the Red Hot Chili Peppers imitate it for a cover on one of their records, pop icons from The Simpsons to Lego characters have taken their own take on it, and the zebra-striped crosswalk is one of the most famous and popular tourist sites in Britain for music fans to this day.

Maybe it’s a good thing Ian wasn’t given the whole day to get the photo.

August 5 – Beatles Set Sail With ’66’s Super-single

If about four years in it seemed like The Beatles were a band for everyone, the Fab Four seemed to want to make sure no one felt excluded. Not even little children. So they set out to remedy that possible previous oversight on this day in 1966 with the release of the single “Yellow Submarine.” It was the first single off the great Revolver album which came out the same day.

Yellow Submarine” was different from their past hits in a couple of notewothy ways. First, although it was written primarily by Paul McCartney, it was the first one of their hits sung by Ringo Starr (and ended up being by far the biggest hit he’d sing for them.) Secondly, and obviously it was a rather silly or childish tune, sounding quite unlike most of what was on hit radio at the time. Which, perhaps it could be said was very characteristic of The Beatles in the mid-’60s: going where no band had gone before.

Although credited to Lennon & McCartney, and even though some of the music for the verse part was conceived by John, it was clearly a Paul song. Lennon later said of it, “it’s Paul’s baby…Paul’s inspiration, Paul’s title.” McCartney said he began it “thinking of a song for Ringo…so I wrote it not so rangey in the vocal, then started making a story. Sort of an ancient mariner (story).” He adds it “began as being about different colored submarines, but evolved to include only a yellow one…it’s a happy place. We were trying to write a children’s song. There’s nothing more to be read into it.” One person who actually added to the lyrics was Donovan, who was hanging out with Paul and suggested the “sky of blue, sea of green” line. Donovan himself would have a hit later in the year with another sunny-colored song, “Mellow Yellow.”

They recorded the song in five takes in May of ’66 and then let George Martin go to work six days later, adding special sound effects. Martin’s experience doing comedy records for The Goon Show helped out as he was a master of sound effects. Some examples included having John blow through a straw into a bowl of water for gurgling water sounds, having studio crew whip chains around for the nautical feel and getting Ringo to yell about “drop the cables” outside the studio door to get the faraway effect. A number of visitors added some backing vocals including Patti Boyd, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and their friend Marianne Faithful.

It was a bold and unusual choice for a first single off an album, but it worked. With the great “Eleanor Rigby” on the b-side , it hit #1 in the UK (their 11th chart-topping single in their homeland) and Canada and a respectable #2 in the U.S., where it sold well enough to give them their 15th gold single in about three years. And so enduring was the popularity for them that it was turned into an animated movie two years later, and re-released on a soundtrack to that.

The real diehard fan might want to visit Liverpool and John Lennon Airport. There one will find a 51-foot metal yellow submarine placed outside in honor of the song, and the city’s most famous entertainers.

July 23 – Baseball Has Its All Star Game; Music Its All Starr Band

What’s a great drummer with years of hits behind him but no band to play them with anymore to do? Well, if you’re Ringo Starr and it’s 1989, you “went through my phone book, rang up a few friends and asked them if they’d like to have fun in the summer.”

Ringo needs no introduction of course, but by then he’d fallen into the realm of “what ever happened to?” shows. He’d last put out an album in 1983, and last hit the charts two years before that with the song “Wrack My Brain,” which only barely scraped into the North American top 40. But he wanted to play and realized there was a huge market wanting to see him play some of his own hits as well as Beatles music. Thus was born the idea of his All Starr Band, which premiered this night 33 years back at the Park Central Ampitheatre in Dallas.

Rolling Stone once noted “ultimately what’s most impressive about Ringo Starr isn’t what he’s been, but rather who he is – the man’s great heart and soul, his wit and wisdom.” A fair assessment (one might also add in his astounding energy even to this day!), and no doubt made it very easy for him to round up some friends who indeed wanted to have some fun with him that summer. His idea was rather a clever and new one. Instead of just recruiting new members to replace John, Paul and George and play Beatles and Ringo songs, why not get friends who are great musicians in their own right and let them play some of their own material in the show as well? It would be difficult for any musician to turn that down, when asked by someone like Ringo. But still, apparently Todd Rundgren and Peter Frampton did say no, but only because of prior engagements. Both joined later editions of the All Starr Band.

But he had plenty of star talent with him for the ’89 tour. Although there were one or two occasional fill-ins for a night or two, the opening night lineup was pretty much the standard for the tour : “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston on keyboards and acting as “music director”, Dr.John on piano, drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko from The Band, well-respected session drummer Jim Keltner (who’d played with the likes of John Lennon, Roy Orbison and the Bee Gees before), guitar legend Joe Walsh, and the E Street Band’s “big man,” saxophonist Clarence Clemons as well as its guitarist Nils Lofgren. Of course, in the spirit of having fun, several of the artists got to change instruments for a song or two; Helm played the mandolin at times, Lofgren the accordion and Walsh did a tasteful piano bit on “Desperado.” That being typical of the non-Ringo songs covered (it should be noted that while Ringo sang his own songs, obviously, and Beatles ones, he let the other guys step up to the mic to sing their own hits) ; the fourth song of the night was “such A Night” by Dr. John, who also did his ’70s hit “Right Place, Wrong Time”. Walsh closed the main set with an odd “Rocky Mountain Way” which included some of the traditional “Amazing Grace.” Nils Lofgren sang “Shine Silently,” while fans found that Clemons can sing when he’s not blowing on the sax. Along with Billy Preston, the “big man” sang “You’re A Friend of Mine,” a tune he’d done with Jackson Browne in ’85. The Band were represented by songs like “The Weight” (Levon helm singing) and “The Shape I’m In” (Rick Danko.) But doubtless the highlight for most was Ringo doing his thing. He opened the show with “It Don’t Come Easy,” followed by the “No No Song” and then the first Beatles number of the night, “Yellow Submarine.” He’d run through others like “Act Naturally,” “You’re Sixteen” and “Back Off Boogaloo” and come on back with “Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” again and “With a Little Help From My Friends” as an encore.

The show was by all accounts a major hit, and he continued on doing 34 shows in 29 cities by September 4, when he finished it in L.A. Among the cities were six Canadian ones. They resumed at the end of October and played a number of shows in Japan, including two at the famous Budokan Theater.

While his setlist stayed reasonably constant through the tour, he added in “Get Back”, with Billy Preston singing, for the Japanese shows. Along the way, he periodically had other friends drop by. For instance, at a Holmden, NewJersey show in August, two more E Street Band members showed up. Roy Bittan played some keyboards for Joe Walsh and none other than Bruce Springsteen himself came by to play guitar on four songs. Paul Shaffer came to the final L.A. show to play keyboards and their finale saw actors John Candy and Chevy Chase singing backup!

No doubt it made it even harder for other musicians to resist when Starr came calling in future years. Among the long and talented list of musicians who’ve worked in his All Starr Band through the decades are the aforementioned Frampton and Rundgren, plus Randy Bachman, Dave Edmunds, Mark Farner of Grand Funk, Greg Lake, Graham Gouldman from 10CC, Howard Jones and one female All Starr – Sheila E.

Ringo’s back at it this summer, his age of 82 not standing in the way of a good show. This time he’s joined by Men At Work’s Colin Hay, Edgar Winter, drummer Gregg Bissonette (David Lee Roth’s band among others), Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band and Warren Ham of Kansas who plays everything from keyboards to flutes. By all accounts the show’s are wonderful and high energy, and they resume Sep. 5 in Massachusetts and work their way west through the East coast then the Canadian mid-section, to L.A. On Oct. 16 and then two shows in Mexico.

I love being in a band,” Ringo declares brightly. And we love you being in a band, Ringo, I’m sure we agree.

July 15 – Elton Began His Radio Reign 50 Years Ago

Maybe this was the day Elton John became a superstar 50 years ago. Because it was on this day in 1972, Honky Chateau, his sixth album hit #1 in the U.S. It was his first, but most definitely not his last chart-topper in the huge market where he first really made a name for himself.

Mind you, Elton was already well-known and a star on the rise by then. The previous year, his Madman Across the Water hit the American top 10 and delivered the now-classic “Tiny Dancer”; that came months after his first major hit song, “Your Song.” But with Honky Chateau, and its singles “Rocketman” and “Honky Cat”, his popularity was taken to the next level.

To get to #1, it had to dethrone the Rolling Stones, knocking their Exile on Main Street from the top spot. It would spend five weeks – most of that summer – as the top-seller in the land before Chicago finally knocked it out of #1. But he wouldn’t be out of the top spot for long. In fact Honky Chateau was the first of six-straight albums he put out to go to #1 in the U.S. It was followed by Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player , Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou, his Greatest Hits package, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in fact was the top album of all of 1974; Greatest Hits #1 for 1975. In fact, by the end of 1975, he’d spent a remarkable 39 weeks at #1. In that time span, he put out 14 hit singles, plus “Candle in the Wind” which of course later became a smash hit in the ’90s.

How does that compare to other all-time greats? Well, it doesn’t eclipse the records of the Beatles. They put together a string of nine-straight #1 albums, from Beatles 65 through “the White Album”; the streak only ended with the Yellow Submarine soundtrack which got stalled at #2. But compared to his contemporaries, Elton was king of the hill. For instance, the Eagles, perhaps the next-biggest act of the ’70s, only had four #1s total, including their Greatest Hits. Later on, the “King of Pop”, Michael Jackson took his Thriller to #1 (his first) as well as his next four, upto and including 2001’s Invincible. Neither Bruce Springsteen, nor Madonna equaled it either.

All good things must come to an end though, and for Elton it was his late-1976 Blue Moves, an album generally regarded as only “so-so”. It topped out at #3 and it would be 18 years until he had another #1, that being the Lion King soundtrack.

July 7 – Nothing Opaque About Summer Of Love Anthem

Happy birthday to Ringo Starr, who turns 82 today. We hope he’ll be having a happy day and perhaps taking it easy…because 82 or not, he’s back on the road this fall with an extensive tour set to play North American places as far-flung as Clearwater, Florida, Laval, Quebec and Mexico City! No surprise given the international adoration and respect the Beatles earned. Speaking of which, The Beatles were on top of their game this day in 1967.

Riding high on the album charts with Sgt.Pepper… they released the “Anthem of the Summer of Love” this day as standalone single. “All You Need Is Love” would go on to hit #1 in the UK, U.S., Canada and many other countries and become their 17th gold or platinum single in the States. The song had been premiered on TV in June as part of the ambitious Our World. That was an unprecedented six hour show taking place around the world and broadcast via satellite to over 20 nations. While things like Marshall McLuhan being interviewed in Toronto and subway construction taking place in Tokyo were interesting, The Beatles were the highlight to most and wrote the song especially for it. Due to the international nature of the show, they wanted something easy to understand and got it. As Brian Epstein says, “the nice thing about it is that it cannot be misinterpreted.” John Lennon had written the lyrics, saying “I’m a revolutionary artist. My art is dedicated to change.”

His hand-written lyrics were sold for 1 million pounds (about $1.75 million today) in 2005. Although it was only a single at the time, the song later found its way onto their Yellow Submarine soundtrack and Magical Mystery Tour in North America.

June 26 – Title Explains How They Did So Much, Perhaps

Their seemingly superhuman musical abilities were matched only by their superhuman energy levels. Or so it seemed of The Beatles in 1964. They could write and record songs at the drop of a hat, tour the world, and become film stars to boot during their off-hours! Only four months after exploding on the U.S. scene via the Ed Sullivan Show, they were out with their fourth North American album, A Hard Day’s Night. This came a few weeks before the opening of the film of the same name, in which they starred, and two weeks before Brits themselves (as well as the rest of Europe and Australia) got their copies. However, as was usually the case with Beatles releases back then, it was a little confusing and the Europeans probably found the wait was worth it because the American and European albums were quite different!

The British one (with the familiar blue-trimmed cover and a grid of 20 B&W headshots of the band ) contained more original songs, 13 in all. The North American issue, the only one which came out on United Artists, had a red-trimmed cover, with larger, individual photos of each band member, had eight of the same songs plus four instrumentals scored by George Martin that were from the actual film. The Brits got added songs “Any Time At All,” “Things We Said Today”, “When I Get Home” (the three which would come out later in the summer on Something New here) plus “You Can’t Do That” and “I’ll Be Back.”

What didn’t differ was that no matter where you bought it, it contained some future Beatles classics and was their first entry they’d written entirely themselves – or actually, John and Paul had. It was very much a Lennon & McCartney vehicle, even if George did play a more prominent role with his Rickenbacker 12-string than before and get to sing “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.” Ringo’s only contribution writing-wise, seemed to be originating the title, through a “Ringo-ism” someone at the record company had overheard.  Among the featured songs were the iconic title track, “And I Love Her”, “Tell Me Why” and the already-released single “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

Not surprisingly, the album and the single “A Hard Day’s Night” hit #1 in North America, the UK, Australia, Germany and quite a few other places; “And I Love Her” was released as a single in North America, and was a rarity for them then in, while not flopping, not being a chart topper (it hit #15 in the States, #12 in Canada.)

Of course, the album’s importance became clearer as time went by; it represented a leap forward for them and pointed the direction to what they’d be doing soon with records like Rubber Soul. Both Rolling Stone and allmusic rank it a perfect 5-star rating; Q magazine put it at #5 on their list of greatest British albums of all-time. But perhaps the best summation of the record comes from the book Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyonce : “if you had to explain the Beatles impact to a stranger, you’d play them the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night.”

June 18 – 80? Maybe We’re Amazed

One of rock music’s true living legends turns 80 today. Happy birthday Sir Paul McCartney! Few rock stars are household names even in houses that never listen to pop or rock, but Paul is one of those few. Knighted by the queen, first non-American to be awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music by the Library of Congress, 21 #1 songs with The Beatles in the U.S. plus 9 more since as a solo artist or with Wings… there’s so much to be said about Paul but so little to add to the well-known bio. So instead, we’ll look at Paul in words – words of his own and those of others.

Paul Reflects:

* “I don’t work at being ordinary.”

* “I can’t deal with the press…I hate all those Beatles questions.”

* “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” (Paul is a well-known and outspoken vegetarian, as was his deceased wife Linda.)

* “We were pretty good mates, until the Beatles started to split up and Yoko came into it.” (Speaking about his relationship with John Lennon.)

I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others ‘weird’ that are weird.”

Others Talk Paul:*

* “Paul McCartney is a genius. Paul married rock and roll to beauty and forever raised the bar for composers, musicians and fans.” – actor Alec Baldwin

* “Within the confines of the studio, Paul was the one who sort of saved the situation always and the one who always went that little bit extra to perfect things.” – EMI Records’ engineer Geoff Emerick

* “I’d put Gershwin, Berlin and Hank Williams. I’d probably put Paul McCartney in there too.” Paul Simon answers who he thinks the greatest songwriters of all-time are.

* “Paul was the first love of my life. Yoko was the second.” – John Lennon

* “I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all.” – folk singer & Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.

If you want to see the living legend, you’ll have your chance this summer… if you’re in Britain. He’s playing this year’s Glastonbury Festival next week. However, sadly us North Americans have missed out, it seems for this year as he just wrapped up a tour Thursday at Metlife Stadium outside of New York City. And he wrapped it up in style, doing a 40 song show (a bit longer than his usual , though the average for the tour which kicked off April 28 in Spokane was over 30 songs and two hours plus length), highlighted by Bruce Springsteen dropping by to wish him an early Happy Birthday and sing “Glory Days” with him, and Jon Bon Jovi also coming by to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Among the songs he did were 16 Beatles songs in the main part of the concert including “Lady Madonna,” “Love Me Do” and “Hey Jude” , which ended the set. In addition he added in eight Wings songs including “Live and Let Die” and “Jet” plus some of his solo ones. Then he played an encore of “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “Birthday”, “Helter Skelter”, “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry that Weight” and “The End.” An Asbury Park news report said McCartney seemed to get more energetic as the night went by, despite it raining at times, and that “he kicked and skipped as he and his band were taking their bows with Springsteen.” Which gives one hope that maybe we will indeed do what he said before leaving the stage: “We’ll see you next time!”

June 13 – The Great Road Reached Its Dead End

A dead end sign. That was perhaps what The Beatles found at the end of their journey. The end of “The Long and Winding Road” as it were… which was their final #1 hit, getting to the top of Billboard this day 52 years ago. The 1970 hit was their 20th, and final chart-topper in the States and came months after the band had actually disbanded. The next time the public would see a Beatle at #1 would be the end of that year when George Harrison got there with “My Sweet Lord.”

The Long and Winding Road” also got to #1 in Canada, but didn’t do nearly as well in most other markets, perhaps fittingly since it is one of the most controversial of Beatles songs.

Like so many of the other songs they put out at the tail-end of the ’60s (or in this case, the sunrise of the ’70s), while credited to the Beatles, it was very close to a solo work of one of them. In this case, Paul McCartney. He wrote it (although, true to Beatles form it is listed on records as “Lennon-McCartney”) while on a break at a farm he owned in Scotland. “I just sat down at my piano in Scotland, started playing and came up with that song, imagining it to be done by someone like Ray Charles. I have always found inspiration in the calm beauty of Scotland.” He would add, “it’s rather a sad song. I like writing sad songs… it saves having to go to a psychiatrist.”

He played a demo of it for Tom Jones, of all people, but Jones turned it down. So he took it to his bandmates, and they recorded two takes of it in early-’69, for what was going to be the “Get Back” project. The band wanted to get back to their roots and have simpler music, so for this one both Paul and Billy Preston, who was sitting in, playing electric piano, were at keyboards leaving John to play bass, oddly enough. George and Ringo played their usual instruments in a rather toned down fashion.

Get Back” the album got delayed and of course became Let It Be. The controversy came about when they decided to bring in Phil Spector – the “Wall of Sound” guy – to do a final mix and take at producing it after George Martin had left the room. Spector wanted anything but a simpler sound, and brought in a full orchestra – two dozen musicians plus a choir of 14 – to fill out the sparse song. Of the “Fab Four”, only Ringo was present in the studio that day in April ’70. He recalled that “Spector wanted tape echo on everything” and that he was throwing such tantrums that the orchestra refused to go on at one point. Anyway, he mixed in the orchestra and then asked all four if they were ok with the new mix. All four said they were.

We all said ‘yes’. Even at the beginning, Paul,” Ringo says. “He said, ‘yeah, it’s OK’. Then suddenly he didn’t want it to go out.” Indeed McCartney was furious and hated the new version which was rushed to the stores only days later. He later cited it as one of the main reasons he broke up the Beatles.

Critics weren’t all that much fonder of it than Paul was. Melody Maker said “Spector’s orchestrations add to the Bacharach atmosphere” which no one wanted on a Beatles record while Rolling Stone called it “virtually unlistenable with hideously cloying strings and a ridiculous choir.” Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys dissented mind you, calling it his “all-time favorite Beatles track.”

McCartney eventually got his way. The Beatles released the original, un-Spectorized version of “The Long and Winding Road” on Let It Be Naked in 2003… and eventually Ray Charles recorded a version of it too.

Although it was their last #1 hit and technically came out after the band ceased to exist, it’s hard to keep a band that good down. They’d still score two more top 10 singles later, “Got To Get You Into My Life” in 1976, released as a single from a compilation album and “Free As A Bird”, an old demo of theirs finished off by the three living members and Jeff Lynne of ELO, in 1995.

June 6 – Get Back To Remembering Billy

A sad anniversary more people will probably be marking this year than before – Billy Preston passed away this day in 2006. He was only 59…but had been prominent in the music world for over four decades by then.

Preston was of course one of the most talented keyboardists in rock and soul and an artist who had several hit records of his own. But more than anything he might be remembered as the “fifth Beatle”, coming in to help out on the Let it Be album and their famous final, rooftop concert. The importance he had to the Fab Four has become a lot clearer in the past year with the release of the Get Back movie. Even the title of the film is taken from the song he played so prominently on, the only Beatles record ever which gave another artist credit at their request (it was put out as “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”) George Harrison had invited him in to join the quarrelsome and less-than-efficient studio sessions and “he got on the electric piano and straight away there was a 100% improvement in the vibe in the room.” An improvement which was very obvious in the film; Preston’s sheer joy seemed to rub off on the others, as it apparently frequently did on other musicians he was around.

Billy was born in Houston and raised in a very religious household, which turned out to be a mixed blessing later in his life. He was a true child prodigy, teaching himself how to play piano and organ so well that by age 10, Mahalia Jackson had asked him to play with her onstage and a year later Nat King Cole brought him in to play in his band on a TV special. He’d toured with Little Richard and Sam Cooke by the time he was 16. It was with Little Richard, while touring Europe that he met the Beatles, then young lads themselves, in Germany. Apparently he made quite an impression on them. Once they rekindled their friendship in the Let it Be sessions, they signed him to their Apple Records label. There he recorded his first album to attract much attention, That’s the Way God Planned It, the title track of which was a reasonably-popular British hit. Among his guests on that album were Harrison, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

Soon he joined A&M Records, where he had his greatest success, putting out four singles which went gold in the States in a short time, including the #1 songs “Will it Go Round in Circles?” and “Nothing From Nothing”, plus the Grammy-winning “Outta Space”, which made the top 5.

He kept very busy in the ’70s working with others as well. He played at Harrison’s Bangladesh concerts and appeared on some of his records as well as ones by John Lennon and Ringo Starr. In addition he made friends with Keith Richards and worked extensively with the Stones, adding keyboards to five of their albums including Goat’s Head Soup and Sticky Fingers and touring with them regularly. Along the way he found time to write “You Are So Beautiful” for Joe Cocker (well, actually Billy said he wrote it for his mother, but of course Cocker made it famous) and be the first musical guest on a wild new late night show that was called Saturday Night Live in 1975.

At the end of the decade, he’d signed to Motown and released what would be his last real hit, “With You I’m Born Again”, a duet with Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta Wright. Unfortunately, health problems like high blood pressure and kidney disease, worsened by spiraling cocaine use limited his ability to play or do a lot of creating for many years after that (although he still did get in some session work including with Mick Jagger and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) He had to undergo a kidney transplant in 2002.

Those who knew him well knew that many of his problems and issues were because he was gay, although his religious beliefs made him not only fight his urges but refuse to acknowledge his orientation publicly.

A number of health issues including pericarditas (a heart problem) put him in the hospital in 2006 and he passed away from complications of that. Joe Cocker and the Temptations sang at his funeral and Little Richard spoke.

Ringo Starr said Billy was one of the greatest organists ever – “Billy never put his hands in the wrong place. Never.” Rick Wakeman said “every keyboard player I know loves Billy Preston…you can spot his playing a mile off,” because “he had such a spiritual touch to his playing.”

If there’s a rock’n’roll heaven, I think we know who’s playing the Hammond organ in the band, and keeping everyone else upbeat with his grin.

April 8 – The Turntable Talk, Part 6 – The Final Groove

Today wrap up the first instalment of a new feature at A Sound Day, which we hope to run from time to time throughout the year – Turntable Talk. In it over the past week, we’ve invited several other ardent music fans and bloggers to discuss one topic. To start off, a timely one : “The Beatles : why are we still talking about them 50(+) years on?”

Thank you all for reading these pieces this week, we hope you enjoyed the Turntable Talk. Thanks to Paul, Lisa, Keith, Max and Deke for taking the time to weigh in on why the Beatles are still relevant today.

I think the other writers got most of the relevant points. The Fab Four constantly changed their sound and led the way rather than followed trends. They had the good fortune of being surrounded by good people who guided their career well, like manager Brian Epstein and super-producer George Martin. All four of them were great musicians, and they strove to get better along the way. There were at very least three truly great song-writers in the group – John, Paul and George, and while Ringo might not have been at their level, he wasn’t a half-bad writer himself. For a long time, John and Paul at least kept their egos in check and worked well together (although many now see that they perhaps kept George from showing his true potential until late in their run). And they were prolific – 13 albums in about seven years plus lots of standalone singles too!

I add a few more thoughts to it. They were video pioneers. Not only did they make movies (but so too did Elvis years before them) but when they decided to quit touring, they were savvy enough to make promotional clips – what we’d now call “videos” – to show on variety shows and in record stores. Some of them were quite ahead of their time in the effects too, and soon other British stars like T-Rex, David Bowie and Roxy Music would do the same (years before North American artists seemed to take up the idea) but really, The Beatles were the first to embrace that whole-heartedly. Now, we may or may not think MTV and the video-age was a great thing (a possible topic down the road!) , but there’s no denying that videos really shaped the sounds of the ’80s and ’90s – would Madonna, ZZ Top or Duran Duran been as huge as they were had they not made videos and had an audience of millions tuning in to them? Doubtful, just as its doubtful we’d have arrived at that point when we did if the Beatles weren’t doing clips for “Paperback Writer” and “Strawberry Fields” over a decade earlier.

And that leads to another point – they decided to really get into videos when they decided to quit touring. That in itself was kind of revolutionary for a rock group. Most bands made their names back then largely by touring relentlessly. To decide to not do so at the peak of their popularity was more than bold, it was paradigm-shaking. Doing that let them spend a lot more time in the studio and make the masterpieces like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road… after all, they had all the time in the world and nowhere to go, so why not take time really crafting something outstanding? Not to mention, with no thought of having to do the songs in concert, it let them really experiment with sound effects, over-dubbing and all those good things that would be very hard to reproduce on stage with just two guitars, a bass and drums. The idea of being a studio-only band never swept the music world, but some of the great records of the ’70s and ’80s came from bands that had the same sort of M.O. – Steely Dan, Alan Parsons Project , late-period XTC and so on. There’s certainly something to be said for the thrill of live music and seeing your favorite musicians play, but there’s always room for the mysterious craftsmen who plug away at making fantastic music that will never come to a stage near you. And the Beatles were the first to really dare to do so.

And, one more thing. Although the Beatles only were a going concern of note for about seven years (and about nine if you include the Berlin/Cavern Club years), they didn’t disappear when they broke up. Far from it. Between the end of the Beatles and the end of 1981, they tallied 35 more top 10 songs in the States, collectively, 13 of them #1s. If we looked as them as still-the-Beatles instead of four separate entities, it would be fair to say they dominated the ’70s even more than Elton or the Bee Gees did. And a number of those songs were pretty good too, ones that would have fit into the Beatles canon quite nicely – “Photograph”, “What is Life?”, “My Sweet Lord”, “Imagine,” “Starting Over,” “Live and Let Die,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”…and on and on. It seems fair to say from about 1964 through ’81, no other artists so shaped and dominated popular music. There is a reason so much good pop and rock music of the past few decades – the well-written, well-played songs – are described as “Beatlesque.”

All of those things help explain it, but really, it comes down to one thing doesn’t it? They simply created a lot of great music. End of discussion.