Originally released on September 11, 1970, Billy Preston’s second Apple LP is a soulful paean to his status as “The 5th Beatle”
Billy Preston was well positioned by the time he was drafted by The Beatles to serve as the only musician to ever get co-billing on any of the Fab Four’s formal recordings.
It was known at the time that The Beatles occasionally relied on stringers to supplement their sound — Eric Clapton and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones being among the most prominent — but when Preston’s name appeared on the singles culled from the tumultuous Let It Be sessions, he had, at least unofficially, earned the elusive title of the so-called “Fifth Beatle.”
Although John Lennon proposed that Preston be invited to join the band officially — the idea was nixed by Paul McCartney on the grounds that the foursome had enough problems keeping any connection amongst themselves — it was George Harrison who established the strongest tie to the veteran keyboard player. Harrison produced both of Preston’s albums for the fledgling Apple label and personally arranged his transition from Capitol Records, which had released his earlier albums.
Each of those subsequent efforts were notable and are still worth relishing. The title track from Preston’s Apple debut, That’s the Way God Planned It, became something of a standard, and it remains one of the best non-Beatles singles Apple ever offered. However, it was Encouraging Words that provided the most promise, given that it contained two tracks that Harrison himself wrote but remained unreleased until he recorded them for his solo opus All Things Must Pass — those being its title track and “My Sweet Lord.” Ironically, the Beatles had rehearsed “All Things (Must) Pass” during the Let It Be sessions with Preston’s participation but chose not to release it.
There were other notable inclusions as well, including a rare cowrite with Harrison, “Sing One for the Lord,” and an early cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” which was released on the posthumous Let It Be album some six months earlier. Another song, “Use What You Got,” was recorded by Preston himself on one of the earlier Capitol albums two years earlier, but Harrison opted to have him redo it rather than reprise the original.
Like That’s the Way God Planned It, Encouraging Words featured a formidable list of contributors — Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, members of Derek and the Dominos (Clapton’s backing band at the time), Delaney Bramlett, Bobby Keys, Jim Price, the Edwin Hawkins singers and members of the touring bands that backed both Sam & Dave and the Temptations. Of course, one might suppose that Preston could have been somewhat intimidated by the array of superstar talent, but that likely wasn’t the case. Even as a teenager, Preston had contributed to the efforts of any number of major players — Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, among them. Later he took a recurring role as a keyboard player on record and on tour with the Rolling Stones, while also sharing studios and stages with Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sly Stone, Neil Diamond, and a reformed version of The Band.
Granted, Preston’s biggest breakthroughs would come later after he signed to A&M Records two years later, courtesy of such hits as “Will It Go Round in Circles,” “Outa-Space,” “Nothing From Nothing,” and “With You I’m Born Again,” which was co-billed to Preston and singer Syretta Wright. However, his biggest hit turned out to be a song recorded by Joe Cocker, “You Are So Beautiful,” which Preston had penned for his mother.
Nevertheless, Encouraging Words stands as a testimonial to the respect he earned as a rare insider with the biggest band of all time. Greater glories may have awaited Preston in the decades to come, but the Beatles connection still assures the fact it still remains one of his most essential offerings even today.