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Billy Preston, Musical Genius

by William H. Watkins Ph.D.

Now a resident of Chicago's Southside, I grew up in Los Angeles and was a high school classmate of Billy Preston. I note with sadness the passing of so many young and talented Black men and grieve personally at the loss of Billy, at age 59, on June 6, 2006 in Arizona.


Billy Preston honed his musical skills early on in life. By the late 1950s he was already playing piano and organ in local churches and accompanying known celebrities around South-central Los Angeles. Billy was musically nurtured in a rich environment.


Black Los Angeles was coming of age as our people came from every part of the nation for the endless sunshine, beaches, affordable housing and abundant jobs. As recent movies have depicted established musical celebrities like Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles and many others relocated their operations to L.A. during this period.


In 1961, we World War II baby boomers descended on Dorsey High School taxing all the school's facilities and resources. The classrooms couldn't hold us so the school authorities brought in portable classrooms we called bungalows. Our school quickly got the nickname, "bungalow village." Like most inner-city schools, ours was filled with would-be athletes, singers and scholars. School dances, "sock-hops," and assemblies became volcanic eruptions of rhythm, energy and joy. Even our school janitor, Ron Townsend, later the big guy in the Fifth Dimension singing group, always sought out a microphone.


Nobody rocked the house like Billy Preston. I remember a school assembly where Billy played a one hour concert. Patterning himself after Ray Charles, Billy made the piano talk to us. It was magical. Like Ray, Billy understood the chords, rhythms and cadences of the church. Again, like Ray he knew how to bring them to life in rhythm and blues. We all knew we were listening to a 15 year old prodigy. Finally, just as Ray had his celebrated Rayletts, Billy introduced us to his Prestonettes-lead vocals by Betty Jones and Carol Watkins (my sister).


We thought we would have Billy's presence and music throughout high school but that was not to be. The rest of the world quickly found out about "our" genius. By junior year Billy was off playing with the new long hairs from England. We didn't know what to make of these guys who called themselves the Beatles. Billy never made it to prom night or graduation but we were all envious as we would see him tooling around town in his sparkling convertible white 1963 Ford.


After the Beatles it was on to the Rolling Stones. Over the years, Billy played with many big names. I believe that famed gospel artist Rev. James Cleveland profoundly influenced his music and life. Billy moved easily from gospel to secular. The entire world knows his chart topping hits, Will It Go Round in Circles and Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing . He went on to provide decades of music including recordings and live concerts.


I only talked to Billy once or twice after high school. He was clearly getting into the life of a celebrity musician. Over the years, old high school friends would give me troubling reports on Billy's tribulations. The entertainment media has frequently chronicled his many troubles including drugs.


All said and done, Billy, you brought us much musical joy. You met every definition of a prodigy and genius. Your gifts and talents are reserved for only the select few. You will be missed!



**William "Bill" Watkins is the author of The White Architects of Black Education (2001); Race and Education (2001) and Black Protest Thought and Education (2005 ) numerous essays, encyclopedia articles and reviews. Bill serves as Professor, College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago. Growing up in South-central Los Angeles, Bill now lives in Chicago's South Shore community. Bill is a world traveler, social activist and commentator on social, political and educational issues.


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