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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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!
"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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