Billy Preston’s recordings for Apple Records are among his best ever. His two albums, Encouraging Words and That’s The Way God Planned It are warm powerful soul records that blend gospel, funk and R&B, shot through with elements of rock.
Encouraging Words is Billy’s second Apple album, and it was a creative collaboration with George Harrison in every sense. Billy and George played together and sang together (with George on backing vocals). They also took charge of the production together, capturing the passionate heart and soul of each performance.
George and Billy wrote one song together too, their only such collaboration, ‘Sing One For The Lord’, and George gave Billy two of his newest titles before he released them himself, ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’. Not that Billy was short of material. A consummate songwriter in his own right, Billy chose mostly his own songs for Encouraging Words. The deep, soulful ‘Little Girl’ is a stand-out, as is the funky ‘I Don’t Want You To Pretend’ and the scrupulously honest ‘The Same Thing Again’. There were plenty left in the can too — see Bonus Tracks for a recently discovered gem.
Every facet of his Billy’s music — from his composing to his playing, from his lyrics to his vocals — come together on Encouraging Words, an album that stands as one of the finest titles in the Apple Records catalogue. Play this album back to back with Doris Troy, issued around the same time in September 1970, and you’ll get a good picture of just how glorious those funky-R&B-soul crossovers could be at Apple.
The policy at Apple was to provide its artists with fully-paid-for, unlimited studio time. Buoyed by the success of his ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ single in July ’69, Billy took full advantage of this offer, and his recording sessions continued through into 1970. Apple issued a track from the Encouraging Words sessions as a stand-alone 45, ‘All That I’ve Got (I’m Gonna Give It To You)’ in January. It was a Preston/Troy song, produced by George Harrison who, with The Beatles’ recording career effectively over by this time, had thrown himself into studio work with several Apple artists. Also in January, Billy played electric piano on John Lennon’s ‘Instant Karma!’ — both this and ‘All That I’ve Got’ commanded the listener, via a bold label instruction, to PLAY LOUD.
Billy had covered The Beatles several times before, and from Let It Be, issued around the time that his Apple sessions drew to a close, he adopted ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, working up Lennon & McCartney’s loose bluesy original into a taut funky groove. Billy also played on The Beatles’ versions — see Let It Be…Naked for his most prominent contribution. The other cover on Encouraging Words was the closing track, ‘You’ve Been Acting Strange’ by R.L. Williams, a song Billy could be heard running through at the Get Back sessions in January ’69, in between Beatles recordings. With George on guitar, this was one of the first tracks Billy cut for Apple.
Billy kept his songs alive by developing them over time. He’d play them live, he’d change the arrangements, he’d re-record them. Two songs on Encouraging Words (and several on That’s The Way God Planned It) date back to his years at Capitol Records. He co-wrote ‘Let The Music Play’ with long-time collaborator Jesse Kirkland and first recorded it in 1966. He would remake it again 10 years later for A&M on his Billy Preston album, but his most soulful version is to be found here on Apple, cut at Olympic Studios in January 1970. Also remade for Billy Preston in 1976 but receiving its debut outing here is ‘When You Are Mine’.
Eric Clapton plays on three tracks on Encouraging Words — on the album’s title track (composed with the working title ‘Drop Out’), on the opener ‘Right Now’, and ‘Use What You Got’. This last cut also dates back to Capitol, and tape box info reveals that George intended to slow down the Capitol tape a little and add overdubs; instead he and Billy re-recorded a brand new version at Olympic, bringing in Eric Clapton and his wah-wah pedal.
Eric had long been a fan of Billy Preston, and wrote in his autobiography, “Billy had been part of my musical experience from the day I first saw him play with Little Richard, when we were both in our early teens, and I finally got to play with him when he signed with Apple… He had been my favourite keyboard player for as long as I could remember”.
Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame, who was a close friend of Billy’s, says today: “Billy loved Eric. He enjoyed playing with those English rock acts because, you know what, they respected him. They appreciated him. They saw the best in Billy. They loved Billy.”
Speaking in 1971, Billy recalled other musicians who helped out on Encouraging Words: “Delaney and Bonnie’s band played, and Ringo and Klaus Voormann were on it. George got them all in.” Tape box notes reveal that Delaney Bramlett joins Eric Clapton on guitar for ‘Encouraging Words’.
George spoke of the easy-come, easy-go way the recordings were put together when, in a BBC interview in March 1970, he said: “On the Doris Troy album and (the second) Billy Preston, we’ve been using all sorts of people, whoever comes to town comes and plays on the sessions. We had the Temptations’ rhythm section — bass player, guitarist and drummer — which is really nice. Also, Sam & Dave’s… I think it was the drummer and the saxophonist playing bass. They played on a couple of Billy Preston’s. There are plenty of nice people who really just want to play… It’s very enjoyable, you know.”
While George and Billy wrote one song together, George had also composed another for Billy, although Billy never actually recorded it. George said in I Me Mine: “ ‘What Is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969… when I was producing one of his albums… it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey, I wrote this catchy pop song’ while Billy was playing his funky stuff.”
He was referring to sessions for That’s The Way God Planned It. During Encouraging Words, George had another song he was unsure about, written in December 1969, but this time he did offer it to Billy: ‘My Sweet Lord’. In I Me Mine George said: “I was inspired to write ‘My Sweet Lord’ by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ version of ‘Oh Happy Day’. I thought a lot about whether to do ‘My Sweet Lord’ or not, because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated that a lot of people might get weird about it.”
Having been galvanized by Edwin Hawkins’ revival of an 18th century English hymn, George invited Hawkins’ eight-piece choir to a Billy Preston recording session at Olympic in January 1970. The result is a full-on funky gospel treatment of ‘My Sweet Lord’, considerably different to the acoustic guitar-led version George went on to record himself. The two different arrangements would finally come together over 30 years later in a most spectacular way when Billy performed ‘My Sweet Lord’ at The Concert For George.
Billy’s friend Sam Moore was in the audience that night in 2002. “I was sitting there when Billy sang ‘My Sweet Lord’,” he says, remembering the gospel power of Billy’s rendition. “When he started playing, people started coming down the aisle at the Royal Albert Hall like they were in a church. It was like they were praising the Lord, listening to Billy. When he finished I jumped up and screamed, ‘He is the best!’.”
‘My Sweet Lord’ was scheduled as Billy’s fourth UK Apple single in September 1970, but it was never released. In fact there were no singles taken from Encouraging Words in the UK, although ‘My Sweet Lord’ did surface in France, the Netherlands and in the U.S.
‘Sing One For The Lord’ is one of the inspirational highlights of the album. It was written by George and Billy around the time of The Beatles’ Get Back / Let It Be sessions and by 12th February 1969, it had been recorded and mixed; but, perhaps because of George’s reservations about the word ‘Lord’, its release was put back for over a year.
The song begins with a few bars of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor before sweeping into a gospel anthem that melds Billy’s Ray Charles influences with angelic backing vocals and George’s crunchy rock guitar riffs. All of which is embellished with the shimmering drone of the Indian tamboura that hints at the cross-denominational approach of the song’s two co-creators. The lyrics are akin to lines of a Sunday sermon, leading up to Billy’s exaltation — ‘God is good! Praise his name’.
Which name should be praised? In 1971, Billy spoke of the differences and similarities in his and George’s devotional paths: “The names change,” he said. “His is Krishna; mine is Christ. The spiritual promotion — praising God, chanting, spreading it, turning people onto it — these are the things we have in common.”
In his own unique way of invoking the sacred via use of the profane, Billy added: “My message is to change the image of most entertainers as ‘stars’, singing lollipop shit. I want to give people something that they’ll really remember, to help their lives, to try and make them forget about all the rest of the shit that’s going on, to give them something solid — and what I’m talking about is God — a good, solid message that makes you think.”
To that end, we should all heed the lyrics to the title track of this album, ‘Encouraging Words’, introduced on record by some fabulously funky horns…
Be kind / Be cool / And be careful
Have hope / Keep the faith, baby
And be grateful /
Learn to live the golden rule /
Don’t you go thru life bein’ a fool /
And kids, please stay in school /
And don’t you be no drop out, drop out
Encouraging words indeed.
‘As Long As I Got My Baby’ was written and produced by Billy Preston and was the intended B-side to ‘My Sweet Lord’ , which had been scheduled for release in September 1970 but was cancelled before release.
‘All That I’ve Got (I’m Gonna Give It To You)’ was written by Billy and Doris Troy, and produced by George Harrison. It was Billy’s third single for Apple (Apple 21), issued in January 1970.
‘How Long Has The Train Been Gone’ is previously unreleased, and was recorded for Apple in early 1970. It was co-written with Bruce Fisher, and Billy re-recorded it for his A&M album, Everybody Loves Some Kind Of Music, in 1973.
- George Harrison & Billy Preston
- Recorded at
- Trident Studios / Olympic Studios
- Released (UK)
- Released (US)