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Billy Preston Looks for Way to ‘Get Back’

Times Staff Writer

Sessions with the Beatles for the “Let It Be” album. Tours with the Rolling Stones. Hits on the charts.

Billy Preston wants to Get Back.

“I don’t want to do any begging,” said singer/songwriter Preston in a recent interview at his Malibu ranch about his goal of returning to prominence in the music world, “and I believe in timing. And when the timing is right, I’ll be back.”

Preston will play at the Palomino in North Hollywood tomorrow night. Although he and his manager have met often in recent years with representatives from major labels, no deals have been concluded. Only the frustration has mounted.

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“The companies are reluctant to sign any old artists,” said Preston, 42. “One company had us in New York, and strung us along for three months. They’re afraid you’re on drugs, or you don’t have it anymore.”

Ringo Starr thought Preston still had it. Preston said he was the first musician the ex-Beatle called to form his All-Starr Band, currently on vacation for a few weeks before touring Japan. And when a Beatle calls. . . .

“I said yes right away,” said Preston. “It’s a thrill to see Ringo get the spotlight, be the up-front man. With the Beatles, he was always in the background. I think the tour has helped his ego.”

And the Preston ego? “It’s helped.”

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The Starr vehicle, which has united Preston with Dr. John, Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Joe Walsh and Rick Danko, may give a boost to his career. Already, Preston has discussed new collaborations with the other band members. More than sinking into nostalgia, Preston sees the tour as a musical springboard into the future.

But he doesn’t evade the past, either. He met the Beatles while touring with Little Richard in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1962, headlining over the less-known lads from Liverpool. Little Richard was playing gospel then, but when he witnessed the crowd’s reaction to the wild English group, he knew he was in trouble.

“We picked up the pace,” recalled Preston with a laugh. “I just followed the leader, and did it by instinct. It was the first time I played rock ‘n’ roll.”

On the plane back to the United States, Preston played a single the Beatles had given him until the stewardess told him it was interfering with the pilot’s radio transmissions. The song was “Love Me Do,” the group’s first huge hit.

Seven years later, the Beatles brought Preston back to help record “Let it Be.” He played keyboard at the “Get Back” sessions.

Soon, he achieved solo success in the early 1970s with top 10 hits such as “Will It Go Round in Circles,” “Nothing From Nothing,” “Outta-Space,” and “Space Race.”

In 1975, he collaborated again with legends--the Rolling Stones--on their United States tour. He said the Stones, notorious for rowdiness, called him Rev. Preston because he used to talk to them about God.

“I felt sorry for them,” Preston said. “People expected them to be high all the time, and that wasn’t the case. They suffered from that reputation and yet exploited it.”

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His last album, “The Minister of Music,” a gospel recording, came out in 1988 on Rev. James Cleveland’s label, King James Records.

At the Palomino--the show begins at 9 p.m., and costs $14--Preston will play old hits and some of his new songs; he says he has enough unreleased work to compile five albums. He has contacted record executives and hopes they attend the show.

“Some record companies call back, some don’t,” said Charles Garcia, who has managed Preston for the last two years. “We want them to hear Billy and see that he should be signed.”

For the past few years, he has played at clubs and small theaters across the country, hoping to once again grace larger stages. He will rejoin the Starr group in several weeks for a tour of Japan, and a possible trip to Europe and Australia.

“I’ll play anywhere,” Preston said. “I’ll play at bar mitzvahs. I will.”

Anywhere to get back.


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