"Will It Go Round in Circles" was a No. 1 hit for Billy Preston back in 1973.
These days, it's his No. 1 question.
From the early 1960s, when he was a Los Angeles teen-ager performing with some of the biggest names in gospel music, through the mid-1970s when he scored a string of solo hits, Preston seemed to walk within a circle of continuing good fortune. He was a singer and keyboards player who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, with the right sound.
Preston recorded with the Beatles, pounding out one of rock's most exciting electric piano performances on "Get Back." John Lennon recruited Preston for his "Plastic Ono Band" album, and Preston responded with some grand, spine-tingling gospel piano on the album's classic concluding track, "God." Preston also played on George Harrison's early albums and tours, including an appearance in Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh." The Rolling Stones found a sideman's role for Preston in the studio and on tour during the early to mid-'70s.
On his own, Preston showed a hot hand with a streak of four Top Five hits from 1972 to 1974, including No. 1's with "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing." On the side, he wrote a little ballad called "You Are So Beautiful" for Joe Cocker.
But the '80s proved to be a different story for Preston, who plays tonight and Saturday at Hamptons. While he has continued to perform steadily, Preston's last pop album came out in 1982. Now Preston is hoping that the '90s will be the decade in which he circles back to something approaching his '70s prominence.
"The way the business is now, I have to go knock on doors," Preston, 43, said from his home in Malibu in a recent phone interview.
Trying to interest record labels in his recent songs, Preston last year found a prominent forum for some of his older nuggets. It came courtesy of old friend Ringo Starr, who rang up Preston and asked him to help put together the band for the first tour of Starr's post-Beatles career.
Ringo's "All-Starr Band" featured a robust Preston who pounded his keys and brimmed with vocal and physical energy during his turns in the spotlight. Dr. John, Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Jim Keltner and Joe Walsh were the others involved in the talent-laden tour that focused on music from the '60s and '70s.
"It gave us a lot of exposure and made people realize we're still here and ticking," Preston said.
Starr is keeping the band together for further touring and a planned studio album, Preston said. "I'm writing, everybody's writing some songs for the album, and we'll see how it turns out."
Born in Houston, Preston grew up in Los Angeles as a child prodigy whose mother, Robbie Preston, was a church pianist.
"I started playing when I was 3 years old. It was a God-given talent," said Preston, who still performs in church with his mother when he gets the chance. "My older sister played piano, and when I was a baby I used to sit in my sister's lap and put my hands on top of hers and follow her motions."
By his teens, Preston was performing with such gospel stars as the Rev. James Cleveland and a young Andrae Crouch.
"The first consciousness I had of rock 'n' roll was Ray Charles," Preston said. "He became my idol at an early age. In fact, he still is. The first time I played rock 'n' roll was with Little Richard. I saw the excitement he created by performing, and it encouraged me to do the same."
That turn--from gospel purity to rock's forbidden pleasures--came in 1962 when the 16-year-old Preston signed on to accompany Little Richard and Sam Cooke on what had been booked as a gospel tour of Europe.
"When we got there, (Little Richard) sang one gospel song and went back into rock 'n' roll" because that is what his audience was clamoring to hear. "He's such a performer, he had to please the audience."
On that trip, Preston became one of the first Americans to meet the Beatles. "They played on the show in Liverpool, and they came back stage and had pictures taken with Richard." Later, when the Little Richard tour reached West Germany, Preston renewed acquaintances with the Beatles, who were playing in Hamburg. It was on a later tour of England with Ray Charles that the Beatles spotted Preston once again and invited him to record with them.
Like many performers who branched from the gospel scene into rock and soul music, Preston said he had to go through "sort of a struggle inside myself" before coming to terms with the idea of playing music geared toward pure enjoyment rather than old-time religion.
"My mother was very understanding about it," he said. "She just told me, 'In all thy ways, acknowledge God' "--meaning that there might be ways other than the strictly church-oriented path that would be proper for her son to follow. "The church people, a lot of them said, 'You're gonna go to hell if you play rock 'n' roll.' I had to be strong and look inside and (decide) that God is not narrow-minded."
Preston said that, after initially raising his eyebrows, he had no problem accompanying Lennon on "God," with its opening line: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."
Preston said he figured that "God is a personal savior, he's not the same to everybody" and that Lennon was entitled to work out the notion in his own way.
"I did kind of flinch when I was playing 'Sympathy for the Devil' (on tour with the Rolling Stones). I couldn't justify that. I just played along and didn't think about it."
Preston said that achieving solo success in the '70s never made him crave the spotlight to the exclusion of his accustomed sideman's work. "I never felt like that. Being a sideman, that's the art of musicianship to me. It's not being the solo and out front all the time. It's sharing and accompanying each other. I've never felt slighted" in supporting roles.
But Preston, while pursuing his supporting role in Ringo's band, still thinks he can have hits of his own again. Will it go round in circles, after all? "It has so far," Preston said with a laugh. "Everybody's kind of getting back to where they once belonged."
Billy Preston plays tonight and Saturday at 8 at Hamptons, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd. in Santa Ana. Tickets cost $21.50 tonight, $22.50 on Saturday. Information: (714) 979-5511.