Written by
Bob Stumpel

August 23

Ray Charles And Billy Preston In The Mid Sixties

Never RecordedOff topicWith Billy Preston

From Unsung, a documentary about Preston (I think it’s from 2011).

Preston, in an interview about Ray, c. 1991.

Billy Preston had been Ray Charles’ protégé since his teenager years. The taping of Shindig, in 1965, was the first time they worked together professionally. Right after that Preston contributed decisively to the hot blues-gospel sound of the Crying Time album.

Orchestra & Chelsea Brown, 1967.

Orchestra, Raelettes, Chelsea, Billy, 1967.

From 1966 to 1968, before becoming the ‘5th Beatle’, Billy joined the Ray Charles group on a series of tours in the U.S. and abroad (in ’69 they took some incidental gigs together). 1967 was the year of The Ray Charles Show, later in the year of the All New Ray Charles Show. It seems as if Charles felt in 1967 that it was necessary to add more production value to his concerts, probably as a response to all soul revues that were travelling the world in that year. In the most extended versions of The Ray Charles Show, everybody filled their own segments: the Orchestra, The Raelettes, dancer Chelsea Brown, and Billy Preston.
However, the casts differed from tour to tour, and sometimes even from gig to gig. In 1968 everything went back to normal again, with the exception of the Europe tour, in which Billy co-starred. The artwork of the (hand)bills and ads shows how poorly concert organizers were provided with promotional materials – and how independent they were in compiling their own messages. Read this for a contemporary review of Billy’s part in the show.

May 1967: double concert at Carnegie Hall, New York, only co-billing The Raelettes.

Pages from Australian (August ’67) and U.S.(’68) tour brochures: announcing different mixes of The Raelettes, Billy Preston, Chelsea Brown, The Ray Charles Orchestra, and – highly intriguing – also “The Band Within A Band – The Original Ray Charles Orchestra” – I don’t have a clue what kind of act this was.

Also in August, Ray gave this concert in the U.S., with a full “revue” line-up, including Raelettes, Billy Preston and dancer Chelsea Brown.

Poster from a U.S. gig in November, obviously without Preston.

These two pics come from a 1967 yearbook of the University of Massachusetts; the one below is the first photo I have ever seen of Billy Preston performing during a concert with Ray:

Looking at how Billy moves in this photo, it could well be that he’s performing Agent Double-O-Soul (as we know it from The Ed Sullivan Show (aired on December 3, 1967):

4 May 1968 at Carnegie Hall, New York.
7 May 1968: University of North Dakota Field House, Grand Forks.
17 May 1968: Winston-Salem Memorial Coliseum.
4 to 9 June 1968: Melodyland, Orange County.

Sacramento, 1 August 1968.
4 October 1968: Jahrhunderthalle, Frankfurt.

5 October 1968: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

8 October 1968: La Salle Pleyel, Paris.

Here are the unforgettable renditions of Going Down Slow and A Tear Fell, with brother Billy Preston tearing hot tears from his B3 at the October ’68 concert in Paris:

18 October 1968: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver.
24 October 1968: Men’s Gym, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
28 October – 4 November 1968: Regal Theatre, Chicago.

Around 1970 Ray and Billy seriously discussed doing a duet album together, but that plan failed “because of our different contracts”, as Ray told Gavin Petrie (in: Black Music, Hamlyn, 1974).

Ray, however, in 1970 produced Billy’s As I get Older, for Apple Records (!). In 1971 Billy featured on Aretha & Ray’s Spirit In The Dark. That same year Ray’s Tangerine Records hired Billyto produce a record for the Rhythm Rebellion (with whom he also recorded Simple Song).In 1993 Billy contributed as a session musician to Ray’s album My World. In that capacity you can also hear him on God Bless America Again (2002), One Mint Julep with Tito Puente and Ray, and several of the best tracks on Genius Loves Company (2004).


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