One day in the late 70's, I interviewed Billy Preston, a musician who I'd
admired since the 60's. This is a story of angels, love, music, prejudice, anti-Christian
influences, and even includes a little something about Bill O'Reilly
Writing this is a labor of love, because it's about the time I got to
interview someone I knew very little about, always thought was special, had a
"spiritual" experience while talking with him, and is about a man you meet and
you just know he's someone special, and you don't know why. You just know it.
I say it's also a story of prejudice because I do not consider myself to
actually be prejudiced, like many people, and yet we still have certain animal instincts
that are played upon in the media and by politicians that invoke a certain kind of fear
that's part of our instinct to survive. The sense I'm referring to now is the same one
that has us be slightly apprehensive toward new people, as well as slightly apprehensive
when we meet people of other colors.
There's a certain amount of appropriateness about "checking out"
the intentions of others you interact with. There's a great deal more that's caused by
people who profit or benefit from the divisions created between citizens.
Preston - Space Race
I was at the home of Marianne Williamson in mid-2001, and was fascinated
when I heard some people talking about how, when black people in Detroit wanted to get
away from racism, they simply crossed the bridge into Canada for the evening, and it was
like being in a completely different world. Like throwing a switch.
The switch that was thrown was the hijacking of a race, just like
religions are hijacked, "keeping them in line" through legislation and through
bringing them into the fold, and making them feel like they belonged in what is still a
Here's an example of "how that switch is thrown". An example
I've written more about in "A Conversation with America".
It's about how I grew up in schools with few, if any black kids, and had
little exposure to interacting with people of other races, and yet, because of my father
I'm certain, I was always very clear that equality was the most important facet that
allows for true liberty and freedom. Just as he was against racial segregation and race
and religion exclusive neighborhoods back in the '50's.
And there I was, traveling cross-country from California to the South to
Atlanta, and I needed to stop for gas in Mobile, Alabama.
My experience is that anyone who gets to know me for a few minutes knows
I'm an okay guy, and we get along fine. But there's always that time when people
"check each other out".
So I pull off the highway into a small town on the outskirts of Mobile,
Alabama. I don't know the customs and ways of the people there. I'm really curious. One of
the things I've loved about traveling cross-country 4 times is finding out the ways we, of
this one nation, are different but actually so much the same, believing in the same things
and wanting the same kinds of life, maybe just being taught to approach those common
issues of living and world view from a different point of view.
But the only thing I knew of "the South" was what I knew from TV.
Racial violence and tensions, TV shows shows depicting southerners as ignorant, uninformed
religious fanatics, racists and more. I'd been around enough to know not to believe that
these "slice of life" views we get of the world via the news are not to be
trusted to simply believe they depict the state of the world, particularly these days when
news is sold like a product, and sensationalism has replaced journalistic integrity,
whether people are aware of it or not.
Part of what I wondered about "the south" was, is it really like
that? Is racism still blatant? Is it dangerous. Now remember, the only knowledge I
had of the south was via TV and history books that, like the Bible, tell mostly of the
highlights and the stories of the "big headlines". Many of those headlines about
the south throughout my life were violent. It made me wonder if I should be concerned
about my safety.
It makes it appear as if something is a certain way, when a view of the
bigger picture and more "close-up" experience and reporting would prove the
circumstances were not as they seem.
I bring this up because a few years back, Bill O'Reilly brought up the
fact that he went to a restaurant in Harlem and was surprised to find out that the black
staff wasn't talking in "ebonics", using words like "mo'fo" and other
offensive language, and expressing his pleasure at the experience as a whole.
I even wrote to Media Matters to defend his remarks. Now, mind you, I
would never have said it the way he did, but Bill has a way of saying things to get people
a little "riled up" in order to get them to take notice of things. I see him do
that all the time, and it makes me giggle. I saw him do an interview with the leader of a
group called Uhuru from Oakland California, something akin to a community service oriented
group much like the Black Panthers originally began... Bill was direct and honest in
expressing his opinions about what was going on with Uhuru, but he was always
respectful, and the man from Uhuru was given the opportunity to respond anyway he wanted.
And he returned the respect.
My point is not at all to defend Bill O'Reilly. The point is, just like
why I admit my apprehensions when I first traveled to "the south", I had
apprehensions about somewhere and some people because of the impressions given to me by TV
and news coverage over the years that left me with invalid concerns, and that left me
wondering if, in this indivisible nation as we call it, if we really were all that united
in our overall vision of what a good nation should be like as a nation, and in the world.
Bill O'Reilly took a great deal of heat for his comments regarding
his visit to Harlem, And yet, his comments were good for people to hear. I've heard
O'Reilly accused of racist remarks for a while, although I've never heard him say that
sort of thing myself, and I thought, his remarks were a little rough in the way they were
made but here people have this opportunity to point out that this guy people call a racist
is pointing out to his audience that the stereotypes he accepted as truth all these years
were false impressions.
It was, in my opinion, an opportunity for leaders, especially minority
leaders, to step forward and humbly go on Bill's show and use it as a teachable moment,
and have an even wider discussion of racism and the issues and misperceptions that are
skewed and invalid. And Bill O'Reilly would have been the guy having maybe one of the
first truly honest discussions about racism that we're not supposed to have and would do
most good... if only because he loves to play devil's advocate in practically any
Instead, O'Reilly was simply called a racist, and the teachable moment was
So, when I was offered this interview by Toni Brown, then the Artist
Relations Rep at Motown Records, with Billy Preston, I had some interesting experiences...
during the interview, and before. And it all relates to what some may want to twist into
meaning my own prejudice, that isn't, but is a certain level of apprehension created by
sensationalistic news reporting, movies and more that evoke that basic survivalism
instinct, something that when you're aware of, causes you to realize just how much racism
and bigotry we're taught without knowing it.
Back when I was a little kid, TV was a lot different, more "family
oriented", especially before 10pm at night. Musical and comedy variety shows were
There was this one show called Shindig that featured the most popular
musicians of the time. I remember, Bobby Sherman being on it. Not much else. Except...
There was this black guy with a huge afro hair cut and this bright green
sequined jacket that shimmered in the lights, and this guy had the biggest smile I had
ever seen in my life. Mind you, I couldn't have been more than 7, I think. And I saw him
there, playing the organ for everyone, swaying back and forth like other people, like Ray
Charles did... I just thought it was the way piano players did it, and I thought he did it
I loved the music a lot. I wouldn't have missed the show. But my favorite
part was watching this black keyboardist playing and smiling like he was in heaven with
every note that he played.
And then a year or a few later, he was the voice of the Cheshire Cat in
Alice in Wonderland, an animated version that captured the essence of his afro and his
smile perfectly.. the perfect Cheshire Cat. I'd waited for a couple of weeks for that show
to come on, and when his part, sitting in the tree, was over, and I found out he wasn't
going to be in it anymore, I remember being very disappointed, and just going to bed. My
parents were even letting me stay up past bed time to watch it.
Of course, I noticed he was around, mostly in the background with
other people over the years, including the Beatles and Little Richard. But, like most
artists, I didn't really pay attention to their personal lives or careers. I just
enjoyed the music.
Preston - Nothing From Nothing
In around 1972, when I started doing broadcasting at the high school radio
station as the music director, I had the extreme pleasure of getting to program Billy
Preston's new singles, as well as the old ones. I have to admit, I didn't understand
exactly what his lyrics were talking about, but the truth is, I'd have programmed anything
he put out just because it was Billy Preston.
So, Toni Brown calls, and offers me this interview with Billy Preston,
tells me I'll only have about 15-20 minutes, and I just had to take the interview. His hit
album was "Late At Night", and I really loved it. And the singles with Syreeta
Wright were gorgeous.
Whenever I did an interview, I always made sure I walked with with 20
questions written down, just to make sure I could hit on something that would make it more
of a conversation, all the while gathering the "usual" info about influences and
so forth. Always making sure I never intimated that I was a writer, so no one would get
the impression I was using my magazine job to get "discovered" in the music biz,
which would have been crossing a professional "line" in my mind.
I had my 20 questions, and got into my ailing car, made sure my recorder
was working and even used a separate mic to make sure the sound quality was good. I headed
off to Hollywood and Motown Studios from Westminster really excited. Of course, being more
a small town guy, I always kept my eyes open for things we always hear about on the news
that happen in big cities.
It's like when I went to Brooklyn, wondering how long it would be until I
got mugged, only to find out that I really liked the people there, enjoyed them alot, and
it looked like so long as you weren't out taking silly risks, you were pretty safe.
Anyway.. so I get up to Hollywood, park the car, get out, put the recorder
and mic on the top of the car, smooth out my clothing as much as possible so as to make
a good impression with these people, who I enjoyed working with, grabbed the
recorder and walked away.
About half way down the block, I realized I had forgotten the microphone.
So, I turned around, went back to the car, and the microphone was gone. I looked around
the car, then looked up, and saw a little black boy standing on the corner, laughing, and
then showing me the microphone. I just looked at him and laughed. I thought, there's no
way I can chase him and catch him because he knows the neighborhood, and besides, we were
less than a mile away from Watts, and you know what Watts is like, right? Do you have a
"stereotype" of what Watts is like?
Or do you? This was in about 1979. When someone says the word
"ghetto", what do you think of? Poor people doing the best they can in a tough
environment and circumstance? Or, criminals? Be honest, that's all I ask. Why are you
afraid to go into a "ghetto" at night? What taught you about what these things
are like? Are they really like that?
I'm not saying they are or not. I'm asking you to consider what shapes
your opinions about things, what instincts you have and how they manifest in your daily
life, like in your behavior or treatment of other people.
The point of this is that I don't consider myself to be prejudiced at all,
and yet, engrained in me is this "instant reaction", a way of thinking and
responding to things as if the second hand information I've gotten - the data upon which I
base my opinions and conclusions - is accurate, because it was what I was taught first,
and therefore actually sometimes a conscious effort to overcome.
It's not right or wrong for this discussion. It's just important to notice
so that you can realize that in effect, we are all "prejudiced" to some extent,
but the worst prejudice and bigotry is not natural, it is generated in us by the
constant media influences that teach us to be afraid of each other, as well as other
It's like the time I received an email at work from a coworker sending out
a joke around the company about gay people. At the time, the joke being made was funny if
you accepted the standard stereotypes of the day, as well as how it was socially
acceptable back then, in some quarters, to make fun of gay people. Without even thinking I
began to reply with a corny joke and realized I was participating in the diminishing of
some of my best friends. It was quite an eye opener.
So I sent out an email, instead, talking about just that, and how we
needed to be careful, as a corporate culture, to not get caught in the trap of going along
with something we didn't think about in terms of hurting other people.
And then, proving the result of what happens when people are unrightfully
diminished by such things, one gay person complained to me that I should have allowed the
person who originally sent the email get in trouble. I was surprised, but actually
understood this was someone who had been hurt by such things in the past. I thought it was
a shame that for her, it had come to the point where she would prefer to see harm come to
someone rather than resolve the situation.
It's the kind of stuff wars, terrorism and riots are generated by.
Little scars that can turn into open wounds.
So there was this little boy, maybe from a ghetto, and me thinking had
been outwitted by a young man who learned a couple bad tricks too soon, "as kids do
in the ghetto"... stereotype... and I decided I'd just have to walk into Motown
Records and look like a fool, asking for a microphone so I could conduct an interview. It
just wasn't cool. :}
Now, I wasn't angry at the little boy. I really wasn't. But here's the
paradox. There I am noticing the stereotypes in play in my mind as it was happening, and
knowing I was looking at this little black boy as part of the "lower class",
while going to talk to black people of the "upper class".
Of course, I didn't have any fear of the people at Motown Records, except
wondering a time or two if black people had some of the same tension in them about white
people as white people do about black people - whether anyone admits it or not.
Whether anyone is proud or ashamed of it or not. I was ashamed a little
after this incident, but took it as a lesson in the classism of our world, as well as the
influences that cause me to think and feel and do things I might not otherwise do if I
didn't think about it. Before that, I didn't actually realize I had those kinds of
thoughts affecting me.
Still, God wasn't through teaching me a lesson on this subject that day.
Wait until you hear about the come-uppance I got after the interview. God is a
teacher, after all. He sticks with it until his students really understand the lesson.
After getting buzzed in through the security system downstairs at Motown
Records, I got to Toni's desk and humbly asked for a microphone, as my recorder did not
have one built-in, and after seeing the impatient bit of annoyance on her face as I
expected, she provided one as I knew she could because, after all, it's not likely
that I was the first "stupid" media person to arrive without a recording
device. :} I was just glad the magazine I worked for had a global circulation of over a
million so they wouldn't turn me away. :}
Toni introduced me to Billy Preston, and I don't know how to explain it.
It was like there was an electricity in the air. I can usually do a pretty good job of
gauging how people are acting and thinking and feeling when I'm like that in person, and I
always thought that was why I ended up going over my time limit in other interviews in the
past. The people I interviewed and I got a long pretty well and the conversations were
But not this time. I'd never felt nervous about interviewing anyone before
Not anyone. Not like I didn't think they were special, and some of them were people
I'd admired since before I was a teen, but this was different. And here was this guy I
admired as an entertainer for years, not knowing much about him, having 20 minutes to talk
to him, and I blew through my list of questions for him in less than 5 minutes. His bio
they provided me with was very humble. Maybe someone like me was supposed to know I was
talking to a legend.
So, I'm sitting there, wondering what to say next, what to ask, how to not
seem totally stupid. He seemed like a very gentle, nice person, the questions I' asked
were really typical. Meanwhile, I'm experiencing something I hadn't experienced since I
was a child, and that was the same kind of golden aura in the room that I experienced the
day I had the vision in church when I was a child. I was trying to figure out if it was
just the lights glowing in the room, I probably squinted my eyes and he moved to the other
end of the room where there were no lights on him, and the glow remained.
I didn't think of the vision in church then. I didn't relate it to a
spiritual event of any kind.
Meanwhile, wondering what to say, what to ask.
I said, "Mr. Preston.."
He interrupted, and said, "Just call me Billy".
I said "Billy, you know usually I come into these interviews with 20
questions and I never run out of questions, but, I've used up my questions, and I just
can't think of what to ask."
He says "That's cool. We'll just talk".
I didn't know what to think. We had 20 minutes to fill, I guess he figured
he might as well use it.
He says "I was the 5th Beatle, you know".
I can't imagine too many people who were a bigger fan of the Beatles. I
knew he'd done some songs with him, but I never of it that way.
I said "No, I didn't know that".
He said "Yeah, we were real tight back in '62". A lot of that
part of the interview is in the actual interview below that was actually published.
We talked for a while. I'm sure we went over the 20 minutes. We talked
about portable portable recording equipment, what motivates you to write music, all sorts
of things that had nothing to do with anything a music interviewer would want to print
about a musician with a hit album. He didn't know it at the time, but, being a fan, I
already knew this interview was going to be the cover story of the magazine that month,
and I had access to some incredible photos of him live at the Roxy that an acquaintance
had taken and told me I could print.
I told Billy about the pictures, and he said, "Tell ya what. When you
get the pictures, tell Toni and I'll have her set it up for you to come up to my ranch in
Of course, I agreed, being in a little turmoil about crossing the
professional line, not wanting to be seen as using him to get into the other side of the
business, which I wasn't doing at all, but you know how things look.. I hadn't told him I
write music, and I couldn't see how, after the discussion we had, how we could end up
spending any time together without ending up playing some music together, just for fun,
even for a few minutes. It's funny too, because as you'll read in the story I wrote about
him, it's kind of like him being nervous about coming face to face with Ray Charles, his
Before we were through, though, he asked me if I'd ever heard any of his
gospel music. I told him no. And for some reason, I couldn't get him to tell me about
them. He seemed very disappointed.
Just a year or so ago, I looked at all the albums I have of his, and
realized a great deal of his music, as was true of many other "rock" and
"pop" musicians, was Christian and spiritual and gospel music. Maybe he, like
the managers and producers of Ambrosia, were trying to get me to listen to the lyrics in a
different way. Maybe he was wondering if I noticed he was a faithful Christian.
When the interview was over, we went out into the lobby in front of Toni's
desk, where she introduced me to Syreeta Wright, who did the hit duets with Billy on the
Late At Night album, and her husband Reggie. Apparently, they were in another room
observing the interview. Among other things, she's been a heavyweight songwriter and
performer in her own right, and was also previously married to Stevie Wonder.
Wright - Syreeta - Blame It On The Sun
I assured Billy that I'd be in touch as soon as I got the pictures.
Unfortunately, my contact with the person with the pictures was lost, I never got any of
them except the one that was put on the magazine cover, and so I never checked back in
with Toni to visit Billy at his ranch. You bet I regret that.
Not because I probably blew my shot at getting into the business. Because
even then, my real interest was in writing, not performing.
But because that aura thing really bugged me. More recently, considering
all the experiences I've had and the aura around Pastor Culwell, I thought he, like Pastor
Culwell, must have experienced something as I witnessed it. Like God was talking to them ,
too, while these auras were appearing. Pastor Culwell apparently didn't. I can't help but
wonder if Billy knew something about me, especially given his association with Syreeta and
her writing that song.
He told me they were working on their next album. An album that, to my
knowledge, was never released.
The week after the interview, I got to see Billy at the Roxy, live. At
that moment, I didn't know the photos weren't available to me anymore, or I would have
taken photos. It was a great concert, I loved the Roxy for its intimate setting.. and I
particularly loved all the people who got up and sang impromptu gospel songs as the
microphone was passed around the room to people like Syreeta, Andre Crouch, Donny
McClurkin and so many great performers who put on quite a fun party that night, just
singing and playing together.
Of course, the three drink minimums they had at those media shows never
The real point of writing about Billy Preston was because I wanted to
honor him as a musician and as a person. He began his career as a pianist for Little
Richard long ago, and has been one of those quiet forces behind the scenes of the music
classics who you heard about every once in a while, but when you hear the stories people
told about hanging with him, well, frankly, they all sound people who knew Billy Preston,
regardless of any foibles he may have had, was a special kind of person.
My mother's Bible said that musicians are God's angels. Knowing that,
experiencing what I did with Billy Preston, I can't help but think he was truly one of
God's angels. Maybe it was just God's way of trying to tell me to connect with him.
I think the song that epitomizes him, and delivers the message of God for
us all to hear, is this song... I never thought of it as a gospel or Christian song...
until a few years ago... when I recommended it as being my kind of church music.
Someone who can remind us to be, and who is like this, must be a pretty
good person, when all is said and done.
Preston - That's the Way God Planned It
In 2002, I wrote to Lou Dobbs and said, can Billy Preston get in on this?
A few months later, he was on tour with Clapton. It was sure good to see and hear him
doing that song, with that big smile on his face, one more time before he passed.
Now, for the final "come-uppance" God had for me that day
regarding the stereotypes that had me a little frightened, sometimes, around people
"not like me".
The route I took from Motown took me to the freeway entrance where Watts
meets I-5 - the Golden State Freeway. It was just about dusk, and my car wasn't running
properly. The engine kept cutting out, especially when going up hills. I was concerned
about getting stuck on the freeway in rush hour, and causing a huge traffic jam. So, I
circled around the streets of Watts, seeing if I could rely on the car, even if it did
Please keep in context that the thoughts going on in my head were based on
perceptions of the dangers I faced, being a white person in a black neighborhood. You know
what they tell you on TV. You've heard of the riots that happened in Watts, haven't you?
I'm not trying to convince you of anything. I'm talking about stereotypes
that may be the only thing we know about something, like the propaganda about Islamists
that isn't true, that makes us afraid of them.
The kind of thing that makes some people justify racial profiling. The
kind of thinking that allows people to rationalize torture, or to adopt an
"it's better we kill them before they kill us" mentality.
We were kind of trained to think that being a white person caught in the
ghetto at night was like asking for trouble. Much like we were trained, through westerns,
to believe that Native Americans were bad guys so the government could get away with
breaking treaties without the general public complaining.
So it's starting to get dark, I'm driving around Watts, and these black
people start coming out onto their porches, looking at me driving around the block, over
and over, and I'm thinking, I wonder what they think of me driving around like this. If
they were driving in a white neighborhood like this, someone might call the police. They
say, in the ghettos, that some gang could come around and kill you.
So, I finally decide I may as well get to the freeway, and stay in the
right lane in case the car dies. I didn't know a the time that the fuel pump was going
out, but it still worked.
I was right there, on the edge of Watts, the sun going down, and the
freeway entrance 50 feet ahead, and I'm thinking I'm going to make it when the engine
dies. And suddenly, there's a bunch of black teenagers surrounding the car, and I'm
thinking I'm in trouble.
And they direct me to a spot where I can pull it off the road safely while
they push it for me. I was starting to feel embarrassed and a little upset with myself.
And a guy comes over to the driver's said, I roll down my window, and he's
got a tool kit, asking if he can help. So, we popped the hood, and looked things over,
they offered me a phone - and they didn't have cell phones then - I didn't really know of
anyone to call, anyway, who could help with a mechanical problem. So we checked things out
for as while, it finally started. They offered to bring a battery over in case I
drained my battery. They didn't want money. They were just being nice.
I took backroads home so I could control things once I realized that it
cut out when going uphill, a typical symptom of a bad fuel pump.
I think you understand what I'm saying. Still, part of my own upset with
myself, with the things I realized were sort of burned into my brain that I didn't like,
was because I had thoughts about things I didn't approve of or actually believe in, not
because I made up my own mind to think that way, but because external influences caused me
to think those things.
I take responsibility for the thoughts, just as much as I am concerned
about the influences, particularly when I believed, even then, that I was more conscious
about being the kind of person who believed in the things that I believed in. And
still, those kinds of prejudices somehow became part of the thoughts I automatically have.
And not just about racism.
What made it even more pronounced for me was the fact that back then, my
best friend really was a black man I met in Santa Cruz, who was a former police officer
and was working for the NAACP at the time.
To me, that sort of says it all in terms of how we become conflicted about
what we call equality... and how that value and the examples and stereotypes which shape
the definition of that value have become twisted into a conversation that constantly
divides us instead of one that causes understanding and unity.
It would be like going to a fancy dinner, and complaining that you weren't
given a salad fork regardless of how good the meal is.
The divisiveness, the politics, keeps us focused on the wrong things.
It keeps us focused on the stereotypes instead of actually sharing and
interacting with people as they are, without trying to pigeon-hole and categorize them. It
prevents us from communicating. And as we all know, in any relationship, once
communication is no longer possible or effective, it's impossible to have an amicable
I hope I've given you something useful to think about by presenting one of
my favorite all time memories, interviewing Billy Preston, mixed in with all of the
paradoxes and ironies of the world and society we live in when it comes to just plain
basically "getting along" with other people.
I'll say finally, the Bible says that the when one person believes they
are better than another, the glass is broken... in other words, the grace of God is cut
off in that moment of sin that prevents us from respecting and valuing the lives and
spirits of every being.
Because, if there's anything that God tells us with the Golden Rule is
that we all. truly are, equal in His eyes and His world, and that the idea of Rights of
Kings and superiority of races is surely a sign of arrogance that God will not abide. Nor
will I. Nor should you.
Nonetheless, the issue is still with us, and a real, sincere conversation
amongst us all would be useful, free of histrionic agitation by those who would want to
believe that the concept of superiority could be anything than a form of enslavement and
Personally, I resent those people who choose to attempt to influence me to
believe stereotypes about races, religions or anything.
Freedom begins in your mind, with the choices you make, not the options
you are presented.
The options you are presented are likely not the only choices you