remembering the two black beatles: lord woodbine and billy preston #soundcheck

February 27, 2013
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50 years since the Beatles’ famous performance on the Ed Sullivan show and their legacy is more complicated than ever. Were they the greatest song writers of all time, or massively overrated? Were they the band responsible for watering down rock and roll and making it safe for white suburban audiences or were they band responsible for pushing it radical new directions? Can they be all those things? (yes.) Every punk goes through a phase of rejecting the Beatles followed by a begrudging admission that actually fine, they’re pretty good. Amid the long-running tradition of declaring so-and-so the 5th Beatle (fun fact: the Walrus was Paul, the 5th Beatle was George Martin.), there are 2 names often overlooked: Lord Woodbine and Billy Preston. In honor of Black History Month, forget the 5th Beatle (it was George Martin, I already told you.) we’re celebrating the Black Beatles.

Words by Nathan Leigh

Lord Woodbine was one of the Beatles’ early mentors. Born Harold Phillips, the Trinidadian immigrant came to Liverpool in 1948. His band, the All-Steel Carribean Band was a regular fixture in the Liverpool scene. During their early years, Woodbine took the young Beatles (then the Silver Beetles) under his wing. Their close relationship gave the band the nickname “Woodbine’s Boys.” It was Woodbine who introduced a young John Lennon to the Black Liverpudlian songwriters that inspired him to learn the blues. John and Paul had a voracious appetite for blues and Caribbean music, though Lord Woodbine’s bandmate Gerry Gobin was suspicious of their intent. “Bloody white kids, trying to horn in on the black music scene.”
Woodbine’s early support was essential. After connecting with Hamburg promoters in 1960, Woodbine decided to take his proteges on the road. Together with manager Allan Williams and his wife, and the 5 Beatles (Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best were still in the band at that point) Woodbine took the band to Hamburg to perform. The 7 Liverpudlians took a photo in front of a war memorial in Holland. (minus John, an obstinate douchebag even at 20 who refused to be photographed in front of a war memorial because he’s a pacifist. Yeah I’m a pacifist too, I still take pictures with my friends. All I am saying is give not being an ass to your friends a chance. You don’t get a free pass just because “In My Life” is one of the best songs ever written.) The picture is one of the few documents of Lord Woodbine, who rarely recorded any of his own music during his life.
The Beatles went back to Hamburg, beginning the famous “Hamburg era” that eventually made them famous. They fired Williams over his ten percent commission, and their relationship with Lord Woodbine dissolved as well. Slowly, Woodbine’s influence on the band began to be written out of history. Despite his mentorship, he was later described as having had only a “walk-on part” in the Beatles story. No-one seems to question that those RnB influences that the Beatles iconically added to British skiffle just showed up one day. Conjured out of thin air, and not the product of their close relationship with immigrant musicians in Liverpool. In a final indignity, in a production of the play Imagine about the Beatles, Lord Woodbine attended only to see himself literally airbrushed out of that famous photograph. “It really hurt me. Maybe the great Beatle publicity machine did not want any black man associated with their boys.”

A similar thing has happened with the only Beatle collaborator actually invited to join the band (post-63 when the line-up was stabilized with the addition of luckiest-son-of-a-bitch-ever Ringo Starr on drums). Billy Preston was first introduced to the band in 62 when he was playing keys for Little Richard. The Beatles opened (prompting Little Richard to later claim himself as the 5th Beatle, but if headlining for a band makes you a member, then I’m claiming Kris Roe from the Ataris totally plays guitar in my band despite never saying a single damn word to me.) and George Harrison hit it off with the 16 year old Preston.
7 years later during the acrimonious Get Back sessions, during which pretty much every member quit at least once (except Ringo, because, really, what else did he have going on? Shining Time Station was still like 2 decades off…). George walked out of the studio to check out a Ray Charles concert where Preston was playing organ. Preston came back to the studio later and the addition calmed the tensions in the room. For 2 weeks in January 1969, Preston served as a full-time member of the band. His contributions to the track “Get Back” were significant enough to prompt the Beatles to credit it and b-side “Don’t Let Me Down” to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”

John Lennon even suggested making Preston a full-time member of the band. Paul (it was his turn to wear the cynical jackass hat that day) countered “why bother, it’s bad enough with 4.” Nevertheless, Preston performed with the band during the famous Rooftop Concert on January 30th 1969. After the sessions were scrapped (they were revisited a year later by famous producer and murder enthusiast Phil Spector and cobbled into Let It Be), the band brought Preston back to record keys on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Something,” for Abbey Road though he was no uncredited. Despite having been floated as a new member to the band months prior, he was now reduced to one of the hundreds of anonymous session musicians to play on Beatles records.

Unlike Lord Woodbine, who never heard from his boys again, Billy Preston maintained a close relationship with the band post-breakup. He played on solo albums for each former member, and in return George produced some of Billy Preston’s solo records. Preston went on to have significant hits with songs like “Nothing from Nothing,” “Outa-Space,” and “Will It Go Round in Circles.” He also became a regular collaborator for the Stones. (sort of like when Johnny Damon joined the Yankees after the Red Sox World Series win, except Preston grew a beard.)

Both Preston and Woodbine are often ignored in the history of the Beatles. (Hell, despite playing an integral part in the above recordings, Preston is only shown briefly in the official Apple videos…) Part of this stems from a fantasy of artistic genius as an isolated act. We like to believe that these four geniuses came out of nowhere and changed pop music forever. There’s an appealing simplicity in that. But the truth of their history; messy, complicated, dynamic, and often conflicting, is far more interesting and illuminating. The Beatles were responsible for some of the best pop music of all time, (I mock because I love…) but those songs didn’t happen in a vacuum. And when we cut out the musicians who inspired and pushed them, and those who collaborated and played with them we do everyone involved, and the art itself a disservice.