Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Rockets/Space: Outa-Space

Billy Preston: Outa-Space

When I was 10, in the summer of 1971, my parents sent me to sleep away camp for the first time, and it was not a good experience. It was not a good camp (although based on some stuff I saw on Facebook, it might have been at one time), and I was homesick. But it wasn’t only me—it was common for campers to try to sneak out of camp, despite the fact that there was really nothing within walking distance (and I know, because we tried…but that’s another story that includes being locked in a hot van with nothing but Rice Krispies….). Also, the water tasted of sulfur. Other than that, it wasn’t too bad.

My complaints about that summer resonated with my parents, who then spent more time researching summer camps, before choosing to send me and my sister to Timber Lake Camp, which was an excellent camp that no one tried to escape, and had delicious drinking water. I absolutely loved my two summers there (and my couple of weeks as a counselor, years later, right before I went to college). Our experience at TLC led to a big influx of campers from my extended family and hometown over the years, and my sister and brother are still in touch with friends that they made there. (A few years after I stopped going, the camp was purchased by Jay Jacobs, now the NY State Democratic Chairman, and made even fancier and better than when I was there, and it was pretty good back then).

As I have previously mentioned, my first experience with radio, which in many ways was an onramp to my love of radio and music and without which I probably would not be a music blogger, was at WTLC, the camp radio station. But this isn’t about that. I think that most camps wake up their campers with some sort of “Reveille,” because there is something vaguely military about people sleeping in bunks. But at Timber Lake, in the summer of 1972, the counselors were, for the most part, young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, and during that era, in that place, I have to assume that the military wasn’t particularly popular. Instead, we were usually awakened by some loud rock music playing on the loudspeaker.

And if you asked me what songs they played, the only one that I remember was Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space,” a funky, spacy instrumental. It made waking up relatively fun, and I’m pretty sure that I played the song on the radio, learning that it was by Billy Preston, about whom I basically knew nothing.

What I know now, is that “Outa-Space” was a big success for Preston, despite the fact that his record company refused his request to release it as a single—instead, it was a b-side that DJ’s flipped. It sold more than a million copies and hit number one on the Billboard R&B chart and number two on the Billboard Hot 100 during that summer, and won a Grammy. And I also learned that its distinctive sound came from Preston experimenting with a clavinet run through a wah wah pedal.

Preston, a self-taught child prodigy, backed Mahalia Jackson when he was 10, joined Little Richard’s band in his teens, and while with Richard in Hamburg, met The Beatles, with whom he played a few years later, and who signed him to their Apple label. He is one of the candidates for the mythical “Fifth Beatle” title, but it wasn’t until he left Apple, and joined A&M Records, that he had solo success. His first release for that label, I Wrote A Simple Song, included “Outa-Space.” Over the next two years, Preston followed up a bunch of hit singles, "Will It Go Round in Circles,” "Nothing from Nothing", and the also theme appropriate "Space Race."

In addition to playing with The Beatles, Preston opened for and played with The Rolling Stones, wrote “You Are So Beautiful” for Joe Cocker, was the first musical guest on what was then called NBC's Saturday Night, did session work with Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, and Patti Labelle, and toured with Eric Clapton and The Band. However, cocaine addiction and a sexual assault charge derailed his career in the early ‘90s, before he made a handful of live and recorded guest appearances in the 2000s. Preston died in 2006.

One of the great things about writing for this blog is that it often forces you to revisit music that you haven’t really paid attention to for years, and I have to say that “Outa-Space” sounds just as good today as it did to my 11 year old self back in 1972.

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