One of the Greats

09/23/2005 01:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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This is about the great pianist/keyboard player Billy Preston.

I was once at the Venice Film Festival for the opening of a movie I was in, and coming back to the hotel bar after the event, I spied Paul McCartney and his new wife Heather sitting quietly together in a dark corner. If I had paused, I might have thought to myself, "don't bother them, they obviously want to be alone, after a hard day of fending off the curious". However I did not pause, therefore did not have that thought, and went rushing over to introduce myself. I was excited because Billy Preston had just played on my record, and I wanted to share my joy with Paul.

They were both very friendly and kind, when they could easily have been short, and when I told them about Billy, Paul reverently said, "Ah he's the best he is. How's he doing?" "Well," I said, "I'm not sure because I didn't actually meet him, he just came in and played on a couple of tracks. I was away working at the time". " Oh well then, you didn't actually work with him then did you?" he twinkled, the Liverpudlian.

He was quite right.

Later, however, Billy did come and play some more, as Larry and I did more recording, and -- thank you heaven -- I was there to witness one of The Greats.

Watching him play is like watching a man communing with God. He plays with his whole body and soul. The keyboard is an extension of him. His playing is now playful, now sexy, now sinister, now funny, funny, funny.

His music is full of life and joy. Everybody in the room was moving their body, everybody's face wore a big smile, and a look of wonder. There was a lot of awed head shaking. When he was done, we thanked him, he said "oh yeah!..." and then he was gone, having made everything better, like "Ralph, the magic woodsman."

(When "Let it Be, Naked" came out I rushed to buy it. It is fantastic, and without the Phil Spector production, you can hear it in its purity, and you can hear Billy's astounding playing wonderfully well. I recommend it.)

Billy is from Houston, which makes me think of New Orleans. Houston is now being evacuated and hopefully will not be like the catastrophe (in terms of human loss) of New Orleans. So much of the history of jazz belongs there and now it is "washed away" in the prophetic words of Randy Newman. There is a New Orleans nightclub called Tipitina's, which has a web site to try to locate missing musicians, or to hook up musicians with families in nearby states who can take them. (They suggest the family shouldn't be the type that worries about the noise of practicing musicians all night long!)

I wonder if there is a young Billy Preston among these. Or many. I'm sure there are.

I hope they all get a good bed to sleep in, a chance to build a new life, and a whole lot of chances to play their music, and make the world a better place.

Just like Billy does.