Billy Preston played “the most exciting organ ever,” according to the title of his second LP.
George Harrison agreed, remembering Preston’s singularity in Ray Charles’s touring ensemble and telling the other Beatles about it on a cold day in January 1969. Searching for inspiration at the beginning of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, the Quiet One anticipated the musical warmth—and skill— Billy would bring to them.
All the Beatles soon agreed about Preston’s extraordinary playing; he had, as he told them, “perfect pitch.” Preston’s 1969 and subsequent work with the Beatles were highlights, but his career was full of his own chart-toppers and collaborations with other mega-popstars.
Preston’s musical journey started at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Once there was a way to get back there to “Billy’s organ,” which is how revered elder, Ms. Johnnie Pearl Knox, described the church’s instrument in 2020. Preston died in 2006, but Victory remembers him, along with his mother and his sister, Rodena. The family of three, all musicians, found the church after moving from Houston to LA during the Great Migration of the 1940s when Billy was little.
Billy’s organ is gone now. The Hammond B-3 he learned on and played throughout his life was destroyed by a fire that engulfed Victory in the early hours of September 11, 2022.
From the Hammond’s seat, Preston had a full view of the congregation and the preacher at the pulpit, all of them bathed in an LA morning glow that filtered through beautiful stained-glass windows. To Preston’s right was the choir, and behind them a stained-glass representation of Jesus’s baptism.
Perhaps no image gets to the heart of Preston’s ethos of musical friendship better than this one, featuring Christ alongside John the Baptist, the “very Christian man” Preston sang about in 1974. Preston was a musical genius in his own right, but he selflessly used his talent in service of others. He didn’t vie for the spotlight and, when the light did shine on him, he took attention with ease. Preston always attributed success to God and thanked collaborators, reminding stadium audiences, “God loves you,” when he performed with the Rolling Stones in 1975. Preston learned the values of service—especially when it came to music—at Victory, whose story is entwined with both Preston’s artistry and the broader history of popular music.
On property purchased by Victory, the gleaming white building had an elegant midcentury interior. In addition to the stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers refracted light while golden accents highlighted the pulpit area, always full of lush floral arrangements. From the time it was built in 1944, the historical church at the corner of East 48th and McKinley was impeccably maintained.
It’s hard to forget Victory’s address because almost every service begins with a reminder about where Victory is. They welcome visitors like family, and they give to those in need, fulfilling the motto that graced the back wall in golden letters over wood paneling: “To serve the present age—my calling to fulfill.”
What Preston learned at Victory was brought into the studio with the Beatles. He already had plenty of practice dealing with ego-driven musicians. After all, he’d toured with Little Richard in 1962, when Preston and the Beatles famously met for the first time. At Victory, as in the gospel church tradition more broadly, musicians follow the pastor, but, attuned and responsive to the congregation’s mood, they also shape the message. The service is a product of a community working together, an artistry that happens spontaneously and all at once.
Far more than just the site of Preston’s musical and spiritual education, Victory has been a beacon in LA’s Black community. The church witnessed and participated in civil rights history, whose soundtrack was gospel music. Victory functioned as a center for political action, serving, for example, as a voting registration site. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached from its pulpit twice. And the church was a frequent destination for major gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson.
Miraculously, the pulpit from which King preached and Jackson sang survived the fire.
In the wake of the tragedy, the current pastor, Rev. Dr. W. Edward Jenkins has revisited Jackson’s music, reminded of its worldwide appeal and “contribution to desegregation.” Music, Jenkins reflected, “is part of the soul.”
Victory’s message has reached beyond LA for some time. Starting in 1950, Sunday services were broadcast, in another fulfillment of the church’s motto, to nationwide TV viewers on Channel 11. When Preston started recording gospel and then crossed over to secular music, especially via Shindig!, he was well habituated to media exposure.
The tapes of Victory’s mid-century broadcast are, however, missing despite Rev. Jenkins’s search for them. The loss of those tapes is dwarfed by the loss of the entire building.
Once at the “center of a Black renaissance in LA,” Victory now has many elderly parishioners. Knox’s presence, for instance, goes way back. She sang with Billy and his sister, Rodena, a lifelong friend. The pandemic had already taken its toll on this community before the fire. But in 2020 Victory again rose to the occasion and to new mediums, broadcasting services via YouTube and continuing to do so each week, another emanation of their motto at work.
Now they are forced to hold on without a worship space.
As of the writing of this article, an arrest has been made, but the arson continues to be under investigation. Still, the history of attacks perpetuated against Black churches in America is hard to put aside when something like this happens.
As Rev. Jenkins tried to address the whys and the hows in a sermon filmed in his home, his themes echoed one of Preston’s most memorable songs, “That’s the Way God Planned It.” The message is about holding onto God’s unchanging hand, a common refrain in Jenkins’s sermons. “God is real,” said Rev. Jenkins, offering comfort to a grieving community.
The fire is a devastating personal loss for the Victory community, who are now looking to the leadership of their pastor and his family. Rev. Jenkins’s wife Kimberley Jenkins is an elementary schoolteacher, who taught through the pandemic. Their son, Jahi Jenkins, is a law student at USC Gould and a multi-instrumentalist who grew up playing in the church, his fingers dancing across the same keys that Billy’s did.
Prior to Rev. Jenkins’s sermon on the Sunday following the fire, Jahi played the rescued grand piano, a more recent addition to the church that did survive the fire. Wearing protective gloves, he gently played a contemporary gospel song, “Through It All,” and selections from the hymn, “It Is Well,” a song, Jahi later explained, “about being steadfast and content even after the trials of life.
For the past two Sundays, Jahi says he has selected songs with “similar themes about having faith in God during difficult times.”
Just one week removed from the tragedy, Rev. Jenkins began his Sunday sermon with the reassurance that Victory would continue its ministries, serving the hungry and those without shelter, working still for the present age even though the church is itself without shelter.
This is a loss whose reverberations can be felt by those who may have never heard of Victory before today and the many people who don’t recognize just how essential Black gospel music is.
Anyone who has listened to Let it Be or Abbey Road or seen Get Back has heard the joyful noise that Preston brought to the Beatles. That joy started at Victory, whose gospel retains the generic markers of the music that is the foundation, floor, and frame of all American popular genres.
In the film Amazing Grace there’s a moment when Mick Jagger comes into Aretha Franklin’s concert, filmed in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a mere four miles away from Victory in Los Angeles. You can see on Jagger’s face that he’s overcome. He’s in awe. This is the music that made his music possible.
The singers at Victory aren’t Aretha—but they are “singing from the soul” as Kimberley Jenkins put it. In fact, some of the singers backing Aretha in the 1972 concert were from Victory. Knox was one of them. (Preston’s protégé, Kenny Lupper, was playing organ for Franklin, too.)
Victory’s services always begin with welcoming numbers, featuring singers such as Will Yancy, whose optimism comes through his spirited singing. On the second Sunday after the fire, his rendition of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” was a stirring reminder of Victory’s strength.
This is the music that has always been sung and played at Victory. On June 12, 2022, Carl Hunter performed a beautifully tender version of the Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin song “One Day at a Time.” The song – covered by Merle Haggard, Little Richard, and Lynda Randle, among others – deals with territory no less profound for being familiar. The speaker asks Jesus for the strength to go on. It’s a song about the suffering of the everyday, though it is surely as applicable to extraordinary situations as it is to quotidian ones.
“Yesterday’s gone, sweet Jesus,” sang the singer on a LA summer morning, “and tomorrow may never be mine . . . Lord for my sake, teach me to take one day at a time.” Every person sitting in the pews heard and knew the truth of those words as they rang out, accompanied by Pastor Randy Allison on the piano and Jahi on Billy’s organ. They were playing truths for all to hear.
The wisdom of sacred songs allows life to be lived day by day with the surety that all sparrows are numbered and not one is forgotten. This is the knowledge transmitted down through the years by Victory’s musicians.
Black gospel music—in the style still sung within the walls of Victory—is the genesis of American popular music. To truly understand what the Beatles borrowed (and, in some views, took) from Black culture, you can read what music theorists and historians have written. Or you could just listen to Little Richard talk, who himself explained the debt.
Victory’s congregation is part of that long line of Black Americans singing sacred songs “from the soul.” Up until a few weeks ago, Victory’s singers stood in the same place as the choir when Preston directed the choir, which he started doing at age seven. In fact, Victory still had the old stepstool he stood on to do this.
That, of course, is gone now.
But that old stepstool, burned up in flames, continues to represent evidence of the Beatles’, the Stones’, and many other British rockers’ indebtedness to Black music. The building was not a museum with relics. It was a living testament to musical history. The loss of the building is a loss for those who have never set foot in the place—and will never have the chance to do so.
Yesterday is gone, no doubt, but the space, sacred as it might have been, was still a mere physical manifestation of the spirit of the people, and those people sing and play still. Though the stuff of the material world is as ephemeral as ashes, the music, like the community, endures. Victory houses the living memory of Preston; he exists in the spirit of the welcoming community, which is now on the long road to rebuilding a church.
It’s a goal Preston would no doubt serve if he were still here.
In the days before GoFundMe, Preston used his music to advocate for people in his community. He spearheaded a benefit for St. Elmo Village, once a haven for Black youth in need and now a thriving artists’ community. The album art of The Kids and Me (1974) included drawings by children a listener could support, too; Preston included the address for those who wanted to help.
Rebuilding Victory will help restore the living community that houses Preston’s memory—the foundations of the Beatles, the Stones, and all the other white artists. It’s as important as any of the Beatles’ childhood homes.
Victory endures. They will sweep away the ashes as they rise from them, but they can’t do it without help.
To learn more, visit https://www.victoryla.com/
Katie Kapurch and Jon Marc Smith teach at Texas State University. They are the authors of a book about Black music and the Beatles, Blackbird Singing, which includes more on the roots of Preston’s musicianship at Victory Baptist Church and is forthcoming with Penn State University Press.
Kenneth Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University and is the author or editor of more than 40 books. His newest project is the authorized biography and archive of Beatles road manager Mal Evans, due out in 2023.