50 Years Ago: Billy Preston Pioneers Rock Shows at Radio City Music Hall
Opened in 1932, Radio City Music Hall has been called the largest indoor theater in the world – with a marquee that spans an entire city block in Manhattan. For decades, however, it played host to only a certain kind of music.
Patrons would hear vaudeville and movie musicals at first, then musical stage productions like the Rockettes, which began a year later. Opera joined Radio City's slate alongside the now-legendary Christmas Spectacular in 1934.
Several of Hollywood's most famous productions premiered at the theater, including National Velvet, Breakfast at Tiffany's, King Kong, Mary Poppins, White Christmas, The Lion King and To Kill a Mockingbird – the latter of which starred former Radio City usher Gregory Peck. The offerings were strictly family fare, and that proved immensely popular for decades. At one point, the venue was welcoming more visitors than the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty combined.
But James Gould took over as president of Radio City in 1966 as times were changing. Exclusive film bookings were becoming more difficult to secure, and moviegoers were shifting toward grittier fare like The Godfather into the '70s. Declining revenue led to layoffs among the Rockettes in 1972.
Gould had a groundbreaking idea: Why not put on a rock show?
He turned to Billy Preston, a rising crossover star who'd hurtled from cozy R&B club dates to the world's biggest stages after working with the Beatles, signing an Apple Records contract and then establishing an ongoing association with the Rolling Stones.
"Yeah, it's nearly all concerts now," Preston told NME back then. "We haven't really done any clubs in a year, but I do still play gospel in church back home in L.A. whenever I get the chance."
Listen to Billy Preston's 'Outa-Space'
As Preston took the stage on May 8, 1972, his breakthrough single "Outa-Space" was shooting into the Top 40. The single would peak at No. 2 on the Hot 100 a couple of weeks after this Radio City date. He suddenly became one of pop's most bankable stars: "Outa-Space" was the first of four gold-selling songs for Preston over the next two years, led by a pair of Hot 100 chart-toppers in "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing."
His singles were huge, and his Afro was even bigger. Preston's busier touring schedule ended up requiring certain concessions.
"At times, it was a wig!" he later revealed. "At first, it was my hair but it was very hard to keep up. Especially when I was doing two shows a night. But the look had become identifiable, so I had to keep it. But when I took the wig off, I could walk the streets without being recognized!"
Preston opened the door for signature early acts like Pink Floyd and David Bowie, who followed him into Radio City in 1973. Turned out that the theater was as perfectly suited for amps and guitars as it always had been for stage makeup and stilettos.
"The acoustics are just right for the high energy sound of rock music," a New York Times critic raved days after Preston's show. "The hall is big enough to hold large crowds yet small enough — compared to Madison Square Garden — to maintain a certain degree of performer‐listener intimacy. The technical facilities (lights, special effects, etc.) are made to order for the colorful theatrics of contemporary rock shows."
John D. Rockefeller would have no doubt been surprised. He held a lease on the deteriorating property when plans to build a new Metropolitan Opera House were halted by the stock market crash of 1929. Instead, Rockefeller partnered with the Radio Corporation of America to build a facility later dubbed Radio City. He'd provide financial backing, while the Radio Corporation of America populated the schedule with content from its RKO Studios and NBC radio programs.
Watch the Grateful Dead Perform at Radio City
Modern-era Radio City figures like James Gould were living in very different times. Even with the advent of rock shows, costs and changing tastes remained a grave threat. Frank Sinatra first sang "New York, New York" during a series of concerts in 1978 that grossed an eye-popping $1.7 million – roughly $7.6 million in modern-era dollars – but the venue was still in danger of closing.
At one point, there was talk of demolition. City leaders were successful, however, in getting Radio City Music Hall added to the National Register of Historic Places. Needed renovations took place, and the site was declared a landmark in the '80s.
Rock never left. The Grateful Dead made a memorable eight-show stand in 1980, performances from which found a home on several releases including Dead Ahead. Devo's New Traditionalists tour stopped at Radio City in 1981. Televised events like the Grammys, MTV Video Music Awards and the NFL Draft soon became commonplace. David Letterman hosted anniversary specials there in 1988 and 1992.
More extensive renovations followed in 1999, before Come Together: A Night for John Lennon's Words and Music was broadcast live in 2001. Sports took over the space in 2004 when the WNBA's Liberty moved their basketball court from Madison Square Garden to Radio City for a series of games. Everyone from Elton John and Nine Inch Nails to Rush and the Black Sabbath offshoot band Heaven and Hell played there, too.
In some ways, all of these mainstream moments trace back to a performance by Billy Preston, who had quietly become a pioneering figure.
"When I first started playing with the Beatles, some of the brothers and sisters were saying that I'd sold out and asked what I was doing out there with those 'white boys,'" Preston told Rolling Stone. "They said I'd deserted them, but I just told them the truth – that I was trying to spread us. They didn't expect that. Over a period of time, they've come to appreciate the fact that at least a brother was in there."
Top 25 Soul Albums of the '70s
Who Was the Fifth Beatle?