Rock Hall Musical Excellence Award: Billy Preston, Randy Rhoads, LL Cool J

Billy Preston
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
– Billy Preston
Billy Preston performing at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1972

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Award for Musical Excellence goes to artists, musicians, songwriters and producers whose originality and influence creating music have had a dramatic impact on music. This year’s inductees fit that bill, and much more, as part of Pollstar’s extensive Rock Hall coverage ahead of this weekend’s event in Cleveland.


 Billy Preston
His resume is the stuff of legends, from joining Little Richard’s touring band as a teenager in 1962, being known as the other “fifth Beatle” in session work, touring and recording with legends like The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and others. On top of that, he’s responsible for a string of hits as a solo artist as well as for others, with hits well into the ‘70s.
The Rock Hall honor is “a long time coming for him,” says Bob Bender, an industry veteran who has tour managed for artists including Preston, Ringo Starr, Rick Derringer, Edgar Winter and many others.  
A child prodigy on the piano, Preston was featured on TV as young as 10 years old on the “Nat King Cole Show” performing a duet and trading organ licks, and released an album on Sam Cooke’s SAR Records titled 16 Yr. Old Soul. 
“Not a lot of people know this, Billy could not read music, but he had the memory. He could hear a song once and could play it almost perfectly.” 
That talent, of course, led him to accolades and work with some of the most popular musicians of his era, from Ray Charles to Eric Clapton, and famously credited on Beatles recordings such as “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Get Back,” along with his own ‘70s hits including the ultra-funky, clavinet-wah-infused “Outa-Space,”  “Space Race,” as well as the co-written “You Are So Beautiful” that was shortly thereafter made famous by Joe Cocker. Preston even appeared on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Show Me Your Soul” promo single in 1990.
Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It” became an international hit, featuring a backing band of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Ginger Baker and George Harrison, and his performance of the song was a highlight of the Harrison-organized “Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971. 
With his keyboard playing the stuff of legends, with Preston seen effortlessly wailing on the Hammond B3 organ, his legendary musician status continued well into his later years.
“Everybody respected him, that was the thing, from a musical standpoint they really respected Billy,” adds Bender, who says he toured extensively in 48 out of 50 States and much of Europe during his time with Preston in the late ‘80s 
“We played at Ronnie Wood’s nightclub in Miami Beach, and we asked the club manager, ‘Does Ronnie ever show up? Should we make room for him on stage?’ ‘Ahh, sometimes he’ll hang out, but he doesn’t really do that.’ That night, Ronnie got onstage and performed with Billy and the band. Everybody wanted to be on stage with Billy.”
Preston passed in 2006, having left an indelible mark on decades of musicians and fans across the globe.  
“He had such an amazing, dynamic, fulfilling solo career that he should get into the hall of fame on his own merit,” adds Bender. “He doesn’t need to ride the coattails of The Beatles or the Stones or Eric Clapton. Billy deserves to get in on his own.”

Randy Rhoads
John Atashian / Getty Images
– Randy Rhoads
Randy Rhoads, pictured during a show with Ozzy Osbourne in 1981. The gifted guitarist jumpstarted Ozzy’s solo career with a fresh sound and amazing chops, influencing a generation of guitarists in a short time before dying in a plane crash in 1982.

Randy Rhoads

Although it seems obvious now, Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career after leaving heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath was not guaranteed to be a hit. But, Randy Rhoads may have made it all but inevitable. “Ozzy had nothing to lose but everything to gain,” says longtime Osbourne manager and wife Sharon Osbourne, looking back at 1979. 
“He’d been fired. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, well, he’s gone. What lead singer gets fired and then comes back again on their own?’ They hadn’t at that time, not from a band like Sabbath. It was just destined that he and Randy were to meet and form this partnership. It was just the best. When those songs were being written and recorded, it was just a legendary time to be a part of working with such amazingly talented people.”
Rhoads’ influential work on Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman quickly shot the mild mannered, slender shredder into the heights of rock ‘n’ roll, with a fresh take on the electric guitar that had him likened to virtuosos like Eddie Van Halen and other guitar pioneers of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. 
Licks like the swirling, raucous intro and solos on “Crazy Train” and “I Don’t Know” have become classic rock standards and Rhoads’ musical contributions all but single-handedly breathed a second chapter into the Prince Of Darkness’ career. 
“I owe my career to him,” Ozzy Osbourne told Rolling Stone, adding of the Rock Hall honor, “It’s a long time coming, but he got there in the end.”
“They had this great rapport,” Sharon Osbourne adds. “Randy used to crack up at everything Ozzy would say and do. He loved Ozzy’s voice, and Ozzy just loved Randy. It was a great, great partnership they had. It was the most fantastic time we all had together, it was exciting and new and just an incredible time to be alive and working in the music industry surrounded by such a talent.”
As quickly as he shot up to the forefront of rock ‘n’ roll stardom, however, Rhoads perished at age 25 in a plane crash in March of 1982, leaving the world to wonder what else he may have accomplished. 
“He had told Ozzy the night of the accident that he wanted to go back to study classical music,” Sharon Osbourne says. “He could have done anything and everything he wanted. He was that talented. It just all came so naturally to him. His whole life was his music.”
Sharon described Rhoads as beautiful and joked that with his slight frame and flowing blonde hair, many would mistake him for a woman upon meeting. 
“Randy was the first artist I officially signed as manager of, I still have that contract in England signed, and it is framed,” says Osbourne. “When I first met him, honestly he was so tiny, he was a petite, little guy. He was so beautiful. He had this mane of beautiful, blonde hair and he just had this star quality, this aura about him. He was the sort of guy that you would have to turn and look at after they walk past. You had to have a second look, because he was so unique.”
She credits Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello for spreading the good word and continuing to sing the praises of Randy Rhoads, which she says is important to his legacy and family. 
Morello, upon learning the news, shared on his own social channels: “A peerless talent who fused timeless riffs, solos of ingenious beauty and emotional fire, and a catalog that melds technical mastery and raw rock power, it was Randy’s poster that was on my wall when I was practicing 8 hours a day. Randy was a tremendous musician and huge inspiration and I’m so glad to see him honored.”

LL Cool J
Ebet Roberts / Getty Images
– LL Cool J
LL Cool J onstage in 1987. Not only one of the most successful recording artists of his era, LL Cool J was the first hip-hop artist on “American Bandstand” and was instrumental in establishing New York as the epicenter of hip-hop in the ‘80s.


A pioneer of hip-hop dating back to the early ‘80s, LL Cool J has remained successful as not only a musician but as a full media and entertainment enterprise.
“To call him a multi-hyphenate is an understatement!” says manager Claudine Joseph, chief operating officer of LL COOL J Inc. “It’s an honor to be able to work alongside LL for over 20 years. His work ethic, vision and passion for the culture is unmatched. Through our work together, I’ve seen him grow from a hip-hop superstar to a movie star, network television star, entrepreneur, philanthropist and CEO of his own company.  
“He continues to make his mark with Rock The Bells, a channel on SiriusXM & multi-media platform dedicated to classic and timeless hip-hop, all while giving back to the pioneers of the genre.”
Through the ‘80s LL Cool J went from the streets of Queens to worldwide, as one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of the decade, and the first rapper to top the R&B charts, with “I Need Love.” 
He also won a Grammy for 1991’s ubiquitous “Mama Said Knock You Out,” with other huge hits including “Around The Way Girl,” “Doin’ It” and “Going Back To Cali.”
“It’s a full circle moment to see him recognized for being the legend that he is – his influence has transformed music, fashion, film, television and business,” manager Joseph adds. “From being Def Jam’s first artist to expanding the meaning of hip-hop with songs like ‘I Need Love,’ he has continued to blaze his own trail from the beginning of his career to today. LL is truly the G.O.A.T. and a 1 of 1 original. I feel such a sense of pride knowing he’s taking his place in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame among the greatest names in music.”
Adds WME partner Richard Weitz, “As LL himself likes to say, ‘Dreams don’t have deadlines,’ and playing even a small part in moving those dreams along has been an incredible experience as a fan, agent and longtime admirer of his work. I’m so proud of LL on this well-deserved recognition and look forward to all that lies ahead.”