Billy Beck’s love for the piano began in church at the age of 4.
“I just got up and started playing a day after church,” he said. “I think they call it being gifted.”
His latest project takes him back to church, a gospel CD of mostly original songs called «Close 2 You: Vol. 1, “ and he’ll perform songs from that CD at the Warren Community Amphitheater at 6 p.m. Sunday opening Red Hands as part of the Inspire Summer Concert Series.
In many ways, Beck, 67, has never left church. It performed at several places of worship in the Mahoning Valley when he was growing up in Youngstown. Since 2000, he has been Minister of Music at the Friendship Baptist Church in Warren.
But most people know Beck as the keyboardist for the Ohio Players. He co-wrote and performed soul / funk hits “The roller coaster of love” “Fire,” “Skin tight,” “Jive Turkey” and many others, and he has also worked with artists such as Zapp, Roger Troutman and Shirley Murdock.
Several people shaped Beck’s different musical interests as a child. The gospel came from his parents.
“My father was a deacon in the church,” Beck said. “He never wanted me to play anything other than gospel. Mom was happy that I was successful in music, but deep in her heart she wanted me to come back and at least do gospel music.
George Bretz, who taught at Youngstown State University’s Dana School of Music, saw Beck as a child perform in church and began training him in classical piano.
“He decided to make me his protégé”, Beck said. “He gave me lessons and never charged me a dime… I was like a sponge, I just ate it. In high school, I was offered a Central State scholarship, but turned it down because I didn’t want to leave Youngstown.
It was the Godfather himself who ignited his passion for soul.
“I went to see James Brown when I was 11 at the Stambaugh auditorium. Oh, my God, I’ve been changed forever.
Beck was a fan of the Ohio Players before joining. The Dayton-based band performed regularly in Youngstown in the early 1970s.
“They always had a local band open for them, and it had to be the best band in Youngstown,” Beck said. “Every time they came to town, they saw me. Different bands, but the same guy. They thought there must be something about this guy. One evening I played one of their songs. Nobody does that. It got them out of the locker room. I wanted them to pay attention, know who I was and it worked.
Shortly after, keyboardist Junie Morrison left the band and decided to go solo. Clarence guitar / saxophone player “Satch” Satchell invited Beck to fly to Dayton and audition for the band replacing keyboards for his concerts this weekend. Beck had never taken a plane and had no interest in taking one, but he had two of his high school buddies drive him there to get on the Ohio Players bus.
“I find out they’re opening for Al Green. Wow. I didn’t have a rehearsal. I knew their songs, but I didn’t know how they arranged them on stage. (Satch said) ‘As long as you make the songs like the record, we’ll have no problem.’
“When we got back to Dayton I asked when will I get paid so I can go back to Youngstown. Satch looked at me and said, ‘You’re not coming back.’ I just turned 20. I was the baby of the group.
Beck joined the squad as the careers of Ohio players were soaring. The group released their first R&B single to top the charts, “Funky worm” the same year, Beck joined the group. He went from the Detroit-based independent label Westbound to a major label, Mercury Records.
“Skin tight,” the first album he recorded with the band, sold a million copies and spawned two top 10 R&B singles, “Jive Turkey” and the title song.
“” Jive Turkey “was the very first (song) I invented” Beck said. “With that one, we were on stage, just a little groove after doing a song, and Satch said, ‘Carry on like that; do not stop. We turned it into a groove, and that groove turned and changed and turned into this. The first voice you hear on this song is me.
The Ohio Players quickly went from four hour-long sets a night at nightclubs to some of the biggest venues in the world, such as a concert at the New Orleans Superdome where they shared the stage with Marvin Gaye and Michael. Jackson.
And Beck quickly overcame his fear of flying. Shortly after arriving, the group was booked to appear on “Train of Souls.” When he balked at flying to Los Angeles, Beck said he was told to get on the plane or we’ll have another keyboard player.
Beck stayed with the band until the late 1980s.
“There were monetary disputes”, he said. “I decided not to deal with some hacks in progress. They went one way, and I started writing and producing and started working with the Troutmans.
Beck returned to the area in the early ’90s to care for his mother and lived in Warren for over 20 years after reuniting with his girlfriend from high school.
Him and drummer James “Diamond” Williams, the two surviving members of this classic ’70s band, are still touring as the Ohio Players. In 2019, they had shows almost every weekend, and the schedule is starting to fill up again as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
“We love what we do,” Beck said.
But he is also excited by “Shut up 2” which he recorded at the Tune Town Recording Studio in Newton Falls.
“Two (songs) are hymns and the others are originals. These are all my arrangements. I do all the background vocals and the lead vocals.
Beck performs regularly at church, but Sunday’s concert will be his first gospel show. And the award-winning musician who has performed in front of tens of thousands of people and recorded gold and platinum albums admitted he is “only a little” nervous about that first gospel concert.
It won’t be his last. Beck said he would love to play gospel shows around his Ohio players’ dates, and he pointed out that the full title of “Shut up 2” includes a “Vol. 1,” so more music is coming.