Staff photo / Andy Gray
Billy Beck, a Youngstown native who now lives in Warren, is the keyboard player for the Ohio Players and cowrote many of its soul / funk hits. He just finished his first gospel album.

Billy Beck’s love of the piano started in church at age 4.

“I just got up and started playing one day after church,” he said. “I think they call that being gifted.”

His latest project takes him back to the church, a gospel CD of mostly original songs called “Close 2 Thee: Vol. 1,” and he will perform songs from that CD at the Warren Community Amphitheatre at 6 p.m. Sunday opening for Red Hands as part of the Inspire Summer Concert Series.

In many ways, Beck, 67, never left the church. He performed at several houses of worship in the Mahoning Valley when he was growing up in Youngstown. Since 2000, he’s been minister of music at Friendship Baptist Church in Warren.

But most people know Beck as the keyboard player for the Ohio Players. He cowrote and performed on the soul / funk hits “Love Rollercoaster,” “Fire,” “Skin Tight,” “Jive Turkey” and many others, and he’s also worked with such artists as Zapp, Roger Troutman and Shirley Murdock.

Several people shaped Beck’s different musical interests as a child. Gospel came from his parents.

“My dad was a deacon in the church,” Beck said. “He never wanted me to play anything but gospel. Mom was happy I was successful in music, but deep in her heart, she wanted me to come back and at least do some gospel.”

George Bretz, who taught at Youngstown State University’s Dana School of Music, saw Beck as a child perform in church and started giving him classical piano training.

“He decided to make me his protege,” Beck said. “He gave me lessons and never charged me a cent … I was like a sponge, just eating it up. In high school, I got offered a scholarship from Central State but I 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 Stambaugh Auditorium. Oh, my God, I was changed forever.”

Beck was a fan of the Ohio Players before he became a member. The Dayton-based band regularly played 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’d seen me. Different bands, but the same guy. They figured there must be something about this guy. One night I played one of their songs. Nobody does that. It brought them out of the dressing room. I wanted them to pay attention, know who I was, and it worked.”

Shortly after that, keyboard player Junie Morrison left the band and decided to go solo. Guitar / sax player Clarence “Satch” Satchell invited Beck to fly down to Dayton and audition for the band by filling in on keyboards for its gigs that weekend. Beck had never been on an airplane and had no interest in getting on one, but he got a couple of his high school buddies to drive him down there to get on the Ohio Players’ bus.

“I find out they’re opening for Al Green. Wow. I had no rehearsal. I knew their songs, but I didn’t know how they had them arranged on stage. (Satch said), ‘As long as you do the songs like the record, we ain’t gonna have no problem.’

“When we went back to Dayton, I asked when am I going to get paid so I can go back to Youngstown. Satch looked at me and said, ‘You ain’t going back.’ I just turned 20. I was the baby of the group.”

Beck joined just as the Ohio Players’ career was skyrocketing. The band had its first chart-topping R&B single, “Funky Worm,” the same year Beck joined the band. It went from the Detroit-based independent label Westbound to a major label, Mercury Records.

“Skin Tight,” the first album he recorded with the group, sold a million copies and spawned two top 10 R&B singles, “Jive Turkey” and the title track.

“‘Jive Turkey’ was the very first one (song) I came up with,” Beck said. “With that one, we were on stage, just a little groove after doing one song, and Satch said, ‘Keep it going, don’t stop.’ We turned it into a groove, and that groove turned and changed and turned into that. The first voice you hear on that song is me.”

The Ohio Players soon went from playing four hour-long sets a night in nightclubs to playing some of the biggest venues in the world, such as a concert at the Superdome in New Orleans where they shared the stage with Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.

And Beck quickly got over his fear of flying. Shortly after he joined, the band was booked to appear on “Soul Train.” When he balked at flying to Los Angeles, Beck said he was told to get on the plane or we’ll get another keyboard player.

Beck stayed with the band until the late ’80s.

“There were monetary disputes,” he said. “I decided not to deal with certain piracies that were going on. They went one way, and I got more up into writing and producing and started working with the Troutmans.”

Beck moved back to the area in the early ’90s to take care of his mother and has lived in Warren for more than 20 years after reuniting with his high school sweetheart.

He and drummer James “Diamond” Williams, the two surviving members of that classic ’70s lineup, still tour as the Ohio Players. In 2019, they had shows nearly every weekend, and the schedule is starting to fill up again as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted.

“We love what we do,” Beck said.

But he’s also excited about “Close 2 Thee,” which he recorded at Tune Town Recording Studio in Newton Falls.

“Two (songs) are hymns and the rest are originals. They’re all my arrangements. I’m doing all the background vocals and the lead vocals.”

Beck regularly plays in church, but Sunday’s concert will be his first gospel show. And the award-winning musician who’s played before tens of thousands of people and recorded gold- and platinum-selling albums admitted he’s “just a little bit” nervous about that first gospel gig.

It won’t be his last. Beck said he’d like to play gospel shows around his Ohio Players’ dates, and he pointed out that the full title of “Close 2 Thee” includes a “Vol. 1,” so more music is coming.

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