Billy Preston

billy preston

Billy Preston (1946 – 2006) was an African American rhythm and blues musician from Houston, Texas, raised mostly in Los Angeles. In addition to his career as a solo artist, Preston collaborated with some of the greatest names in the music industry, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Johnny Cash. He played the Fender Rhodes electric piano and the Hammond organ on the Get Back sessions in 1969.

Preston began playing piano while sitting on his mother’s lap at age three, and he was considered something of a child prodigy on piano and organ. By the age of 10 he was performing in the bands of gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Andrae Crouch. In the 1960s he performed with Little Richard and Ray Charles, and in 1963, aged just 16, he played organ on the Sam Cooke album ‘Night Beat.’ He also began a recording career as a solo artist with the 1965 album ‘The Most Exciting Organ Ever.’

Preston is one of several people sometimes referred to by outsiders as a ‘Fifth Beatle.’ Preston first met The Beatles in 1962 while part of Little Richard’s touring band, when their manager Brian Epstein organized a Liverpool show, at which The Beatles opened. The Washington Post explained their subsequent meeting: ‘They’d hook up again in 1969, when The Beatles were about to break up while recording the last album they released, ‘Let It Be’ (they would later record ‘Abbey Road,’ which was released prior to ‘Let It Be’). George Harrison, always Preston’s best Beatles buddy, had quit and walked out of the studio and gone to a Ray Charles concert in London, where Preston was playing organ. Harrison brought Preston back to the studio, where his keen musicianship and gregarious personality temporarily calmed the tension.’

Preston played with The Beatles for several of the ‘Get Back’ sessions, some of the material from which would later be culled to make the film ‘Let it Be’ and its companion album, during which he joined the band for its rooftop concert, its final public appearance. Signed to The Beatles’ Apple label, in 1969, Preston released the album ‘That’s the Way God Planned It’ and a single of the same name (produced by George Harrison). His relationship with Harrison continued after the breakup of The Beatles; he was the first artist to record ‘My Sweet Lord,’ in his album ‘Encouraging Words.’ Preston also made notable contributions to ‘The Concert for Bangladesh,’ the Harrison-organized charity concert, toured with Harrison on his 1974 tour of North America and, after Harrison’s death, ‘The Concert for George.’ Preston also worked on solo recordings by two other ex-Beatles, John Lennon and Ringo Starr.

His solo career also peaked at this time, beginning with 1972’s ‘Outa-Space,’ an instrumental track that further popularized the sound of the clavinet in funk music. After The Beatles, Preston played keyboards for The Rolling Stones, alongside pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart. Preston appears on five Stones albums, including ‘Sticky Fingers’ and ‘Exile on Main Street.’ In 1974 he composed one of Joe Cocker’s biggest hits, ‘You Are So Beautiful.’ On October 11, 1975, he was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live’s series premiere episode (along with Janis Ian).

In the 1980s he was arrested and convicted for insurance fraud after setting fire to his own house in Los Angeles, and he was treated for alcohol and cocaine addictions. He also was arrested in 1991 for sexually assaulting a 16 year-old Mexican boy, after picking him up at a gathering point for day laborers. He was sentenced to nine months at a drug rehabilitation center and three months of house arrest.

Preston overcame his problems in the early 1990s, toured with Eric Clapton, recorded with Gary Walker, one of the vocalists in his Los Angeles based band, and worked with a wide range of other artists. He also toured with Ringo Starr and appeared on the 1990 live album ‘Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band.’ He was also invited to become a member of The Band in 1991, after the death of their piano player, Stan Szelest. He completed a tour, but his above-mentioned legal problems put an end to the collaboration before they had a chance to record together in the studio. Preston had battled kidney disease in his later years, brought on by his hypertension. He received a kidney transplant in 2002, but his health continued to deteriorate. He died in 2006 in Arizona.

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