William Everett "Billy" Preston (September 2, 1946 – June 6, 2006) was an American musician whose work included R&B, rock, soul, funk and gospel.
Preston became famous first as a session musician with artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and the Beatles, and was later successful as a solo artist with hit pop singles including "Outa-Space", its sequel, "Space Race", "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing from Nothing", and a string of albums and guest appearances with Eric Clapton, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others. In addition, Preston was co-author, with The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, of "You Are So Beautiful," recorded by Preston and later a #5 hit for Joe Cocker.
Alongside Tony Sheridan, Billy Preston was the only other musician to be credited on a Beatles recording: the artists on the number-one hit "Get Back" are given as "The Beatles with Billy Preston". Stephen Stills asked Preston if he could use Preston's phrase "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" and created the hit song.
Early life and career
William Everett Preston was born on September 2, 1946, in Houston, Texas. When he was three, the family moved to Los Angeles where Preston began playing piano while sitting on his mother Robbie's lap. Noted as a child prodigy, by the age of ten, Preston was playing organ onstage backing several gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andrae Crouch. At twelve, he appeared in the W.C. Handy biopic starring Nat King Cole entitled, St. Louis Blues, playing W.C. Handy at a younger age. A year prior, Preston appeared on Cole's national TV show singing the Fats Domino hit, "Blueberry Hill".
In 1962, Preston joined Little Richard's band as an organist and it was while performing in Hamburg that Preston met the Beatles. In 1963 he played the organ on Sam Cooke's Night Beat album and released his debut album, 16 Yr Old Soul, that same year for Cooke's SAR Records label. In 1965, he released the album The Most Exciting Organ Ever, and that same year played organ and performed on the rock and roll show, Shindig!. In 1967, he joined Ray Charles' band. Following his exposure with Charles, several musicians began asking Preston to come to sessions, most notably the Beatles, who asked him to contribute to two of their albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be.
Relationship with the Beatles
Preston is one of several people sometimes referred to by outsiders as a "Fifth Beatle". At one point during the "Get Back" sessions, John Lennon even proposed the idea of having him as the "Fifth Beatle" (to which Paul countered that it was bad enough with four). Preston first met The Beatles as a 16-year-old 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, a friend of Preston, had quit, 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. "Get Back", one of the album's singles, was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston", the only time such a joint credit had been given on an official Beatles-sanctioned release (as distinct from an unsanctioned reissue of some Hamburg-era recordings on which they were the backing group for Tony Sheridan). The credit was bestowed by the Beatles to reflect the extent of Preston's presence on the track; his electric piano is prominent throughout and he plays an extended solo. Preston also worked, in a more limited role, on the Abbey Road album, contributing to the tracks "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Something."
In 1978, he appeared as Sgt. Pepper in Robert Stigwood's film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was very loosely based on the Beatles' album of the same name.
Post-Beatles solo career
Preston singing at the piano in 1971
Signed to the Beatles' Apple Records 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 (Harrison's own version of the single hit number one in the US and the UK and was the first number one by a former Beatle after they disbanded) and he was on several of Harrison's 1970s solo albums. 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 records by two other ex-Beatles, John Lennon and Ringo Starr. After the Encouraging Words album, Preston left Apple and signed with Herb Alpert's A&M Records.
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. The song reached #2 on the US Hot 100, #1 on the R&B chart, and won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in June 1972.
Over the next two years, he followed up with the #1 hits "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing", and the #4 hit "Space Race". All three releases each sold in excess of one million copies. American Bandstand host and executive producer Dick Clark enjoyed "Space Race" so much that he used the instrumental for the mid-show break for virtually the remainder of its run.
Preston supporting The Rolling Stones on their Tour of the Americas, July 23, 1975
After working with the Beatles, Preston played keyboards (including piano, organ, clavinet, and various synthesizers) for The Rolling Stones alongside pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart on Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock'n Roll and Black and Blue. As the band's primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1976, he also performed as a support act with his own band (including Mick Taylor on guitar) on their 1973 European Tour; a Munich performance was documented his live album Live European Tour 1973. In 1974 with some help from Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, 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). Preston's 1973 Do You Love Me was the basis for the Stones' Melody on their 1976 Black and Blue album. Although two of his songs ("Nothing from Nothing" and "Outa-Space") were included in the band's 1976 live sets, the Stones and Preston parted company in 1977, mainly due to a disagreement over money. He continued to play on solo records by Stones members and made appearances on the Stones' 1981 Tattoo You and 1997 Bridges to Babylon albums.
Preston's solo career began to decline after 1976. After years with A&M Records, Preston switched labels, moving to Motown Records where, in 1980, Preston had a top ten hit duet with Syreeta Wright with the ballad "With You I'm Born Again" that reached number four on the charts in the US. When Preston failed to match its success, the musician left the label in 1984 and focused on session work.
In 1991, 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. After submitting to a drug test, he tested positive for cocaine. That year, he entered no-contest pleas to the cocaine and assault charges. 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 the above-mentioned legal problems put an end to the collaboration before they had a chance to record together in the studio.
On 1997, Billy Preston recorded the album You and i with Nicolosi Productions in Italy. The album was produced by Lino Nicolosi and Pino Nicolosi, (members of the Italian band Novecento). In 1998, Preston played organ during the choir numbers on the UPN comedy show Good News.
While touring and fighting his own health problems, Preston received the news that, on 29 November 2001, George Harrison had died, having long suffered from throat cancer. Preston, among many of Harrison's longtime friends, performed in the 2002 Concert for George in London, to play a tribute song. Preston participated in the concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and his performance of "My Sweet Lord" has received critical acclaim. Preston played the Hammond organ for the show and also sang "Isn't It a Pity" and provided backing vocals on most of the other songs. Ringo Starr called him one of the greatest Hammond players of all time (in the theatrical version of the concert).
In 2002, he appeared on the Johnny Cash album American IV: The Man Comes Around, playing piano on "Personal Jesus" and "Tear Stained Letter".
He toured with the Funk Brothers and Steve Winwood in Europe in early 2004 and then with his friend Eric Clapton in Europe and North America. Right after finishing touring with Clapton, Preston went on to the South of France where he was featured in one episode of the Legends Rock TV Show produced by Megabien Entertainment, which was his last videotaped concert.
In 2004, Preston performed as a jazz organist with a solo on Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company duets album teaming up with Charles and Norah Jones on the song "Here We Go Again".
In March 2005, Preston appeared on the American Idol's fourth season finale. Playing piano, he performed "With You I'm Born Again" with Vonzell Solomon, who finished in third place. The same year, he recorded "Go Where No One's Gone Before", the main title song for the anime series L/R: Licensed by Royalty.
Preston played clavinet on the song "Warlocks" for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Stadium Arcadium released in 2006. Although very ill by this point, he jumped out of his bed after hearing a tape of the song given to him by the band, recorded his part, and went back to bed. Preston's final contributions were the gospel-tinged organ on the Neil Diamond album 12 Songs, and his keyboard work on The Road to Escondido by Eric Clapton and J. J. Cale.
Preston made his last public appearance in late 2005 at the Los Angeles press junket for the re-release of the Concert for Bangla Desh movie. He was in good spirits and talked to many in the press. Afterwards he played a three song set of "Give Me Love", "My Sweet Lord" and "Isn't It a Pity", featuring Dhani Harrison on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums for the final song only.
There still remains an unreleased CD of Beatles covers that he had been working on for several years before his death. Many tracks from this CD were previewed by him at the Fest for Beatles Fans shows in the years before his death.
Jazz musician Miles Davis was heavily influenced by Preston's music during his funk rock period of the early 1970s. The 1974 album Get Up With It features a track called "Billy Preston" in his honor.
Preston was an openly gay man but did not speak publicly about his sexuality.
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 on June 6, 2006 in Scottsdale, Arizona, of complications of malignant hypertension that resulted in kidney failure and other complications. He had voluntarily entered a drug rehabilitation clinic in Malibu, California, at the suggestion of guitarist Is'real Benton and suffered pericarditis there, leading to respiratory failure that left him in a coma from November 21, 2005. His funeral was held on June 20 at the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, California, where his remains were interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery.