September 2, 1946– Billy Preston:
“Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin‘.“
Billy Preston was said to have the wildest organ in showbiz. He was absolutely one of the greatest keyboard players in Pop Music history and probably also the best session player of the Rock era. Preston is one of several gifted humans sometimes referred to by fans and music historians as the “Fifth Beatle”.
At one point during the 1969 recording sessions for Get Back, John Lennon actually proposed the idea of having him as the official Fifth Beatle. At the time, poor Paul McCartney said: “It was bad enough with four Beatles“.
Preston first met The Beatles in 1962 when he was part of Little Richard‘s touring band. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, had organized a Liverpool show for Little Richard with The Beatles as the opening act.
They would meet again in 1969 when The Beatles were on the verge of breaking-up while recording what would be their last album to be released, Let It Be (they would later record Abbey Road, but it ended up being released before to Let It Be). After a dreadful fight, George Harrison quit the band and walked out of the studio. He took himself to a Ray Charles concert where Preston was in the band playing Hammond organ. The next day Harrison brought Preston back to Apple Studios, where his keen musicianship and gregarious personality calmed the tensions of the Fab Four and the recording of Let It Be continued.
Preston was signed to The Beatles’ Apple record label in 1969 and released the Gospel tinged album That’s The Way God Planned It. The title track, produced by Harrison, was released as a single. The pair had a strong relationship after The Beatles split. Preston was the first to record Harrison’s My Sweet Lord. It’s on his 1970 album Encouraging Words.
He played on every subsequent album recorded by Harrison. He also appeared at Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, the name given to two benefit concerts organized by Harrison and Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar. The concerts were held in the afternoon and evening of August 1, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. The shows brought international awareness and money for relief efforts for refugees from East Pakistan following the Bangladesh Liberation War-related genocide. The concerts were recorded as a bestselling live album, a boxed three-record set, and Apple Films’ concert documentary in 1972. The event was the first-ever benefit concert of such a magnitude and featured a supergroup that included Preston, Shankar, Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Leon Russell.
He was born William Everett Preston in Houston, but he grew up in Los Angeles. Preston was a child prodigy on piano and organ. At just 10 years old, he was performing in the backup bands of Gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Andraé Crouch.
When Preston was 12 years old, he began a second career as an actor. He appeared in the film St. Louis Blues (1958) playing composer W.C. Handy as a young man.
In the mid-1960s, Preston was also a regular on my much loved musical variety series Shindig! (1964-68) as a member of the show’s house band.
Always in demand, Preston collaborated with, played keyboards with, and recorded with: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Band, the great Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Eric Burdon, Elton John, Clapton, Dylan, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, The Jackson 5, Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger, Sly Stone, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ringo Starr. He played traditional piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, and the Hammond organ.
Preston was the very first musical guest on the very first show of a brand new television series called Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975, along with the still-closeted singer/songwriter Janis Ian.
He wrote Joe Cocker‘s biggest hit You Are So Beautiful To Me, and had a string of solo and duet hits in the 1970s that were so infectious that I can still hear the groovy hooks: Outa-Space, Will It Go Round In Circles and one of my favorite songs of the era, Nothing For Nothing. Preston composed and sang a duet with the lovely Syreeta Wright, With You I’m Born Again, which I plan to sing to The Husband when we renew our vows on our 75th anniversary, changing the lyrics to “Bored Again”.
Preston is the only person to share a songwriting credit on an album by The Beatles with Get Back. He was a part of The Beatles’ 42-minute final public performance on January 30, 1969, on the roof of the Apple building in London. Preston:
“Musically, my favorite moment was on the roof for Let It Be. It was a struggle for them. They were kind of despondent. They had lost the joy of doing it all.“
Preston also had a lengthy collaboration with the Rolling Stones. He took part in the sessions for some of the band’s most acclaimed albums, including Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street and Tattoo You. He often played with the band on tours. By 1976, Preston always had his own solo spot during Rolling Stones shows. Jagger:
“Billy was a fantastic and gifted musician – a superb singer in both recording sessions and onstage. He was great fun to be with, and I will miss him a lot.“
Preston liked his drugs and his drug of choice was crack cocaine. It took his life after he began using large amounts following a successful kidney transplant. I think that street cocaine may have been a form of slow suicide for Preston. After an overdose, he was in a coma for six months, and then Preston took that final bow in 2006. He was just 59 years old.
His final public appearance was at a 2005 press event in Los Angeles for the re-release of the film of Concert For Bangladesh. He performed Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth), My Sweet Lord and Isn’t It A Pity alongside Ringo Starr and Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison.
His gayness was no secret from the The Beatles or the other artists he worked with. He often took boyfriends out on tour with him. He was sort of outed by Keith Richards in his memoir Life (2010). Before he died, Preston had been working on a collection of Beatles cover versions, which remains unreleased.