Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Billy Preston

An elementary quiz among pop music enthusiasts is, "who is the only musician to be credited on a Beatles recording other than the group's four members?" Not only that, he also played keyboards for the Rolling Stones on many of the group's albums and tours during the 1970s. Not only that, but he had been a boy wonder who had worked with many legendary artists in black music before he was even of age. All that, before his very successful solo career mainly in the 70s, a career that produced #1 hits. One of the world's best keyboard players - and a man with a tortured life: Ladies and gentlemen, here's Billy Preston.

William Everett Preston (September 2, 1946 – June 6, 2006) was born in Houston, Texas and 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, Preston was entirely self-taught and never had a music lesson. By the age of ten, he was playing organ onstage backing several gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and AndraĆ© Crouch. At age eleven, Preston appeared on Nat King Cole's national TV show singing the Fats Domino hit Blueberry Hill with Cole. Also at eleven, he appeared in St. Louis Blues (1958), the W.C. Handy biopic starring Nat King Cole; Preston played Handy at a younger age. Here's that exciting version of Blueberry Hill:

As his career was taking off, a traumatic event occured that marred Billy's passage to adolescence; at about the age of nine, after he and his mother moved to Los Angeles from Houston to perform in a touring production of Amos 'n' Andy, he was repeatedly abused by the touring company's pianist. When Preston told his mother about the abuse, she did not believe him, and failed to protect him. The abuse subsequently went on for the entire summer, and Preston stated that he was also later abused by a local pastor.

As Preston's manager Joyce Moore revealed after Billy's death, his mother’s refusal to accept the news categorically (and ironically) weighed heavier than the molestation itself by destroying Billy’s self worth well into the realm of his adulthood and massive success. He hid a great amount of pain and self hatred behind a huge gapped-tooth smile by being completely disconnected from himself, his success and the world for his entire 50 year career.

In 1962, Preston joined Little Richard's band as an organist. Horst Fascher, body guard for musicians in Hamburg, wrote a book saying Little Richard made it clear to everyone that he was with Billy Preston at the time. Here they are much later, in 1985, live at the Apollo Theatre, NYC, performing Didn't It Rain:

Here is a tribute to gospel legend Marion Williams, where three legends appear together: Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Billy Preston:

Billy Preston first met The Beatles while touring with Little Richard's band in 1962. At the time The Beatles were the opening act, and were yet to find fame beyond their home city. Of this meeting, John Lennon said (in The Beatles Anthology): “It’s hard for people to imagine just how thrilled we, the four of us, were to even see any great rock’n’roller in the flesh and we were almost paralysed with adoration for both of them, and the side show was that Little Richard’s organist was Billy Preston. He looked about 10 then.”

In 1963, Preston played the organ on Sam Cooke's Night Beat album. The Guardian included it on their 2007 list of "1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die". In You Gotta Move, Billy's organ is prominent:

Also in 1963, Preston released his own debut album, 16 Yr Old Soul, for Cooke's SAR label. Greazee Parts 1 & 2 opened the album:

In 1965, he released the album The Most Exciting Organ Ever and performed Short Fat Fannie on the rock and roll show Shindig!

From The Most Exciting Organ Ever, here's Don't Let Sun Catch You Crying:

At the end of 1965 he released Early Hits of '65. From that album, I chose to play Goldfinger:

In 1966 he released Wildest Organ in Town! It was arranged by Sly Stone. Here's In The Midnight Hour:

From the same album, here's Satisfaction:

In 1967, he joined Ray Charles' band. Following this exposure, several musicians began asking Preston to contribute to their sessions. His first meeting on stage with Ray Charles happened a couple of years earlier, on Shindig!, with the song Double O Soul:

Among the people with whom he worked during this time and formed lasting friendships was Aretha Franklin. Here they are much later, reminiscing and singing O Holy Night:

Also in 1967, he released Club Meeting. It included his own composition Let the Music Play:

Billy met again with the Beatles in 1969, during the fraught sessions for the Let It Be album and film. George Harrison, unwilling to further endure the animosity within the group, had walked out of the studio and gone to a Ray Charles concert in London, where he saw Preston playing the organ. Harrison brought Preston back into the studio, where his enthusiasm and easy-going personality helped ease the tensions.

John Lennon was in favour of making Preston a full member of the band; Paul McCartney disagreed, saying there was little point as the band was close to splitting. Nevertheless, he worked with The Beatles from 22-31 January 1969, playing Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Lowrey DSO Heritage organ.

Preston performed with The Beatles during their 42-minute performance on the rooftop of Apple, on 30 January 1969, which was the band's final public performance. In April 1969 the Get Back single was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston", as was its b-side, Don't Let Me Down. Billy Preston also played on The Beatles' Abbey Road album. He performed on the songs I Want You (She's So Heavy) and Something, though was not credited. Here is Preston telling us all about it:

Here he is with the Beatles, performing Don't Let Me Down:

Here's Get Back: Preston's organ-playing takes the song to another level.

Preston was signed to Apple in 1969, and released the album That's The Way God Planned It. Aside from Harrison, other contributors to the album include Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Doris Troy. Most of the songs were written by Preston himself, as was the title track, produced by George Harrison; it was released as a single and peaked at #11 in the UK.

Preston and Harrison had a strong relationship after The Beatles split. Preston was the first to record My Sweet Lord, for his 1970 album Encouraging Words, and he appeared on several subsequent albums by Harrison. He also appeared at the Concert for Bangladesh. Here's My Sweet Lord:

Here's Preston with the live version of That's The Way God Planned It from the Concert for Bangladesh:

Here's Preston doing his organ magic for the Rolling Stones in Can't You Hear Me Knockin':

He also plays the piano in John Lennon's wonderful meditation on God:

I'm The Greatest is also a John Lennon composition, offered to Ringo Starr for his album Ringo. Preston is on keyboards:

In 1971, Preston left Apple and signed with Herb Alpert's A&M Records. The previous year, he contributed to another hit single when Stephen Stills asked to use Preston's phrase "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with", a song on Stills' self-titled debut solo album.

It seems that in the TV documentary Unsung, which dedicated a show to Billy Preston in 2011, had one of Billy's backing musicians from the late 60s/early 70s (no name mentioned in the story) saying that when he first met Billy, Billy had asked him if he could give him some head. Preston admitted he would never openly come out because the black church and the music industry (and black people) would have turned against him. I'm sure he was right.

His first album with A&M was I Wrote a Simple Song. The title track was a minor US hit (#77):

It was his next single, Outa-Space that finally established Billy as a true superstar in his own country. It peaked at #2 in Billboard's Hot 100 and at #1 in the R&B chart. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

His follow-up album, Music Is My Life (1972) further advanced his chart fortunes: The album contains Preston's first #1 single, Will It Go Round in Circles, which would become one of his best known songs:

It also contains his version of the Beatles' Blackbird:

There was another album in 1973, called Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music. An instrumental was chosen as lead single - and like Outa-Space, of which Space Race was a sort of sequel, it became a big hit (#4 Hot 100, #1 R&B):

Follow-up single You're So Unique stalled at #48 in the Hot 100, but made #11 in the R&B chart:

His first live album was Live European Tour, released in 1974. It was recorded during his opening act stint for The Rolling Stones 1973 European Tour, featuring Mick Taylor on lead guitar & Preston's own band "The God Squad". From it, here's The Bus:

His next album, The Kids & Me (1974), included his second US #1, Nothing from Nothing:

... As well as Billy's composition, You Are So Beautiful, which was later a big hit for Joe Cocker. Here's Preston's original version:

Here's Cocker's hit version:

It's My Pleasure (1975) featured his friend George Harrison on guitar, on the track That's Life:

He released two more albums with A&M, then he appeared in that cute catastrophe of a film, the all-star version of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie (1978):

He then signed a contract with Motown and his first album there, Late At Night (1979), contained his hit duet with Syreeta, With You I'm Born Again (#4 US, #2 UK):

From his album The Way I Am (1981), here's Sam Cooke's classic A Change Is Gonna Come:

From his last album with Motown, Pressin' On (1982), here's I'm Never Gonna Say Goodbye:

While his popularity waned, his drug dependancy, originally to cocaine and later to the cheaper but more lethal crack, increased. By the late-1980s, Billy’s life was in free-fall: he was arrested for insurance fraud after attempting to burn down his own house in 1991. And he was treated for alcohol and cocaine addictions. In the same year, he was also arrested 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. A few months later, Preston was charged with sexual battery, assault with a deadly weapon – a knife – and false imprisonment of a 38-year-old man he hired to do work at his Malibu, Ca. home. That year, he entered no-contest pleas to the cocaine and sexual 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. In 2002 he performed at the tribute concert for Harrison at the Royal Albert Hall, where he played My Sweet Lord and Isn't It A Pity. Here's the latter:

His final public appearance was at a 2005 press junket in Los Angeles, for the re-release of the Concert for Bangladesh film. Afterwards he performed Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth), My Sweet Lord and Isn't It A Pity with Ringo Starr and George's son Dhani.

Billy Preston had been battling kidney disease for some years, brought on by his drink and drug abuse. On Nov. 21, 2005, the man known as "The Fifth Beatle" lay on a hospital bed, dressed in street clothes, thrashing and gasping for air. Billy Preston had just arrived at the Intensive Care Unit at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey, Calif., rushed there from the Canyon, a nearby drug-rehab center. A large, frustrated nurse wrestled with the legendary, 59-year-old organ player, struggling to fit a black oxygen mask over his face. Eyes wide with fear, Preston dodged his head back and forth, unable to breathe.

Holding his hand at his bedside was Preston's manager, Joyce Moore. She tried in vain to calm him down. "I gripped him tight and said, 'Boo, you gotta relax,'" Moore says. "I thought he was having a panic attack. I kept saying, 'Breathe with me... breathe with me.'"

But it wasn't a panic attack or the pangs of crack withdrawal. Years of drug abuse had culminated in malignant hypertension and pericarditis, the internal drowning of the area around Preston's heart. He mustered the strength to push the mask away, look up at Moore and painfully utter his last words: "I... can't!"

Suddenly Preston's eyes rolled back, and his grip loosened. The monitors flatlined. Even after doctors drained the fluid around his heart, he didn't wake up. He lay in a coma for nearly six months before dying on June 6, 2006.

As of 2015, his estate was still legally tangled in a messy bankruptcy case. Such a talented man and may I say such a good man, otherwise he would not have been so popular among superstar musicians, didn't manage to live up to his full potential, neither as an artist nor as a man. Such a waste... such a pity...


  1. Any time I get full of myself and think I know a lot about music I turn to this site and get surprised once again. My image of Billy Preston was that of an accomplished musician so well liked that the Beatles wanted to recruit him. The Beatles! Never heard word one about a possible gay connection. I remember first hearing him on That's The Way God Planned It and of course, Get Back. After the 70s hits, not so much. Somehow I also didn't know about the drug and criminal charges nor the sad end to his life. Good job on educating moi once again!

    1. Hello my friend! I too have recently learned of the gay connection and was as surprised as you. In hindsight, it makes sense, my gaydar was sort of pinging before, but not too hard. Thank you for your kind and inspiring words!