A sad anniversary more people will probably be marking this year than before – Billy Preston passed away this day in 2006. He was only 59…but had been prominent in the music world for over four decades by then.
Preston was of course one of the most talented keyboardists in rock and soul and an artist who had several hit records of his own. But more than anything he might be remembered as the “fifth Beatle”, coming in to help out on the Let it Be album and their famous final, rooftop concert. The importance he had to the Fab Four has become a lot clearer in the past year with the release of the Get Back movie. Even the title of the film is taken from the song he played so prominently on, the only Beatles record ever which gave another artist credit at their request (it was put out as “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”) George Harrison had invited him in to join the quarrelsome and less-than-efficient studio sessions and “he got on the electric piano and straight away there was a 100% improvement in the vibe in the room.” An improvement which was very obvious in the film; Preston’s sheer joy seemed to rub off on the others, as it apparently frequently did on other musicians he was around.
Billy was born in Houston and raised in a very religious household, which turned out to be a mixed blessing later in his life. He was a true child prodigy, teaching himself how to play piano and organ so well that by age 10, Mahalia Jackson had asked him to play with her onstage and a year later Nat King Cole brought him in to play in his band on a TV special. He’d toured with Little Richard and Sam Cooke by the time he was 16. It was with Little Richard, while touring Europe that he met the Beatles, then young lads themselves, in Germany. Apparently he made quite an impression on them. Once they rekindled their friendship in the Let it Be sessions, they signed him to their Apple Records label. There he recorded his first album to attract much attention, That’s the Way God Planned It, the title track of which was a reasonably-popular British hit. Among his guests on that album were Harrison, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.
Soon he joined A&M Records, where he had his greatest success, putting out four singles which went gold in the States in a short time, including the #1 songs “Will it Go Round in Circles?” and “Nothing From Nothing”, plus the Grammy-winning “Outta Space”, which made the top 5.
He kept very busy in the ’70s working with others as well. He played at Harrison’s Bangladesh concerts and appeared on some of his records as well as ones by John Lennon and Ringo Starr. In addition he made friends with Keith Richards and worked extensively with the Stones, adding keyboards to five of their albums including Goat’s Head Soup and Sticky Fingers and touring with them regularly. Along the way he found time to write “You Are So Beautiful” for Joe Cocker (well, actually Billy said he wrote it for his mother, but of course Cocker made it famous) and be the first musical guest on a wild new late night show that was called Saturday Night Live in 1975.
At the end of the decade, he’d signed to Motown and released what would be his last real hit, “With You I’m Born Again”, a duet with Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta Wright. Unfortunately, health problems like high blood pressure and kidney disease, worsened by spiraling cocaine use limited his ability to play or do a lot of creating for many years after that (although he still did get in some session work including with Mick Jagger and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) He had to undergo a kidney transplant in 2002.
Those who knew him well knew that many of his problems and issues were because he was gay, although his religious beliefs made him not only fight his urges but refuse to acknowledge his orientation publicly.
A number of health issues including pericarditas (a heart problem) put him in the hospital in 2006 and he passed away from complications of that. Joe Cocker and the Temptations sang at his funeral and Little Richard spoke.
Ringo Starr said Billy was one of the greatest organists ever – “Billy never put his hands in the wrong place. Never.” Rick Wakeman said “every keyboard player I know loves Billy Preston…you can spot his playing a mile off,” because “he had such a spiritual touch to his playing.”
If there’s a rock’n’roll heaven, I think we know who’s playing the Hammond organ in the band, and keeping everyone else upbeat with his grin.