Billy Preston, “fifth Beatle,” dead at 59
By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Keyboardist Billy Preston, a
so-called “fifth Beatle” who also played with the Rolling
Stones and enjoyed solo success in his own right, died in
Arizona on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 59.
Preston had been in a coma at Scottsdale Healthcare Shea in
Scottsdale, Arizona, since last November after suffering kidney
failure and related illnesses, the legacy of a longtime battle
with drugs that landed him in prison in the late 1990s.
His sister, Lettie Preston, told Reuters his condition
worsened over the weekend. An autopsy will be performed, and
his funeral will take place in Los Angeles, she said.
A young keyboards prodigy, the Houston, Texas, native spent
most of his life in the entertainment business. While still a
teenager, he played with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Little
Richard and Ray Charles. With his large Afro hairstyle,
ever-present gap-toothed smile and funky clothing style, he was
a popular on-stage presence.
He entered the Beatles’ orbit in 1969, as the band was on
the verge of breaking up, and helped to soothe some of the
tension. He performed on both sides of the “Get Back”/”Don’t
Let Me Down” single, which was credited to “The Beatles with
Billy Preston” — the first time the band had shared the
spotlight with a sideman. He also accompanied them during their
last concert that year, the famous rooftop gig in London.
In the early 1970s, he topped the charts as a solo act with
the Grammy-winning instrumental “Outa Space,” “Will It Go Round
in Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing.” He also wrote Joe
Cocker’s 1974 hit “You Are So Beautiful.”
At the same time, he was becoming a fixture with the
Rolling Stones, recording such tracks as “Can’t You Hear Me
Knocking” and “Heartbreaker,” and playing on several tours.
“He’s just such a great player, singer and songwriter and
has spiced up so many recordings with his keyboard prowess,”
said current Rolling Stones tour keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
“He’s one of my true heroes.”
Preston’s private life was darker. In 1997, a California
judge sentenced him to three years in prison for violating the
terms of his probation for a cocaine possession conviction
handed out earlier that year.
Born William Everett Preston on September 9, 1946, he moved
with his family to Los Angeles when he was 2. He appeared in
the 1958 film “St. Louis Blues,” which starred Nat King Cole as
bluesman W.C. Handy. Preston played Handy as a child. Gospel
legend Mahalia Jackson was also in the film, and he would go on
to play organ on some of her best-known recordings, including
“In the Upper Room.”
WITH THE BEATLES
In 1962, Little Richard hired Preston to join his backing
band for a European tour. He met the Beatles during their
residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, and also Sam
Cooke, who signed him to his SAR label. But Cooke was killed
two years later, and Preston signed with Vee Jay records,
one-time American home of the Beatles, through which he
released an instrumental gospel record.
After a stint playing in the house band for the TV show
“Shindig,” he joined Ray Charles’ band. Beatles guitarist
George Harrison renewed their friendship, and brought him into
the tense Apple Studios in January 1969 where the Fab Four were
barely speaking to each other while working on the “Let It Be”
film and recording projects.
His organ handiwork can also be heard on such Beatle songs
as “Let It Be,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Something.”
Harrison signed him to Apple Records and co-produced
Preston’s two albums for the label, “That’s the Way God Planned
It” and “Encouraging Words.”
Preston also contributed to many Beatle solo albums,
including Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” John Lennon’s
“Sometime in New York City” and Ringo Starr’s “Sentimental
Journey.” He won a Grammy as a performer on the
Harrison-orchestrated 1973 album of the year “The Concert for
His credits with the Rolling Stones included the albums
“Sticky Fingers” and “Black and Blue.” He was a favorite of
Mick Jagger, who danced seductively with Preston in the video
clip for “Hey Negrita.” Not only did he tour with the Stones,
but he also opened for them.
In his later years, he toured with Eric Clapton and Steve
Winwood, as well as Motown session musicians the Funk Brothers.
He also was featured on Ray Charles’ last album “Genius Loves
Company,” as well as the latest albums by Neil Diamond and the
Red Hot Chili Peppers.