Wednesday, June 07, 2006
A Good Look at Billy Preston
William Everett Preston (September 9, 1946 – June 6, 2006) was an American soul musician from Houston, Texas, raised mostly in Los Angeles, California. He began playing piano while sitting on his mother's lap at age three. Preston collaborated with some of the greatest names in the music industry, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Ray Charles, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis Jr., Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, Quincy Jones, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. One of only two non-Beatles to receive a credit on a Beatles single, he played the electric piano on "Get Back" during the band's rooftop concert in 1969. He is one of several people sometimes credited as the "Fifth Beatle".
Preston was in and around show business for much of his life. He was taking piano lessons at age 3 and was just 10 when he played keyboards for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Two years later he portrayed a young W.C. Handy; played as an adult by Nat "King" Cole — in the 1958 biopic "St. Louis Blues." He toured with mentors and fellow piano greats Ray Charles and Little Richard in the early 1960s, first encountering the Beatles while on the road in Germany.
Cole's daughter, singer Natalie Cole, said she appreciated Preston "and his musical genius over the two decades we crossed personal and professional paths," adding: "He is my favorite keyboardist of all times."
Billy Preston began his career playing in the bands of Little Richard and Ray Charles as a keyboardist, however he was probably best known for his work with the Beatles. He played on their 1970 Let It Be album and on the songs "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Something", from 1969's Abbey Road. Signed to their Apple 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 break up of The Beatles; he was the first artist to record My Sweet Lord (the single flopped), and he was on several of George's 70's solo albums. Preston also made notable and energetic contributions to the Concert for Bangladesh, a Harrison-organised charity concert, and, after George's death, the Concert for George. Preston also worked on solo recordings by two other ex-Beatles, John Lennon and Ringo Starr.
After the Beatles, Preston played keyboards for the Rolling Stones, alongside pianist Nicky Hopkins. Preston appears on the Stones' albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock'n Roll and Black and Blue. He toured as a support act with the Stones in 1973, and recorded his live album Live in Europe in Munich with Mick Taylor on guitar. In 1974 composed one of Joe Cocker's biggest hits You Are So Beautiful. In 1975 he became the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live. In 1975 and 1976 he again toured with the Stones, this time getting to play two of his own songs, backed by the Stones, in the middle of every concert. The Stones and Preston parted company in 1977, mainly due to a row over money. He continued to play on solo records by Stones members, and made an appearance again on the Stones' 1997 Bridges to Babylon album.
During the 70s, Preston enjoyed a greal deal of success with a string of popular singles, including "Outta-Space" (a Grammy winner), "Nothing From Nothing" and "Will It Go Round In Circles". He also dueted with Syretta Wright on the classic love ballad, "With You I'm Born Again" in 1980.
The 1980s were lean years for Preston. 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. In 1991, 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 managed to conquer his problems in the early 1990s, and toured with Eric Clapton, and recorded with a wide range of artists.
Preston participated in the tribute concert "Concert for George Harrison" at Royal Albert Hall and his performance of My Sweet Lord has received critical acclaim. He also recorded on the last album of Ray Charles. He toured with The Funk Brothers and Stevie Winwood in Europe in early 2004 and then with his friend Eric Clapton in Europe and North America. It has been claimed that his big contribution to the Beatles' sound was made clear with the release of the Let it be naked album.
Preston played clavinet on the song "Warlocks" for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Stadium Arcadium released in 2006. Although very ill, he jumped out of 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 contribution was playing Gospel-tinged organ on the Neil Diamond album, 12 Songs. He also recorded a gospel project, "Music From my Heart", on MCG Records and also guest appeared on John P. Kee's VIP Music and Artis Seminar Mass Choir video presentation of "Stand!"; which revealed him working a storm on the Hammond organ.
Gospel musician Andrae Crouch, whose friendship and musical collaboration with Preston spanned four decades, said he had a knack for knowing how to play a song.
"If I played a new idea, he would know where to put it and in what category," said Crouch, who has performed with Quincy Jones and Elton John. "He was the best keyboard player in the world ... It was like having a harmonica in his mouth. He had that much control over it."
He is survived by two sisters. Rodena Preston-Williams, one of his sisters, is the Mass Choir Music Director and Chapter Representatives of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.