Sorry to hear of the death of Billy Preston, who many of you may remember only for his duet with Syreeta, ‘With you I’m born again’. He did a great deal more and was the only musician ever to share a performer’s credit with the Beatles. …. from the Telegraph:
Billy Preston, who died at Scottsdale, Arizona, on June 5 aged 59, played keyboards alongside almost every major name in pop music; he was most closely associated with the Beatles, and performed on their records Let It Be, the White Album and Abbey Road, but was also a regular sideman with the Rolling Stones, playing on five of their albums and touring with them several times.
Preston’s colossal Afro hairdo was a regular fixture on stage beside figures as diverse as Ringo Starr, Elton John and Mahalia Jackson, and he was perhaps the most highly-regarded session keyboard player of his generation.
He was no slouch as a songwriter either, writing You Are So Beautiful for Joe Cocker, who secured an American Top 10 hit with the song, nor as a performer, teaming up with Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta on the ballad With You I’m Born Again.
William Everett Preston was born in Houston, Texas, on September 9 1946 but, after his parents divorced, grew up in Los Angeles, where his mother played the organ at a Baptist church.
By the age of three Billy had begun playing the piano, and by 10 had accompanied the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
He was spotted by a film producer and in 1958 played the young WC Handy in the film St Louis Blues (Nat King Cole played him as an adult).
During this time young Billy became devoted to Ray Charles, who gave him some lessons, and began to work backing Sam Cooke (for whose SAR label he recorded) and Little Richard.
He made his first overseas trip to play with the pair on a tour of Britain and then encountered the Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1962.
That year he released his first album, Gospel in my Soul; soon afterwards, he joined the house band for the American television show Shindig, where he worked again with Ray Charles.
He toured with Charles around America and Europe, providing the catchy driving organ riffs on such popular tracks as Billy’s Bag. He also played on the Everly Brothers’ album Beat’n’Soul, before releasing his first charting record, the instrumental The Most Exciting Organ Ever (1965), which was quickly followed by Early Hits of 1965 and The Apple of Their Eye.
In 1967 Billy’s Bag became a hit in Britain, and Preston relocated to take advantage of his popularity here, while continuing to work with Charles’s revue.
In 1969 George Harrison brought in Preston to work on the recording sessions for Let It Be, and he played on the single Get Back: his contribution was sufficiently valued for him to receive billing on the record – the only musician ever to share a performer’s credit with the Beatles.
Harrison later suggested that without Preston’s influence on the other members of the Beatles, who were violently at odds during the recording of the album, it might never have been completed.
The sessions on which Preston worked were being filmed for a documentary, and he featured in the finished product, Let It Be, which was released in 1970.
It was chiefly noted for the “farewell” concert which the group played on the roof of the Apple building, their company headquarters in Savile Row.
Preston contributed to the Beatles’ next album Abbey Road and signed to the Apple label, and Harrison produced two albums for him.
The first, That’s the Way God Planned It (1969) resulted in a number 11 single with its title track, while the second, Encouraging Words, released the following year, included the first version of Harrison’s song My Sweet Lord.
Preston continued his association with Harrison by playing at the guitarist’s charity concert in aid of Bangladesh, alongside such performers as Eric Clapton, and in 1970 played both on Harrison’s record All Things Must Pass and the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band project. The next year he worked for the first time with the Stones, on Sticky Fingers. He also opened concerts for Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
But by this stage the Beatles’ relations with each other had broken down, and in the process the Apple label began to fall apart. Preston decided instead to sign with A&M, which had been set up by the trumpeter Herb Alpert.
There he had a successful run of hit singles, including Outa-Space, which reached number 2, the chart-topper Will It Go Round in Circles (co-written with Bruce Fisher) and Space Race, from the album Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music.
In 1974 Nothing from Nothing was another number 1, and Cocker’s cover of You Are So Beautiful became a hit. Preston continued to tour with the Stones, and also played as a sideman with Sly and the Family Stone, while turning out a series of solo albums on A&M. As if to demonstrate his versatility, he recorded and appeared with Sammy Davis Jr and played on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
He fell out with Mick Jagger, whose reputation for being careful with money was already well established, in the late 1970s, after a dispute over fees for touring, but he finished the decade with the romantic duet With You I’m Born Again, which he performed with Syreeta, and which was drawn from the film Fastbreak. On the back of its success, they recorded an album in 1981, the first of several records on Tamla Motown.
During the 1980s Preston experimented with Gospel and Hi-NRG, but much of his time was spent indulging in cocaine and alcohol, which had been a problem for several years. After 1986’s You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down, he recorded little until the early 1990s.
In 1991 he was charged with a morals violation and soon afterwards accused of assault with a deadly weapon.
This jolted him back into work of a sort (he appeared on a Ringo Starr album that year), but in 1997 he received a three-year jail term after breaking the terms of his probation by testing positive for drugs.
He also faced bankruptcy and further charges when he confessed to a series of insurance scams, including an attempt to burn down his own house.
Jail, he later maintained, “was a great lesson, an awakening. I needed to reflect, to get rid of some of the dead weight around me.
You take the bitter with the sweet and I have to say it was my faith that kept me going. I had nothing else to fall back on.”
In 1997 he returned to touring with the Rolling Stones and played on Bridges to Babylon; he also began to pop up regularly on American television shows. In 1975 he had been the first ever musical guest star on Saturday Night Live, and he made a number of appearances in – mostly indifferent – movies, such as the disastrous Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and Blues Brothers 2000, an ill-advised sequel to the successful Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi comedy.
In 2003 Preston returned to the concert stage in a performance in memory of George Harrison, which was subsequently released on video, and earlier this year he worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their latest album Stadium Arcadium and with Neil Diamond on his record 12 Songs. He also worked with Steve Winwood and played again alongside Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr.
Billy Preston’s drug and drinking problems took their toll on his health, and he suffered from kidney failure towards the end of his life.
In 2002 he underwent a kidney transplant, but the operation was not a success, and he was reliant on dialysis thereafter. His condition deteriorated, and the last months of his life were spent in a coma.
He was unmarried.