Billy Preston

Singer/keyboardist whom John Lennon sought to recruit permanently to the Beatles
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The Independent Online

William Everett Preston, singer and keyboard player: born Houston, Texas 9 September 1946; died Scottsdale, Arizona 6 June 2006.

The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke are among the stars who asked Billy Preston to add his keyboard skills to their records. Ray Charles even said, "This man is gonna take my place." That didn't happen, but Preston made a formidable series of solo records and had successes with "That's the Way God Planned It", "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "With You I'm Born Again". He regarded his talent as a gift from the Lord, proclaiming, "Music is the voice of God."

Billy Preston was born in Houston in 1946, but the family moved to Los Angeles where his mother became the organist for the Victory Baptist Church. She was also an actress who was featured on the Amos'n'Andy radio programmes. Billy started playing the piano at the age of three and by the time he was 10, he was being featured on television shows. In 1956 he played the organ in church for the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and a film producer was so impressed that he cast Billy Preston as the young W.C. Handy in the film St Louis Blues (1958).

Preston loved the music of Ray Charles, who lived close to his school. He would learn Charles's pieces with his eyes closed. One day he knocked on Charles's door and told him that he was going to be the next Ray Charles. Charles advised him to be himself.

By the late Fifties, the frenzied rock'n'roll singer Little Richard had abandoned music to become a minister. In 1962, the promoter Don Arden asked him to tour the UK, co-headlining with Sam Cooke on a gospel tour, or so he said. Richard recruited Preston as his organist and he left school to join the tour. At the first show in Doncaster, Little Richard performed "I Believe" and gospel tunes with commendable sincerity, but it was Sam Cooke who excited the crowds. As Arden had suspected, Little Richard was extremely competitive and for the second house, he launched into "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally".

Preston, although he had not played rock'n'roll before, had no difficulty with the transition. Norman Jopling, then a young writer for Record Mirror, was sent, for his first assignment, to interview Little Richard. "He was in this seedy hotel room with two single beds and Billy Preston was in the other one," Jopling said. "I had no idea what Little Richard was like, but when he started stroking my cheeks, the penny dropped."

After the tour, Little Richard played in Europe and they met the Beatles at the Star-Club in Hamburg. Sam Cooke, impressed by Preston's skill, signed him to his record label, Derby. Preston released Greazee Soul, his first album, in 1963. Cooke also used Preston on his own album, the bluesy Night Beat. Preston played with the gospel singer the Rev James Cleveland for a time but then formed his own secular group.

The UK beat group Sounds Incorporated heard Preston at a club in Los Angeles and recommended him to the television producer Jack Good, who was making the beat show Shindig and signed Preston up for the studio band. When Ray Charles appeared, Preston took his place at rehearsals to perform "Georgia on My Mind" and was so impressive that Charles asked Preston to join his orchestra. Preston featured on the Ray Charles album Crying Time and played on the title track and "Let's Go Get Stoned". Among his other sessions was being part of the all-star line-up on the Everly Brothers' Beat'n'Soul (1965).

Preston's album for Vee-Jay had the innuendo-laden title The Most Exciting Organ Ever! (1965) which, co-arranged with Sly Stone, featured dynamic versions of popular favourites including "In The Midnight Hour" and "A Hard Day's Night". The following album, the atmospheric Club Meeting, featured Preston in concert and revealed him to be a compelling singer. The LP included his show-stopping "Summertime" as it might have been played by Beethoven, or Ray Charles. In 1967 Preston's UK single "Billy's Bag" was a party favourite; it was praised by Stevie Wonder and used on several TV programmes.

In 1969 the Beatles were in London, being filmed about the making of an album. By then, they resented each other's company and the sessions were going poorly. George Harrison invited Preston to a session, rightly thinking that the dynamic would change as they all respected Preston. With Preston playing a Fender Rhodes elecric piano, the Beatles recorded "Get Back" and were so impressed that the single was billed as "The Beatles with Billy Preston".

Preston took part in the Beatles' last-ever show on the roof of the Apple building in Savile Row and was featured in the film Let It Be (1970). John Lennon wanted him to join the Beatles permanently and he played on several tracks on their final album, Abbey Road (1969), including Harrison's "Something".

Unsurprisingly, the Beatles asked Preston to record for their Apple label, with Harrison producing. The title song from his first album, That's The Way God Planned It (1969), was a Top Twenty single. The second album, Encouraging Words (1970), included the first version of Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord", with Preston performing with the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

With Apple in disarray as the Beatles split, Preston sought a release but there was no ill-feeling and he worked with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr on their solo projects. In 1971 he was part of the all-star band for the charity event and album Concert For Bangla Desh with Harrison, Starr, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton.

Preston signed up with Herb Alpert's A&M label, which was based in Los Angeles. He wrote and produced the album I Wrote a Simple Song (1971), with George Harrison on lead guitar and Quincy Jones's arrangements, and title track was issued as a single. American DJs preferred the instrumental B-side, "Outa-Space", with Preston playing clavinet, and it went to No 2 on the US charts, also making the upper reaches of the UK charts.

While Preston was writing Music is My Life (1972), he asked a friend, Bruce Fisher, to help him complete "Will It Go Round in Circles". The track topped the US charts and Fisher gave up his job in a mailroom in order to continue writing with Preston. With the fashions of the time, Preston sported an enormous Afro and played an electric keyboard on a strap around his neck; but the instrument had limited sounds and made him look like a novelty act.

The next album, Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music (1973), included another hit single, "Space Race", the first time that Preston had used an ARP synthesiser; he had written the tune whilst coming to grips with the technology. The fourth A&M album, The Kids and Me (1974), included another US No 1, the funky "Nothing from Nothing", again written with Fisher and played on a bar-room piano for singalong appeal. Preston released one track from the album, his composition "You Are So Beautiful", as a B-side; Joe Cocker was quick to spot the ballad's potential and it became a US Top Ten hit.

When Preston opened for Aretha Franklin in 1971, he joined her for the finale with Ray Charles and King Curtis and the results can be heard on Aretha: live at the Fillmore West. He is featured on scores of other artists' albums, including Merry Clayton's Gimme Shelton (1970), Delaney and Bonnie's Together (1972), Stephen Stills Two (1972), Martha Reeves (1974), Eric Clapton's No Reason to Cry (1976), Joe Cocker's Luxury You Can Afford (1978) and some stoned ramblings with Cheech and Chong. He continued to work with Harrison and played with Splinter on their albums for Harrison's Dark Horse Records. Throughout all this, he made further solo albums for A&M: It's My Pleasure (1975), Do What You Want (1976), Billy Preston (1976) and A Whole New Thing (1977), but by now the hits had ceased.

Starting with Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main Street (1972), Preston became a favourite with the Rolling Stones. He toured with them in 1975 and would have continued but for a dispute over fees. In 1978, Preston appeared in the risible film Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, performing "Get Back" on top of a church steeple, but it was marginally better than his involvement in Blues Brothers 2000.

In 1979 Stevie Wonder's former wife, Syreeta, joined Preston for the romantic duet "With You I'm Born Again" on the soundtrack of the basketball film Fast Break, which starred Gabe Kaplan. Their record was an international hit, almost topping the UK chart and leading to the Tamla-Motown album Billy Preston and Syreeta (1981). He recorded three solo albums for Tamla-Motown, Late at Night (1979), The Way I Am (1981) and Pressin' On (1982), before signing with the HI-NRG label, Megatone. At the same time, he was recording gospel albums, notably Behold (1980).

Billy Preston's career lost its momentum in the 1980s as he became addicted to cocaine and alcohol. In 1991, he was arrested after a 16-year-old boy claimed that Preston had shown him pornography and committed obscene acts with him. He was also accused of assault with a deadly weapon. Preston's punishment was a mixture of rehab, house arrest and then probation. In 1997 he broke his parole by testing positive for cocaine and was given a three-year sentence. While he was in prison, other crimes came to light. With a team including his former manager, he had been staging car crashes, burglaries and fires for insurance purposes. He received a further year in jail.

Preston's problems did not affect his talent. He played on the Luther Vandross album The Night I Fell in Love (1985) and joined Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band for an album and a tour in 1989. He was back with Ray Charles for My World in 1992 and was featured on the Bonnie Raitt and Elton John duet "Love Letters" the following year. He made it up with the Rolling Stones and joined them for Bridges to Babylon (1997) as well as having steady employment as the MD for the US TV series Nightlife, starring the comedian David Brenner. In 2002, he performed with great success on The Concert For George at the Royal Albert Hall, but he was already suffering from hypertension and kidney failure.

Despite ill-health, Preston returned to his Hammond organ for Eric Clapton's roots album Sessions for Robert J (2004) and worked with Steve Winwood and the Funk Brothers in Europe. He appeared in the film The Derby Stallion (2005), and his final recordings were for Ringo Starr and for a Beatles tribute of his own.

Spencer Leigh