The Background of Billy Preston

To be my age is to have known Billy Preston’s (1946-2006) output as a star in his own right first, only learning about his work as a legendary side musician later. Preston’s own hits include the clavinet instrumental “Outa Space” (#2, 1972), “Will It Go Round in Circles?” (#1, 1973), the instrumental “Space Race” (#4, 1973), “Nothing from Nothing” (#1, 1974), “You Are So Beautiful” (co-written by Preston, a #5 hit for Joe Cocker in 1975), his performance of the Beatles’ song “Get Back” in the 1978 film Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and his duet with Syreeta “With You I’m Born Again” (#2, 1979), from the soundtrack to the film Fast Break.

The self-taught Preston was already playing piano for gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson when he was ten years old. When he was 11 he performed on television with Nat King Cole (he had played the younger version of Cole as W.C. Handy in the 1958 movie St. Louis Blues). In 1962 he was Little Richard’s organ player; this was how he first met the Beatles, while playing in Hamburg. The following year he was in Sam Cooke’s band and began cutting his own albums. In 1967 he played with Ray Charles — his last stop before crossing into an even bigger league. In early 1969 he was drafted by the Beatles to play on their Get Back sessions (which later became the album Let it Be), and this made him in demand. Signed to Apple Records, in June 1969, he released “That’s the Way God Planned It” the title track of which features the not-to-be-believed supergroup of himself, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker. Later he would play on the solo records of George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr, as well as LPs by the Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, et al.

Later, drug abuse to led to long of sordid crimes and arrests. Kidney and heart trouble led to his early death, prior to his 60th birthday.