Billy Preston

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Billy Preston
Billy Preston.jpg
Billy Preston visiting the White House in 1974
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Everett Preston
Born(1946-09-02)September 2, 1946[1]
Houston, Texas, United States
DiedJune 6, 2006(2006-06-06) (aged 59)
Scottsdale, Arizona, United States
GenresRhythm and blues, rock, soul, funk, gospel
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter, producer, actor
InstrumentsVocals, organ, piano, electric piano, harpsichord, keyboards, accordion, drums
Years active1956–2005
LabelsDerby, Vee-Jay, Capitol, Apple, Buddah, A&M, Motown
Associated actsLittle Richard, Syreeta, Sam Cooke, the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, King Curtis, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, Eric Clapton
Notable instruments
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Billy Preston
Billy Preston.jpg
Billy Preston visiting the White House in 1974
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Everett Preston
Born(1946-09-02)September 2, 1946[1]
Houston, Texas, United States
DiedJune 6, 2006(2006-06-06) (aged 59)
Scottsdale, Arizona, United States
GenresRhythm and blues, rock, soul, funk, gospel
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter, producer, actor
InstrumentsVocals, organ, piano, electric piano, harpsichord, keyboards, accordion, drums
Years active1956–2005
LabelsDerby, Vee-Jay, Capitol, Apple, Buddah, A&M, Motown
Associated actsLittle Richard, Syreeta, Sam Cooke, the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, King Curtis, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, Eric Clapton
Notable instruments

William Everett "Billy" Preston (September 2, 1946 – June 6, 2006)[1] was an American musician whose work included R&B, rock, soul, funk and gospel. A virtuoso keyboardist, particularly on Hammond organ, Preston was recognized as a top session musician in the 1960s, during which he backed artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and the Beatles. He then went on to achieve fame as a solo artist, with hit pop singles including "That's the Way God Planned It", "Outa-Space", "Space Race", "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing from Nothing". In addition, Preston co-wrote "You Are So Beautiful", which became a number 5 hit for Joe Cocker. Preston continued to record and perform with other artists, notably George Harrison after the Beatles' break-up, and Eric Clapton, and he played keyboards for the Rolling Stones on many of the group's albums and tours during the 1970s.

Alongside Tony Sheridan, Preston was the only other musician to be credited on a Beatles recording: the artists on the number-one hit "Get Back" are given as "The Beatles with Billy Preston". Since Sheridan was labeled alongside "The Beat Brothers", Preston is, strictly speaking, the only artist to be labeled explicitly with "The Beatles". Stephen Stills asked Preston if he could use his phrase "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" and created the hit song.[2]

Early life and career[edit]

Preston was born on September 2, 1946, in Houston, Texas. When he was three, the family moved to Los Angeles where Preston began playing piano while sitting on his mother Robbie's lap.[citation needed] Noted as a child prodigy, by the age of ten, Preston was playing organ onstage backing several gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andrae Crouch.[citation needed] At twelve, he appeared in the W.C. Handy biopic starring Nat King Cole entitled, St. Louis Blues, playing W.C. Handy at a younger age. A year prior, Preston appeared on Cole's national TV show singing the Fats Domino hit, "Blueberry Hill".

In 1962, Preston joined Little Richard's band as an organist and it was while performing in Hamburg that Preston met the Beatles. In 1963, he played the organ on Sam Cooke's Night Beat album and released his debut album, 16 Yr Old Soul, that same year for Cooke's SAR Records label.[3] In 1965, he released the album The Most Exciting Organ Ever, and that same year performed on the rock and roll show Shindig! In 1967, he joined Ray Charles' band. Following this exposure, several musicians began asking Preston to contribute to their sessions.

Relationship with the Beatles[edit]

Preston first met the Beatles as a 16-year-old in 1962, while part of Little Richard's touring band, when their manager Brian Epstein organized a Liverpool show, at which the Beatles opened. The Washington Post explained their subsequent meeting:

Preston is one of several people referred to by commentators as the "Fifth Beatle". At one point during the "Get Back" sessions, John Lennon proposed the idea of having him join the band (to which Paul McCartney countered that it was difficult enough reaching agreements with four).[5] Preston played with the Beatles for several of the Get Back sessions, some of the material from which would later be culled to make the film Let it Be and its companion album. Preston also accompanied the band for its rooftop concert; the group's final public appearance.[4] In April 1969, their single "Get Back" was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston", the only time such a joint credit had been given on an official Beatles-sanctioned release (as distinct from an unsanctioned reissue of some Hamburg-era recordings on which they were the backing group for Tony Sheridan). The credit was bestowed by the Beatles to reflect the extent of Preston's presence on the track; his electric piano is prominent throughout and he plays an extended solo. Preston also worked, in a more limited role, on the Abbey Road album, contributing to the tracks "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Something."

In 1978, he appeared as Sgt. Pepper in Robert Stigwood's film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was very loosely based on the Beatles' album of the same name, and sang "Get Back" as the penultimate song.

Post-Beatles solo career[edit]

Preston singing at the piano in 1971

Signed to the Beatles' Apple Records label, in 1969, Preston released the album That's the Way God Planned It, produced by Harrison, the title song from which was a hit single in Britain. His relationship with Harrison continued after the Beatles' break-up in 1970; Preston was the first artist to record Harrison's subsequent international hit "My Sweet Lord", on his 1970 album Encouraging Words, which Harrison co-produced with Preston. He appeared on several of Harrison's 1970s solo albums, starting with All Things Must Pass; made a notable contribution to the Concert for Bangladesh, the Harrison-organized 1971 charity benefit; performed with the ex-Beatle on his 1974 tour of North America; and played at the 2002 Concert for George tribute, held at London's Royal Albert Hall. Preston also worked on solo releases by Lennon and Ringo Starr.

In 1971, Preston left Apple and signed with Herb Alpert's A&M Records. The previous year, he contributed to another hit single when Stephen Stills asked to use Preston's phrase "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with", a song on Stills' self-titled debut solo album.[citation needed]

Following the release of I Wrote a Simple Song on A&M, Preston's solo career peaked at this time, beginning with 1972's "Outa-Space", an instrumental track that further popularized the sound of the clavinet in funk music. The song reached number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and topped Billboard '​s R&B chart, before going on to win the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. "Outa-Space" sold over 1 million copies in America, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA in June 1972.[6]

Over the next two years, Preston followed up with the US chart-topping singles "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing", and the number 4 hit "Space Race". Each of the three singles sold in excess of 1 million copies.[6] American Bandstand host and executive producer Dick Clark enjoyed "Space Race" so much that he used the instrumental for the mid-show break for virtually the remainder of its run.[citation needed]

Preston supporting The Rolling Stones on their Tour of the Americas, July 23, 1975

From 1970, Preston played keyboards (including piano, organ, clavinet and various synthesizers) for the Rolling Stones, sometimes alongside pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart, on their albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock'n Roll and Black and Blue. As the band's primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977, he also performed as a support act with his own band (including Mick Taylor on guitar) on their 1973 European Tour. A Munich performance was documented in the live album Live European Tour 1973. In 1974, along with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, he composed one of Joe Cocker's biggest hits, "You Are So Beautiful". On October 11, 1975, he was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live '​s series premiere episode (along with Janis Ian). Preston's 1973 song "Do You Love Me" was the basis for the Rolling Stones' track "Melody", released on Black and Blue in 1976.[citation needed] Although two of his songs ("Nothing from Nothing" and "Outa-Space") were included in the band's 1976 live sets, the Stones and Preston parted company in 1977, mainly due to a disagreement over money.[citation needed] He continued to play on solo records by Stones members and made appearances on the band's 1981 Tattoo You and 1997 Bridges to Babylon albums.

Preston's solo career began to decline after 1976. After five years with A&M, he signed with Motown Records. In 1980, he duetted with Syreeta Wright on the ballad "With You I'm Born Again", which reached number 4 on the charts in the US. Failing thereafter to match its success, Preston left Motown in 1984 and focused on session work. He served as musical director for Nightlife, a late-night talk show hosted by David Brenner that lasted one season from 1986 – 1987.[7]

Legal troubles[edit]

In 1991, he was arrested and convicted for insurance fraud after setting fire to his own house in Los Angeles,[8] and he was treated for alcohol and cocaine addictions. He also was arrested in 1991 for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Mexican boy, after picking him up at a gathering point for day laborers.[9] After submitting to a drug test, he tested positive for cocaine. That year, he entered no-contest pleas to the cocaine and sexual assault charges. He was sentenced to nine months at a drug rehabilitation center and three months of house arrest.

Preston overcame his problems in the early 1990s, toured with Eric Clapton, recorded with Gary Walker, one of the vocalists in his Los Angeles-based band, and worked with a wide range of other artists. He also toured with Ringo Starr and appeared on the 1990 live album Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. He was invited to become a member of The Band in 1991, after the death of piano player Stan Szelest. He performed on tour with the group, but the sentencing from his cocaine and sexual assault charges ended the collaboration.

Later work[edit]

In 1997, Billy Preston recorded the album You and I with Italian band Novecento in Italy. The album was produced by Vaughn De Spenza and Novecento members Lino and Pino Nicolosi.[10]

In 1998, Preston played organ during the choir numbers on the UPN comedy show Good News. The same year he sang and played synthesizer in the film Blues Brothers 2000 as part of the super group, The Louisiana Gator Boys.

While touring and fighting his own health problems, Preston received the news that on November 29, 2001, George Harrison had died (having long suffered from throat cancer). Preston, among many of Harrison's longtime friends, performed in the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Preston's performance of "My Sweet Lord" received critical acclaim.[citation needed] Preston played the Hammond organ for the show and also sang "Isn't It a Pity" and provided backing vocals on most of the other songs. Ringo Starr called him one of the greatest Hammond players of all time (in the theatrical version of the concert).[citation needed]

In 2002, Preston appeared on the Johnny Cash album American IV: The Man Comes Around, playing piano on "Personal Jesus" and "Tear Stained Letter."

He toured with the Funk Brothers and Steve Winwood in Europe in early 2004 and then with his friend Eric Clapton in Europe and North America. After he finished touring with Clapton, Preston went to France where he was featured in one episode of the Legends Rock TV Show.[11] His performance included a duet with Sam Moore singing "You Are So Beautiful" and was his last videotaped concert.

In 2004, Preston performed as a jazz organist on Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, an album of duets, on the song "Here We Go Again" with Charles and Norah Jones.

In March 2005, Preston appeared on the American Idol fourth season finale. Playing piano, he performed "With You I'm Born Again" with Vonzell Solomon (who finished the contest in third place). The same year, he recorded "Go Where No One's Gone Before," the main title song for the anime series L/R: Licensed by Royalty.

Preston played clavinet on the song "Warlocks" for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Stadium Arcadium released in 2006. Although very ill by this point, he jumped out of his bed after hearing a tape of the song given to him by the band, recorded his part, and went back to bed.[12]

Preston's final recorded contributions were the gospel-tinged organ on the Neil Diamond album 12 Songs, and his keyboard work on The Road to Escondido by Eric Clapton and J. J. Cale. Preston made his last public performance in late 2005 in Los Angeles to support the re-release of the Concert for Bangla Desh movie. Preston played a three song set of "Give Me Love", "My Sweet Lord", and "Isn't It a Pity" and was supported by Dhani Harrison on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums ("Isn't It a Pity" only).

Personal life[edit]

Preston was an openly gay man but did not speak publicly about his sexuality.[13][14][15]

Jazz musician Miles Davis was heavily influenced by Preston's music during his funk rock period of the early 1970s.[who?] The 1974 album Get Up With It features a track called "Billy Preston" in his honor.


Preston had battled kidney disease in his later years, brought on by his hypertension. He received a kidney transplant in 2002, but his health continued to deteriorate. He had voluntarily entered a drug rehabilitation clinic in Malibu, California, at the suggestion of guitarist Is'real Benton, and suffered pericarditis there, leading to respiratory failure that left him in a coma from November 21, 2005.[1] Preston died on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, Arizona, of complications of malignant hypertension that resulted in kidney failure and other complications. His funeral was held on June 20 at the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, California, where his remains were interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery.[16]


Studio albums[edit]

YearAlbum TitleRecord LabelNotes
196316 Yr. Old SoulDerbyRecorded for Sam Cooke's SAR label (Derby was its sister imprint), Preston still at high school in Los Angeles. Re-released in the UK in 1969 by Soul City Records as Greazee Soul
1965The Most Exciting Organ EverVJ RecordsFully instrumental
1965Early Hits of '65Exodus RecordsRecorded in the same sessions as The Most Exciting Organ Ever
1966Wildest Organ in Town!Capitol RecordsArranged by Sly Stone
1967Club MeetingCapitol RecordsA continuation of The Wildest Organ in Town!
1969That's The Way God Planned ItApple RecordsDebut album on Apple, and featuring the European hit "That's the Way God Planned It"; guests include George Harrison, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton
1970Encouraging WordsApple RecordsGuests include George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Delaney Bramlett
1971I Wrote a Simple SongA&M RecordsDebut album for A&M, includes the hit "Outa-Space" and features contributions from Quincy Jones and George Harrison
1972Music Is My LifeA&M RecordsIncludes the hit "Will It Go Round in Circles"
1973Everybody Likes Some Kind of MusicA&M RecordsIncludes the hit "Space Race"
1974The Kids & MeA&M RecordsIncludes the hit "Nothing from Nothing" and the future hit for Joe Cocker, "You Are So Beautiful"
1975It's My PleasureA&M RecordsIncorporates synthesizers more heavily than previous Preston album, features harmonica by Stevie Wonder on two tracks and a guest appearance from George Harrison
1976Billy PrestonA&M RecordsGuests include Jeff Beck and the Tower of Power horns
1977A Whole New ThingA&M RecordsFinal album for A&M
1979Late at NightMotown RecordsIncludes the hit duet with Syreeta Wright, "With You I'm Born Again"
1981Billy Preston & SyreetaMotown RecordsAlbum features duets
1981The Way I AmMotown RecordsGuests include members of Toto
1982Pressin' OnMotown RecordsFinal album for Motown Records
1984On the AirMegatone RecordsAlbum features a Beatles tribute
1986You Can't Keep a Good Man DownD&K Records
1995Billy's BackNuGroove Records
2001You and IJust 2001Featuring the Italian band Novecento

Live album[edit]

Gospel albums[edit]

Charted albums[edit]

YearAlbumUS Top 200US R&B
1965"The Most Exciting Organ Ever"1435
1966"Wildest Organ In Town!"1189
1969"That's the Way God Planned It"1127
1970"Encouraging Words"50
1971"I Wrote A Simple Song"329
1972"Music Is My Life"327
1973"Everybody Likes Some Kind Of Music"523
1974"The Kids & Me"178
1975"It's My Pleasure"4318
1977"A Whole New Thing"49
1979"Late At Night"4973
1981"Billy Preston & Syreeta"12748



YearTitleChart positions
1965"Billy's Bag" / "Goldfinger"
1968"Hey Brother"
1969"That's the Way God Planned It"6211
1970"All that I've got (I'm gonna give it to you)"
1971"My Sweet Lord"9023
1972"I Wrote a Simple Song"77
"That's the Way God Planned It" (Re-release)65
1973"Will It Go Round in Circles"110
"How Long Has The Train Been Gone"
"Space Race"41
1974"You're So Unique"4811
"Nothing from Nothing"18
1975"Fancy Lady"7123
1977"Wide Stride"33
1978"Get Back"86
1979"With You I'm Born Again" (with Syreeta Wright)4862
1980"It Will Come in Time" (with Syreeta Wright)47
"One More Time for Love" (with Syreeta Wright)5272
1982"I'm Never Gonna Say Goodbye"88
1986"So Good, So Fine" (with Ann-Louise Hanson)
2003"Go Where No One's Gone Before"[17]
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.

As a guest/session performer[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Pareles, Jon (June 7, 2006). "Billy Preston, 59, Soul Musician, Is Dead; Renowned Keyboardist and Collaborator". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-28. Billy Preston, the splashy gospel-rooted keyboardist whose career included No. 1 solo hits and work with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, died yesterday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 59. 
  2. ^ "Song Stories: Love The One You're With". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 10 February 2014. 
  3. ^ Digitally re-re-released on February 22, 2011. The review at reads: "16 Year Old Soul is an album of percolating organ-infused instrumentals that offers insight into the roots of one of the music world's most innovative and genre-busting stars who died at the age of 59, in 2006. With songs covering a broad spectrum of styles from country ('Born to Loose') to R&B ('Good News') to jazz ('God Bless The Child') with pop and blues undertones aplenty, 16 Year Old Soul is a preserved-in-amber glimpse of an artist whose musical maturity belied his years."
  4. ^ a b Harrington, Richard (June 8, 2006). "'Fifth Beatle' Billy Preston Made the Greats Even Greater". Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-10-02. 
  5. ^ The Beatles - A/B Road: The Complete Get back Sessions, January 24th
  6. ^ a b Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins. pp. 319, 334 & 349. ISBN 0-214-20512-6. 
  7. ^ Chase, Donald (September 7, 1986). "He's On His Own In Late-night TV". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved September 16, 2014. 
  8. ^ Jon Pareles, "Obituary: Billy Preston, 59, renowned keyboardist - International Herald Tribune".
  9. ^ Edward J. Boyer, "Singer Billy Preston Arrested in Sex Case", Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1991.
  10. ^ "Collaborations - Novecento and Billy Preston". Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  11. ^ "Guest Artist of the Legends Rock TV Show". Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  12. ^ "Red Hot Chili Peppers - Peppers Get Sick Preston Out Of Bed". Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  13. ^ Richards, Keith (2010). Life. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-85439-5. And he was gay at a time when nobody could be openly gay, which added difficulties to his life. Billy could be, most of time, a bundle of fun. but sometimes he would get on the rag. I had to stop him from beating up his boyfriend in an elevator once. 
  14. ^ "Gay Singers". Unsung. TV One. Retrieved 2012-03-15. [dead link]
  15. ^ Fisher, Bruce, Unsung, TV One, 2011-07-25
  16. ^ "Billy Everett Preston", Find A Grave.
  17. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 436. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 

External links[edit]