Billy Preston: Stories And Life Of The (Almost) Fifth Beatle
Billy Preston (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Billy Preston left his mark on the pop charts with the hits "Will It Go Round In Circles?," "Nothing From Nothing" and "Outa-Space," but he was a bigger presence than that. Preston played with the Beatles (who considered asking him to join the group), he recorded and toured with the Rolling Stones, he played on key albums by Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand and Sly and the Family Stone.
There are many people who've been characterized as “the fifth Beatle” -- from early band member Stuart Sutcliffe to manager Brian Epstein to producer George Martin. But Preston is the only performer who actually played with the band and received credit for his work. The single “Get Back” was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston" Preston added some of the grooviest key and Rhodes work to the group’s final albums in their catalog, and even played during their final performance. So he wasn't an official Beatle, but he was a kind of shadow member there at the end; in fact, he was a major presence in much of ‘60s and ‘70s rock n roll.
He was a child prodigy
After moving to Los Angeles with his mother as a young boy, Preston proved himself to be a child prodigy when it came to playing piano. By the age of 10 he was backing up gospel singers regularly, and he made his first television appearance as a backing musician for Nat King Cole on the singer’s NBC TV show when he was 11 years old.
It wasn’t long before Preston was a sought after live performer, and when he was 16 he started touring the world as an organist for Little Richard’s backing band. Through his time with Little Richard, Preston met the people who would influence the rest of his life. In 1963, he was introduced to Sam Cooke and played on his first album, he backed up Ray Charles on tour, and he began a lifelong friendship with the Beatles after meeting them lads from Liverpool in Hamburg.
The fifth Beatle
There are a lot of musicians and industry professionals who worked closely enough with the Beatles to be referred to as the “fifth” member of the group. From DJs, to the group’s manager, and producers, there are so many people who fight for the title of fifth Beatle, but it’s really Billy Preston who should be considered if for no other reason than the band was thinking of adding him to the official line up in their final years.
Preston reconnected with the Beatles during their “Get Back” sessions after he was invited to the studio by George Harrison. After adding organ and electric piano to songs that appeared on Abbey Road and Let It Be, John Lennon suggested that Preston join the group as an official member, although this was nixed by Paul McCartney because they had enough trouble finding something that four people could agree on.
Even though he wasn’t an official member, Preston is credited as a co-writer on “Get Back,” and he performed with the group during their final performance, from the rooftop of Apple office building.
After playing with the Beatles the sky was the limit for Preston
Following the dissolution of the Beatles, Preston took part in a number of musical ventures that only increased his legendary status. He released a solo album on Apple Records before moving to A&M, and at the same time he worked on George Harrison’s landmark album “All Things Must Pass.”
In 1972 he won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for his funky track “Outa-Space,” and at the same time he was touring with the Rolling Stones while working on their albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n Roll, and Black and Blue. Basically, there wasn’t a huge rock 'n roll song that he didn’t touch in the 1970s. Preston said of working with the Stones:
I felt sorry for them. People expected them to be high all the time, and that wasn’t the case. They suffered from that reputation and yet exploited it.
He was the first musical guest on SNL
Aside from being one of the most important and skilled sidemen of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Billy Preston also had a slew of his own hit singles. Aside from the Grammy winning "Outa-Space,” Preston had solo hits with “Will It Go Round in Circles,” and "Nothing from Nothing” which reached number 1 in the Hot 100 charts. He also wrote “You Are So Beautiful,” one of Joe Cocker’s biggest hits. At the time he was an unstoppable musical force, which made him the perfect guy to be the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Preston appeared on the show, playing “Nothing From Nothing,” in between his busy schedule as a touring side man.
He was the first member of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band
Billy Preston was never far away from the Beatles, and in 1989 he joined up with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. According to the LA Times, Preston was the first person who Starr reached out to when putting together the group. At the time, Preston was shopping around for a new record label but he wasn’t getting any bites. Preston said when Ringo hit him up:
I said yes right away. It’s a thrill to see Ringo get the spotlight, be the up-front man. With the Beatles, he was always in the background. I think the tour has helped his ego.
Preston’s incarnation of the group featured a ridiculous amount of talent. Aside from playing alongside Ringo, Preston jammed with Dr. John, Clarence Clemons, and Joe Walsh.
He had a rough go of things in the '90s
Things weren’t always rosy for Preston. The ‘90s saw the stellar pianist fall on hard times after her served time for drug charges in 1992. Five years later he went back to jail for violating probation and plead guilty to insurance fraud for his involvement in a scheme to burn down his own Los Angeles home. After he was released from prison he went on to work with old friends like Eric Clapton and Ray Charles, and he even worked with the massively popular rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers on their album Stadium Arcadium. Preston said of his time in prison:
[Jail] 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.
He passed away at the age of 59
Unfortunately, Preston fell ill from kidney disease in the early 2000s, and after entering rehab in Malibu in 2005 he went into respiratory failure and fell into a coma on November 21 of that year. In June of 2006 he passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona at the age of 59. Now remembered as one of the most important behind the scenes musicians of the 20th century, Preston said that he never did anything to become a legend. He just did it because it felt good:
When you're doing it you're just trying to do the best you can. You don't know if you're doing something important, and whether it will make history has yet to be seen. Just the fact of being able to do it, and striving to do the best you can, was the accomplishment.
Like it? Share with your friends!