Billy Preston: Stories And Life Of The (Almost) Fifth Beatle

By | July 5, 2020

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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

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source: getty images

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.