William Everett BILLY PRESTON was an American musician born on this date (d: 2006); Preston’s musical career spanned R&B, rock, soul, funk, and gospel. He was a – if not the – top session keyboardist in the 1960s, during which he backed artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Reverend James Cleveland, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He gained attention as a solo artist with hit singles such as “That’s the Way God Planned It”, the Grammy-winning “Outa-Space”, “Will It Go Round in Circles”, “Space Race”, “Nothing from Nothing”, and “With You I’m Born Again”. Additionally, Preston co-wrote “You Are So Beautiful”, which became a #5 hit for Joe Cocker. Not too shabby, huh?
Preston is the only musician who was not a Beatle to be given a credit on a Beatles recording; the group’s 1969 single “Get Back” was credited as “The Beatles with Billy Preston”. He continued to record and perform with George Harrison after the Beatles’ breakup, along with other artists such as Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones on many of the group’s albums and tours during the 1970s. In May 2021, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that Preston would be inducted with the Musical Excellence Award.
As explained by John Lennon in Peter Jackson’s 2021 The Beatles: Get Back documentary, Preston met the Beatles when they were playing in Hamburg while he was part of Little Richard’s touring band. They met again when manager Brian Epstein organised a Liverpool show, at which the Beatles opened.
Preston is one of several people referred to 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). Preston played organ and electric piano for the Beatles during several of the Get Back sessions; some of these sessions appeared in the film Let It Be and on its companion album. Preston also accompanied the band on electric piano for its rooftop concert, the group’s final public appearance. In April 1969, their single “Get Back” was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”, the only time an artist was credited as a co-performer with The Beatles after the band started recording as independent artists. 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 1969 Abbey Road album, contributing organ 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 based on the Beatles’ album of the same name, and sang and danced to “Get Back” as the penultimate song.
Although the details did not become fully known to the general public until after his death, Preston struggled throughout his life to cope with his sexuality, and the lasting effects of the traumatic sexual abuse he suffered as a boy. Although his sexual orientation became known to friends and associates in the music world (such as Keith Richards), Preston did not publicly come out as gay until just before he died, partly because he felt that it conflicted with his deeply held religious beliefs and his lifelong association with the church. In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards mentioned Preston’s struggles with being gay.
In an interview for a 2010 BBC Radio 4 documentary on his life and career, Preston’s manager Joyce Moore revealed that after she began handling his affairs, Preston opened up to her about the lifelong trauma he had suffered as the result of being sexually abused as a child. Preston told Moore that at about the age of nine, after he and his mother moved to Los Angeles from Houston to perform in a touring production of Amos ‘n’ Andy, he was repeatedly abused by the touring company’s pianist. When Preston told his mother about the abuse, she did not believe him, and failed to protect him. The abuse went on for the entire summer, and Preston was also later abused by a local pastor.
Another traumatic incident, which reportedly affected Preston deeply, occurred in the early 1970s, while he was engaged to actress/model Kathy Silva. At this time Preston had become close friends with musician Sly Stone, and made many contributions to Stone’s recordings of the period (including the album There’s a Riot Goin’ On). According to Moore, Preston was devastated when he came home one day to find Stone in bed with Silva (who later famously married Stone on stage at Madison Square Garden). According to Moore, Silva’s affair with Stone was the trigger that led Preston to stop having relationships with women. It was after this incident that he began abusing cocaine and having sex with men, and Moore has stated that she saw his drug abuse as his way of coping with the internal conflicts he felt about his “sexual urges”.
Tragically, the 90’s were more or less a lost decade for Preston who served jail time for various sexual assaults on boys and men, drug possesssion and insurance fraud for having set his home on fire. He eventually detoxed and recovered.
Preston had suffered 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 2005. Preston died on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Preston’s funeral was held June 21, 2006. At the funeral, which lasted almost three hours, Joe Cocker sang, Little Richard reminisced, and a brass band played a stirring version of “Amazing Grace”. Other musical performers included The Temptations’ lead vocalist Ali Woodson and singer Merry Clayton. A gospel choir, clad in bright red, sang throughout. The mourners also heard letters written by Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others who had toured and recorded with Preston. He was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.