Billy Preston was a legendary American keyboardist who rose to prominence as one of the industry’s top session musicians. His diverse catalog of work included rock, rhythm and blues, gospel, funk, and soul. This musical maestro’s career spanned over four decades and included collaborations with several notable bands, including the ‘Beatles,’ the ‘Rolling Stones,’ and ‘Sly & the Family Stone.’ He performed alongside such luminaries as Sam Cooke, Syreeta, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison. He began a solo career in the 1970s and went on to record and perform on several hit pop singles, including ‘Nothing from Nothing’, ‘Will It Go Round in Circles’, ‘Space Race’, and ‘Outa-Space’. He co-wrote the song ‘You Are So Beautiful’ for English singer-musician Joe Cocker with Bruce Fisher, which peaked at number five on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’ singles chart in 1975. Though Preston was infamous for his cocaine addiction and endured personal hardships, he continued to win the hearts of music enthusiasts with his magical keyboard performance and remained one of modern pop music’s most revered and beloved musical icons.
Childhood & Adolescence
He was born William Everett Preston in Houston, Texas on September 2, 1946. When he was only one, his parents divorced, and the family relocated to south central Los Angeles, where his mother Robbie began working as a funeral home secretary.
Billy’s mother used to play organ at ‘Victory Baptist Church’ in Los Angeles, and at the age of three, he began playing the family piano while sitting on his mother’s lap. Preston, considered a child prodigy, had an uncanny ability to pick up on back tunes he heard. He was a self-taught musician who never received formal music training.
When the church’s choir director noticed Preston imitating his conducting motions, he promoted him to the front of the group. It became a regular practice for the church’s Sunday choir, which eventually grew to a 150-voice adult choir directed by little Preston.
By the age of ten, he was performing onstage, accompanying gospel vocalists such as Andraé Crouch, James Cleveland, and Mahalia Jackson.
When he was 11 years old, he performed the hit song ‘Blueberry Hill’ by American pianist-singer-songwriter Fats Domino alongside American singer-jazz pianist Nat King Cole on the latter’s television show. He also appeared in Handy’s biographical film ‘St. Louis Blues’ as a young W.C. Handy (1958).
In 1962, he joined Little Richard’s band as an organist, and the following year, he contributed as a pianist to Sam Cooke’s album ‘Night Beat’. His debut album, ’16 Yr Old Soul,’ was released that year.
In 1965, he released ‘The Most Exciting Organ Ever,’ a completely instrumental album. That same year, he appeared on the American musical variety show ‘Shindig!’
Career of Billy
He was inducted into Ray Charles’ band in 1967 and began receiving requests from musicians to play on their sessions.
He met the ‘Beatles’ in 1962 while performing for Little Richard’s touring band in Hamburg and later joined the band in 1969, just as they were about to break up.
He was invited by Harrison to take part in the final nine days of recording for their album ‘Let It Be,’ which was originally titled ‘Get Back.’
He performed at the Beatles’ rooftop concert, an impromptu concert held on the roof of ‘Apple’ headquarters in central London on January 30, 1969, marking the band’s final public performance.
The song ‘Get Back,’ which was initially released as a single by the ‘Beatles’ on April 11, 1969, was credited to ‘The Beatles with Billy Preston,’ making Preston the sole musician to receive official recognition on a ‘Beatles’ release. The song was later included on the album ‘Let It Be’ as the closing track. Throughout the recording of ‘Get Back,’ Preston was frequently referred to as the ‘Fifth Beatle.’
In August 1969, George Harrison’s ‘Apple Records’ label released his studio album ‘That’s The Way God Planned It.’ Apart from Harrison, renowned musicians such as Doris Troy, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards contributed to the album. When the album’s title track was released as a single, it became a hit in the United Kingdom.
He was instrumental in the creation of several tracks on ‘Abbey Road,’ including ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ and ‘Something’. It was the Beatles’ final studio album, released on September 26, 1969.
Though recorded earlier, ‘Let It Be’ was released on May 8, 1970, following the band’s disbandment, making it the band’s final release.
Following the disbandment of the ‘Beatles,’ he continued his collaborations with Harrison, which included recording, appearing on several solo albums, and performing in the latter’s concerts. He co-produced with Harrison the latter’s 1970 album, ‘Encouraging Words,’ which featured the international hit ‘My Sweet Lord.’ He accompanied Harrison on his 1971 ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ and 1974 North American tour.
From 1970 to 1977, he remained associated with the ‘Rolling Stones’ as a keyboardist, serving as the band’s primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. His contributions to the band’s albums include ‘Sticky Fingers’ (1971), ‘Exile on Main Street’ (1972), ‘Goats Head Soup’ (1973), and ‘It’s Only Rock’n Roll’ (1974). (1974).
Preston starred as Sgt. Pepper in the 1978 American jukebox musical film ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, directed by Michael Schultz. Preston also sang the song ‘Get Back’.
He was successful in releasing several studio albums, each of which contained a number of chart-topping singles. ‘Outa-Space’ (1971 album ‘I Wrote a Simple Song’), ‘Will It Go Round in Circles’ (1972 album ‘Music Is My Life’), and ‘Nothing from Nothing’ (1974 album ‘The Kids & Me’).
Preston performed in ‘Concert for George’ at London’s ‘Royal Albert Hall’ on November 29, 2002, to commemorate Harrison’s first death anniversary.
He collaborated with notable artists such as Sam Cooke, Syreeta, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, and Ringo Starr throughout his musical career.
Significant Works of Billy
In 1972, his instrumental track ‘Outa-Space’ reached number two on the US ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart and topped the ‘Billboard’ magazine’s ‘R&B’ chart, earning him a ‘Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance’. Again in June of that year, the ‘RIAA’ bestowed a gold disc upon it. Not only did it win awards, but it was also a commercial success, selling over a million copies in the United States.
Personal History and Legacies
He overcame numerous obstacles in his personal life, including sexual abuse as a child, coming to terms with his sexual orientation, an unsuccessful relationship with actress-model Kathy Silva, cocaine addiction, visits to a drug rehab facility, and multiple arrests on drug abuse, insurance fraud, and sexual assault charges.
In his later years, he suffered from hypertension and kidney disease and underwent a kidney transplant in 2002.
His drug addiction landed him in a rehab facility in Malibu, California, and he entered a coma on November 21, 2005, after contracting pericarditis and subsequent respiratory failure.
On June 6, 2006, he died in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his remains were interred at the ‘Inglewood Park Cemetery’ on June 20 following a funeral at the ‘Faithful Central Bible Church’ in California.
Estimated Net Worth
Billy Preston was an American musician who died with a net worth of $1 million. Over time after his death, the value of Billy’s music catalog and royalty stream would prove to be extremely valuable, worth many millions more. Billy Preston died at the age of 59 on June 6, 2006.