Billy Preston: 1946–2006
Preston, born September 2, 1946 in Houston, TX, was mentored by Ray Charles. He was a regular performer on the mid-1960s ABC TV show Shindig! and toured Europe with Little Richard. In Hamburg, the soon-to-be-famous Beatles opened for Little Richard, then at the height of his popularity. It was there that the teenage Preston and the lads from Liverpool first met. Preston played organ and electric piano on Let It Be and Abbey Road and, in fact, the single "Get Back" was credited to "The Beatles and Billy Preston"—the only time the Beatles ever shared billing on a record release with another musician.
The BBC reported that John Lennon went so far as to suggest Preston join the Beatles, but the deteriorating personal relationships of the four prevented this from happening, although some observers suggest that Preston's presence at the Abbey Road and Let It Be sessions may have moderated the rancor that was growing among the bandmembers. George Harrison compared Preston's presence to that of a guest at a tense family reunion—everyone behaves better in order not to appear too fractious.
Preston also appeared on the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and toured regularly with the band. He also played in George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh and at Harrison's memorial, Concert For George. He had success as a solo artist, charting with "Outta Space," "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," "Nothing From Nothing," and "With You I'm Born Again," his duet with Syreeta Wright that remains popular at weddings. He also wrote "You Are So Beautiful," which became a smash for Joe Cocker. Preston played on Bob Dylan's Blood On the Tracks, Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On, and Aretha Franklin's Young Gifted and Black—a legacy that would have assured him inclusion in any pop music pantheon. In addition, Preston was the first musical guest on the long-running Saturday Night Live franchise. Miles Davis named a song in his honor, an indication of the esteem in which his fellow musicians held him.
Preston had long-term kidney troubles and received a transplant in 2002, which failed, leaving him on dialysis. His survivors have requested that donations be made in his name at The American Kidney Fund or MusiCares.
The wonderful music website Moistworks posted a rare tribute to Preston, in which Alex Abramovich links to Preston performances available on YouTube. They are fitting memorials, ranging from Preston's electrifying organ performance leading the house band for Jackie Wilson on Shindig! to his solo "My Sweet Lord" to a co-performance of "Will It Go 'Round in Circles" with Eric Clapton. Abramovich's final link seems singularly appropriate as I write this, on Sir Paul McCartney's 64th birthday, since it was Preston's organ that sanctified and uplifted "Let It Be". Great the Beatles certainly were, but Preston took them higher.