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William Everett Preston (September 2, 1946 – June 6, 2006) was an American musician, whose work encompassed R&B, rock, soul, funk, and gospel. Preston was a top session keyboardist in the 1960s, during which he backed artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Everly Brothers, Reverend James Cleveland, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. He went on to achieve fame 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.
Preston was the only musician given credit on a Beatles label; the group’s 1969 single “Get Back” was credited as “The Beatles with Billy Preston”. He continued to record and perform with other artists, notably George Harrison after the Beatles’ breakup, and Eric Clapton, and he played keyboards for the Rolling Stones on many of the group’s albums and tours during the 1970s. On May 12, 2021, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that Preston would be inducted with the Musical Excellence Award.
Preston was born September 2, 1946, in Houston and moved to Los Angeles as a child with his mother, Robbie Lee Williams. Noted as a child prodigy, Preston was entirely self-taught and never had a music lesson. By the age of ten, he was playing organ onstage backing several gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson. At 11, Preston appeared on an episode of Nat King Cole’s NBC TV show singing the Fats Domino hit “Blueberry Hill” with Cole. He also appeared in St. Louis Blues, the 1958 W. C. Handy biopic starring Nat King Cole; Preston played Handy at a younger age.
In 1962, Preston joined Little Richard’s band as an organist, and it was while performing in Hamburg that he met the Beatles. In 1963, he played the organ on Sam Cooke’s Night Beat album and released his own debut album, 16 Yr. Old Soul, for Cooke’s SAR label. In 1965, he released the album The Most Exciting Organ Ever and performed on the rock and roll show Shindig! In 1967, he joined Ray Charles’ band. Following this exposure, several musicians began asking Preston to contribute to their sessions.
Relationship and career with the Beatles
Preston first met the Beatles as a 16-year-old in 1962, while part of Little Richard’s touring band, when their manager Brian Epstein organized a Liverpool show, at which the Beatles opened. Richard Harrington, in an article in The Washington Post, explained their subsequent meeting:
They’d hook up again in 1969, when the Beatles were about to break up while recording the last album they released, Let It Be (they would later record Abbey Road, which was released prior to Let It Be). George Harrison, a friend of Preston, had quit, walked out of the studio and gone to a Ray Charles concert in London, where Preston was playing organ. Harrison brought Preston back to the studio, where his keen musicianship and gregarious personality temporarily calmed the tension.
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.[a] 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 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.
Post-Beatles solo career
Signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, in 1969, Preston released the album That’s the Way God Planned It, produced by Harrison, the title song from which was a hit single in Britain. His relationship with Harrison continued after the Beatles’ breakup in 1970; Preston was the first artist to record Harrison’s subsequent international hit “My Sweet Lord“, on his 1970 album Encouraging Words, which Harrison co-produced with him. He appeared on several of Harrison’s 1970s solo albums, starting with All Things Must Pass; made a notable contribution to the Concert for Bangladesh, the Harrison-organized 1971 charity benefit; performed with the ex-Beatle on his 1974 tour of North America; and played at the 2002 Concert for George tribute, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Preston also worked on solo releases by Lennon and Ringo Starr.
In 1971, Preston left Apple and signed with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records. The previous year, he contributed to another hit single when Stephen Stills asked to use Preston’s phrase “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”, a song on Stills’ self-titled debut solo album. […]
On November 29, 2001, while touring and fighting his own health problems, Preston received the news that George Harrison had died, having long suffered from throat cancer. Preston, among many of Harrison’s longtime friends, performed in the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Preston’s performance of “My Sweet Lord” received critical acclaim. Additionally, he sang “Isn’t It a Pity”, provided backing vocals on most of the other songs, and played the Hammond organ for the show. […]
In late 2005, Preston made his last public performance, in Los Angeles, to publicize the re-release of the 1972 documentary film The Concert for Bangladesh. He played a set of three Harrison songs—”Give Me Love”, “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity”—with Dhani Harrison and Starr joining on guitar and drums, respectively, for the last song. […]
Billy Preston joined the “Get Back” sessions on January 22, 1969.
I was on tour with Ray Charles and we were in London. George was at the concert and thought: “Hey, that looks like Billy Preston.” So he called around and found out that it was me. He called me at the hotel and invited me over to see the guys. Before I got there, Mal Evans had told me that they had been going through a lot of depression, and that he was glad that I came around because it gave them a lot of life. It made them happy a little bit.Billy Preston – Quoted in Classic Rock, May 2020
When I got there, they were filming Let It Be and recording and all. We started reminiscing and playing old rock’n’roll songs. They said: “Sit in. You want to stay and help us finish the album? Take a solo…” They just made me a member of the band.Billy Preston – Quoted in Classic Rock, May 2020
Billy came down and I said, ‘Remember Billy? Here he is – he can play the piano’. He got on the electric piano, and straight away there was 100% improvement in the vibe in the room. Having this fifth person was just enough to cut the ice that we’d created among ourselves. Billy didn’t know all the politics and the games that had been going on, so in his innocence he got stuck in and gave an extra little kick to the band. Everybody was happier to have somebody else playing and it made what we were doing more enjoyable. We all played better and that was a great session. It was more or less just as it is on the record.George Harrison – From The Beatles Anthology
It was still very strained, the atmosphere, and then Billy Preston walked into the office. I just grabbed him and brought him down to the studio, and said, ‘How would you like to play piano?’ And it put everything more at ease, because, having a fifth person there, it sort of off-set the vibes.George Harrison – From “The Beatles: Off the Record” by Keith Badman
Billy was brilliant – a little young whizz-kid. We’d always got on very well with him. He showed up in London and we all said, ‘Oh Bill! Great – let’s have him play on a few things.’ So he started sitting in on the sessions, because he was an old mate really.
It might have helped us all behave better with one another on the sessions. I think it also created problems, because as The Beatles we’d always just been four people in the band. We were very much a unit — the Four-Headed Monster, I’ve heard us referred to.
So when Billy came in, I think that though we did have to behave ourselves a bit – because it was like having a guest in the house, someone you put your best manners on for – there was a slight worry in the background also that maybe he was joining the group. That kind of thing was happening. So we couldn’t tell whether it was a crack in the whole thing, or whether it was going to be good. It was a little bit puzzling.
But he played great and we all had a great time, so it worked out fine in the end.Paul McCartney – From The Beatles Anthology
I think [The Beatles] had lost a bit of the joy of making music. There wasn’t much bickering in the studio, because they were concentrating on music. But when we’d break for lunch, they’d start to talk about business. I was surprised to learn they’d gotten ripped off so many times. I learned a lot from them about that kind of thing.Billy Preston – About the “Get Back” sessions – From “And In The End” by Ken McNab
Last updated on January 15, 2022
Songs written or co-written by Billy Preston
Apr 20, 1969 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Abbey Road
Jul 11, 1969 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Abbey Road