Spectropop remembers

BILLY PRESTON (1946 - 2006)

Billy Preston, the gifted genre-bending keyboardist who collaborated with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and scored two No.1 hits of his own, has died of kidney failure in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 59.

Sometimes referred to as "the fifth Beatle", he received a recording credit with the group, when the single "Get Back" was attributed to the Beatles with Billy Preston. He scored his own chart-toppers with "Will It Go Round In Circles" (1973) and "Nothing From Nothing" (1974), and he co-wrote "You Are So Beautiful", which became a Top 5 hit for Joe Cocker in 1975. By then, Preston's reputation was strong enough to earn him the distinction of becoming the first-ever musical guest on Saturday Night Live. He also played the role of Sgt. Pepper in the 1978 film version of the Beatles' concept album, and his career included sessions with such greats as Little Richard, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Sly and the Family Stone.

Born in Houston on September 9th, 1946, Preston moved with his family to Los Angeles early on. A child prodigy, he played with Mahalia Jackson by age ten and appeared as the young W.C. Handy in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues. Touring Europe with Little Richard's band in 1962, he first met the Beatles. After signing with Sam Cooke's SAR label, he moved onto Vee-Jay, where he released two well-received instrumental gospel albums, The Most Exciting Organ Ever and The Wildest Organ In Town!.

Working in the studio band on the TV series Shindig!, Preston was recruited by Ray Charles. George Harrison spotted him performing with Charles on a BBC special and invited him to record with the Beatles. In addition to "Get Back", the keyboardist took part in the sessions that would become the Let It Be album. Harrison encouraged the signing of Preston to the Beatles' Apple label, where he released two albums, That's The Way God Planned It and Encouraging Words. He also appeared on Harrison's first solo album, All Things Must Pass, and on the historic recording of the Concert For Bangladesh. Preston's connection to the Beatles would continue for years; he worked on John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album and, in 1989, joined Ringo Starr's first All Starr Band tour. Preston was a collaborator in demand beyond the Fab Four. He appeared on a string of Rolling Stones albums - including Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street and Black And Blue - touring for a time as the band's featured guest.

In his own solo career he enjoyed several years of remarkable success in the mid-1970s, beginning with the Grammy-winning hit "Outa-Space" in 1972 and ending in 1980 with "With You I'm Born Again", a Top 5 duet with Syreeta Wright. In later years, Preston made studio appearances with singers including Luther Vandross, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Enrique Iglesias.

The 1990s were difficult times, as the singer, who admitted a decades-long dependency on drugs and alcohol, was in recurring trouble with the law over charges including an insurance fraud scam that involved a fire at his house. Though he spent much of the decade in prison or on probation, he continued to perform whenever possible. Just before his death, he appeared on albums by Neil Diamond (12 Songs) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Stadium Arcadium). A virtuoso, Preston was also extremely versatile, spanning gospel, funk, classic rock and many other styles. Prefiguring a 1973 album that he called Everybody Likes Some Kind Of Music, he described his ideal audience in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview: "Young whites, young blacks, old people, jazz people - I want 'em all."

(James Sullivan, Rolling Stone)

Billy Preston, musician, singer and songwriter:
born September 9th, 1946 - died June 6th, 2006