William Everett Preston, songwriter and keyboardist, was born on September 2, 1946, in Houston, Texas. With his career spanning five decades, Preston’s accomplishments are highlighted by a string of hits that include collaboration with some of the most celebrated names in the music industry, including the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Sly & the Family Stone, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Eric Clapton, and the Beatles. Preston is widely acknowledged as the “Fifth Beatle” after working with the band on several of their albums and is included in the label credits of Let It Be and Abbey Road.
A Houston native who moved to Los Angeles soon after his parents split up, Billy Preston began taking piano lessons when he was three years old. By the age of ten, he played keyboards for famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Two years later, Preston portrayed the young W. C. Handy alongside Nat King Cole in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues. Preston was hired by Little Richard for his European tour in 1962. It was on this tour that Preston was first introduced to the Beatles, who were Little Richard’s opening act, while in Hamburg, Germany. He also met Sam Cooke and later performed with him. Preston released his debut album The Most Exciting Organ Ever on VJ Records in 1965. In the mid-1960s he became a regular on the ABC pop television series Shindig, playing in the house band, and went on to play in Ray Charles’s band for three years.
Preston’s partnership with the Beatles began in 1969 after the band saw him play with Ray Charles. Friend George Harrison recruited him to play on Let It Be, a film and record project that caused friction among the band members. Contributing a blues-inspired solo to the band’s “Get Back,” Preston performed the song with the band at their legendary “rooftop” performance, the last time the Beatles played together live. This 1969 single is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston,” the only shared label credit in the Beatles’ career. He became the first artist signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records label, and he recorded two albums, produced by George Harrison—That’s the Way God Planned It and Encouraging Words. In 1971 Preston appeared at the Concert for Bangladesh that was organized by Harrison and went on to do studio work on solo projects for Harrison, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon.
In the early 1970s Preston worked with the Rolling Stones on their albums Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St., and toured with the band. He also worked on Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black, Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
Alongside his work with many artists in the early 1970s, Preston broke out as a solo artist. His own hits include the instrumental “Outta Space,” for which he received a Grammy in 1973, and the Number 1 pop singles “Will It Go Round in Circles” in 1973 and “Nothing from Nothing” in 1974. He also co-wrote the hit “You Are So Beautiful,” performed by Joe Cocker. On October 11, 1975, Preston became the first musical guest for the series premiere of Saturday Night Live on NBC, with comedian George Carlin as host. In 1978 Preston played Sergeant Pepper in the Beatles-inspired film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band alongside musicians Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. In 1979 Preston and singer Syreeta Wright recorded “With You I’m Born Again,” which hit Number 4 on the pop charts in 1980.
Preston continued to do studio sessions and perform throughout the 1980s, recording solo albums and touring with Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band in 1989. In 1992 Preston received a suspended jail sentence for his no-contest plea to cocaine and assault charges but was later ordered incarcerated for nine months at a drug rehabilitation center. After being released, he made several gospel albums, including 1995’s Minister of Music and Words and Music with Edna Tatum in 1996.
In 1997 Preston was sentenced to three years in prison after violating his probation; in 1998 he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and agreed to testify against other participants in an alleged scam that netted nearly $1 million. Preston returned to the entertainment industry after his release from prison. He appeared in the film Blues Brothers 2000, performed at the 2002 tribute concert for George Harrison, and appeared on several albums of major artists, including Eric Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson, Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Stadium Arcadium, and Ray Charles’s final album Genius Loves Company. In 2004 Preston recorded Billy Preston’s Beatles Salute, a tribute album to the band and appeared on FOX’s popular television show American Idol in 2005.
On November 21, 2005, Billy Preston fell into a coma and never woke. He was pronounced dead at Shea Scottsdale Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona on Tuesday, June 6, 2006, at the age of fifty-nine as a result of pericarditas that resulted in kidney failure and other complications. Preston was survived by his sister, Gwen Gooden, and two half sisters, Lettie Preston and Rodena Williams. He was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles County, California.