Born William Everett Preston, September 9, 1946, in Houston, TX; died of kidney failure, June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, AZ. Musician. With his trademark Afro hairstyle and showstopping virtuosity on the keyboards, Billy Preston was one of the most sought-after guest musicians in rock during the 1960s and '70s. He recorded and performed with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and contributed an element of genuine soul to their respective sounds with his appearance on some of their best records of this era. "When you're doing it you're just trying to do the best you can," Preston once reflected about his legacy in music, according to his New York Times obituary. "You don't know if you're doing something important, and whether it will make history has yet to be seen. Just the fact of being able to do it, and striving to do the best you can, was the accomplishment."
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1946, Preston moved with his mother and sister to Los Angeles after his parents' divorce. He began playing the piano at the age of three, at first copying the hand movements of his sister but soon emerging as a musical prodigy. His mother worked as a secretary at a funeral home and also was a church musician, and her son was drawn into the gospel scene through this. So talented that he was playing keyboards for gospel legend Mahalia Jackson by the age of ten, he made a notable Hollywood debut in the 1958 biopic St. Louis Blues as a young W.C. Handy, the pioneering American blues songwriter and performer.
In 1962, Preston released his debut album, Gospel in My Soul , and began touring with Ray Charles and Little Richard, two of the biggest names in R&B at the time. At a club in Hamburg, Germany, the 15-year-old Preston met the Beatles, a relatively unknown rock act from Liverpool, England, at the time who appeared on some bills with Little Richard. After releasing a pair of organ instrumental records and spending three years as a keyboard player for Charles, Preston became reacquainted with George Harrison. The Beatle invited him to help out on some sessions for the group's next LP, the so-called White Album from 1968, but his formal credit as a performer with them began with two tracks on 1969's Abbey Road .
Preston was invited to participate in another recording session for what would be the group's final recording together, Let It Be . The making of the 1970 release was filmed for a documentary of the same name, though there was tremendous rancor among band members by that point. Preston's easygoing attitude helped to smooth over tensions, and "Harrison would later say that Preston's presence was one of the few sources of positive energy during that time," noted the Los Angeles Times ' Geoff Boucher, "and that by merely being in the room he probably prevented the Beatles from walking out on one another."
In the film version of Let It Be , Preston appears in what turned out to be the band's last live performance ever, which was shot on a rooftop. The song was "Get Back," and it surged to No. 1 on the charts and remains the only single ever released by the Beatles in which they shared credit with another performer. Of that entire Let It Be experience, Preston recalled many years later that "it was a struggle for them," New York Times writer Jon Pareles quoted him as saying. "They were kind of despondent. They had lost the joy of doing it all."
Preston was signed to the Beatles' own record label, Apple, and Harrison produced his first single for it, the gospel-tinged rocker "That's the Way God Planned It." He went on to work with the Rolling Stones, appearing as a guest keyboard player for their 1971 release Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street a year later, each of which regularly appear on lists of the best or most influential rock albums of all time. Other keyboardist credits from this period include Aretha Franklin's 1973 Grammy-winning Young, Gifted and Black and another classic of the era, There's a Riot Goin' On from Sly and the Family Stone.
Preston scored some solo hits in 1974 with "Nothing From Nothing" and "Outa-Space," which won him his own Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance. He also co-wrote the song "You Are So Beautiful" with Bruce Fisher, which became a huge hit for British soul crooner Joe Cocker. In October of 1975, he showed up at what would be another pivotal moment in pop-culture history as the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live when its first episode aired.
Over the years Preston's run-ins with the law increased in frequency. He was convicted in an insurance fraud scam involving a fire at his Los Angeles home, and spent time in jail for it; there were other arrests for drug possession and assault. In the 1990s, he returned to his gospel roots with several albums, and appeared on a track from Stadium Arcadium by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2006. His health, compromised from years of substance abuse, declined considerably, and he underwent kidney transplant surgery in 2002; the new organ later failed, however, and he went on dialysis to survive. In November of 2005, he lapsed into a coma, and died on June 6, 2006, at the age of 59 in a Scottsdale, Arizona, hospital. He is survived by his sister, Gwendolyn Gooden, and two half-sisters, Lettie Preston and Rodena Williams. Tributes from rock legends poured in, among them Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, who called Preston "a fantastic and gifted musician," according to the Los Angeles Times , as well as "great fun to be with…. I will miss him a lot."
Chicago Tribune , June 7, 2006, sec. 3, p. 10; Los Angeles Times , June 7, 2006, p. B10; New York Times , June 7, 2006, p. C10; Times (London), June 8, 2006, p. 58; Washington Post , June 7, 2006, p. B6.