A Rockapaedia Obituary
Billy Preston died aged fifty-nine on 6th June 2006 in Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S.A from Pericarditis and Coma. Billy had suffered kidney disease in his later years, brought on by hypertension and he had received a kidney transplant in 2002, but his health continued to deteriorate. Billy had voluntarily entered a drug rehabilitation clinic in Malibu, California, and developed pericarditis there, leading to respiratory failure that put him into a coma.
Billy Preston was brought up in the African-American gospel tradition and was a committed Christian throughout his life. He openly expressed his faith in works such as his 1970s hit "That's the Way God Planned It". However, his personal beliefs were sometimes at odds with the attitudes and musical expressions of the secular world of rock & roll in which he often worked; while he was apparently willing to put his religious views aside when working on tracks like John Lennon's openly atheistic song "Imagine", he was reported to have been particularly uncomfortable with having to perform "Sympathy for the Devil" while touring with the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s. Billy Preston was also deeply attached to his mother, for whom he wrote the song that became his best-known composition, "You Are So Beautiful".
Although the details did not become fully known to the general public until after his death, Billy Preston struggled throughout his life to cope with his homosexuality, and the lasting effects of the traumatic sexual abuse he suffered as a boy. Although his sexual orientation became known to friends and associates in the music world (including Keith Richards) Billy Preston did not publicly come out as gay until just before he died. This was reportedly partly due to the fact that he felt that it conflicted with his deeply held religious beliefs and his lifelong association with the church, so he remained "in the closet" until shortly before his death.
In an interview for a 2010 BBC Radio 4 documentary on his life and career, Billy Preston's manager Joyce Moore revealed that after she began handling his affairs, Billy Preston opened up to her about the lifelong trauma he had suffered as the result of being sexually abused as a boy. Billy Preston told Moore that at about the age of nine, after he and his mother moved to Los Angeles from Houston to perform in a touring production of Amos 'n' Andy, he was repeatedly abused by the touring company's pianist. When Billy Preston told his mother about the abuse, she did not believe him, and failed to protect him. The abuse subsequently went on for the entire summer, and Billy Preston also stated that he was later abused by a local pastor.
Another traumatic incident, which reportedly affected Billy Preston deeply, occurred in the early 1970s, while he was engaged to actress/model Kathy Silva. At this time Billy Preston had become close friends with musician Sly Stone, and made many contributions to Stone's recordings of the period, including the landmark album "There's a Riot Goin' On". According to Moore, Billy Preston was devastated when he came home one day to find Stone in bed with Silva, who later famously married Stone on stage at Madison Square Garden. According to Moore, Silva's affair with Stone was the trigger that led Billy Preston to stop having relationships with women. It was after this incident that he began abusing cocaine and having sex with men, and Moore has stated that she saw his drug abuse as his way of coping with the internal conflicts he felt about his sexual urges.
Billy Preston was born on 2nd September 1946 in Houston, Texas, U.S.A. When he was three, the family moved to Los Angeles, and Billy began playing piano while sitting on his mother Robbie's lap. Noted as a child prodigy, Billy 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 including Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andraé Crouch. At the age of eleven, Billy Preston appeared on an episode of Nat King Cole's NBC network TV show singing the Fats Domino hit "Blueberry Hill" with Nat Cole. Also at age eleven, he appeared in St. Louis Blues, the 1958 W. C. Handy biopic starring Nat King Cole. Billy Preston played W.C.Handy at a young age.
In 1962, Billy 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, other musicians began asking Billy Preston to contribute to their sessions.
Billy Preston first met the Beatles as a sixteen-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. 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. George Harrison, a friend of Billy Preston, had quit, walked out of the studio and gone to a Ray Charles concert in London, where Billy Preston was playing organ. Harrison brought Billy Preston back to the studio, where his keen musicianship and gregarious personality temporarily calmed the tension.
Billy 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 members. Billy 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. Billy 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 Billy Preston", the only time such a joint credit had been given on an official Beatles-sanctioned release. The credit was bestowed by the Beatles to reflect the extent of Billy Preston's presence on the track; his electric piano is prominent throughout and he plays an extended solo. Billy 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, Billy 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.
Signed to the Beatles' Apple label, in 1969, Billy Preston released the album That's the Way God Planned It, produced by George Harrison, the title song from which was a hit single in Britain. His relationship with George continued after the Beatles' break-up in 1970; Billy Preston was the first artist to record George 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 George 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. Billy Preston also worked on solo releases by John Lennon and Ringo Starr.
In 1971, Billy Preston left Apple and signed with Herb Alpert's A&M Records. The previous year, he had contributed to another hit single when Stephen Stills asked to use Billy 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.
Following the release of 'I Wrote a Simple Song' on A&M, Billy Preston's solo career peaked at this time, beginning with 1972's "Outa-Space", an instrumental track that further popularized the sound of the clavinet in funk music. The song reached number two on the US Billboard Hot 100 and topped Billboard's R&B chart, before going on to win the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. "Outa-Space" sold over 1 million copies in America, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA in June 1972. Later that year, Billy Preston contributed the title song to the hit blaxploitation film 'Slaughter' starring Jim Brown.
Over the next two years, Billy Preston followed up with the US chart-topping singles "Will It Go Round in Circles", which displaced Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" at the top on 7th July 1973 and "Nothing from Nothing", and the number four hit "Space Race". Each of the three singles sold in excess of 1 million copies.
From 1970, Billy Preston played keyboards, including piano, organ, clavinet and various synthesizers, for the Rolling Stones, sometimes alongside pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart, on their albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n Roll and Black and Blue. As the band's primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977, he also performed as a support act with his own band, including with Mick Taylor on guitar, on their 1973 European tour. A Munich performance from this tour was documented on Billy Preston's album Live European Tour 1973. In 1974, along with Bruce Fisher, one of his regular songwriting collaborators in the 1970s, he composed one of Joe Cocker's biggest hits, "You Are So Beautiful". On 11th October 1975, he was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live's series premiere episode. Although two of his songs were included in the band's 1975 and 1976 live sets, the Stones and Billy Preston parted company in 1977, mainly due to a disagreement over money.
Billy Preston's solo career began to decline after 1976. After seven years with A&M, he signed with Motown. In 1979, he duetted with Syreeta Wright on the ballad "With You I'm Born Again", which reached number 4 on the charts in the U.S.A. Failing thereafter to match its success, Billy Preston left Motown in 1984 and focused on session work, contributing to works by artists including Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle, among others. He served as musical director for Nightlife, a late-night talk show hosted by David Brenner that lasted one season from 1986 to 1987.
In 1991, Billy Preston was treated for alcohol and cocaine addictions. In the same year, he was also arrested for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Mexican boy, after picking him up at a gathering point for day laborers. After submitting to a drug test, he tested positive for cocaine. He entered no-contest pleas to the cocaine and sexual assault charges, and was sentenced to nine months at a drug rehabilitation center and three months of house arrest. In 1998, Billy Preston was arrested and convicted for insurance fraud after setting fire to his own house in Los Angeles.
In 1997, Billy Billy Preston had recorded the album You and I, in Italy, with Italian band Novecento. The album was produced by Vaughn De Spenza and Novecento members Lino and Pino Nicolosi. In 1998, Billy Preston played organ during the choir numbers on the UPN comedy show Good News. The same year he sang and played synthesizer in the film Blues Brothers 2000, as part of the Louisiana Gator Boys supergroup.
While touring and fighting his own health problems, Billy Preston received the news that on November 29th , 2001, George Harrison had died. Billy Preston, among many of George's longtime friends, performed in the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Billy 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 2002, Billy Preston appeared on the Johnny Cash album American IV: The Man Comes Around, playing piano on "Personal Jesus" and "Tear-Stained Letter".
In 2004, Billy Preston toured with the Funk Brothers and Steve Winwood in Europe, and then with Eric Clapton in Europe and North America. After the Clapton tours, he went to France, where he was featured in one episode of the Legends Rock TV Show. His performance included a duet with Sam Moore on "You Are So Beautiful"; and was Billy Preston's last filmed concert.
In 2004, Billy Preston performed as a jazz organist on Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, an album of duets, on the song "Here We Go Again" with Charles and Norah Jones.
In March 2005, he appeared on the American Idol fourth season finale. Playing piano, he performed "With You I'm Born Again" with Vonzell Solomon, who finished the contest in third place. The same year, he recorded "Go Where No One's Gone Before", the main title song for the anime series L/R: Licensed by Royalty.
Billy Preston played clavinet on the song "Warlocks" for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Stadium Arcadium. Although very ill by this point, he jumped out of his bed after hearing a tape of the song given to him by the band, recorded his part, and went back to bed. Billy Preston's final recorded contributions were the gospel-tinged organ on the Neil Diamond album 12 Songs , and his keyboard work on The Road to Escondido in 2006 by Eric Clapton and J. J. Cale.
In late 2005, Billy 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 Ringo Starr joining on guitar and drums, respectively, for the last song.