Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Billy Preston

Although Billy Preston is one of a very few people to ever be referred to as "The Fifth Beatle", His career and accomplishments began well before his affiliation with The Fab Four. Born September 2, 1946 in Houston, Texas, Preston at the age of ten was playing organ backing up such gospel greats as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andrea Crouch. At the age of 12 he appeared in the W.C. Handy film biography which starred Nat "King " Cole ,where he portrayed Handy as a youngster. A year before that, he appeared on Cole's variety show performing a duet with Cole of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill". By 1962 he had joined Little Richard's band on organ and it was while on tour in Hamburg, Germany that he first met The Beatles.

Preston, in addition to his service with Little Richard's band, had made quite a name for himself as a session musician, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Barbara Streisand, Sly And The Family Stone and of course, The Beatles are part of a long list of session credits to his name. He also played and sang as a member of the house band for the 60s-era rock and roll weekly series Shindig, playing alongside such future greats as Leon Russell, James Burton, Delaney Bramlett and Glen Campbell.

His meeting with The Beatles led to the group asking him to contribute to their recordings of Get Back and Abbey Road. At one point during the Get Back sessions John Lennon proposed having him join the band officially, which as time has shown never was carried through. He is, however the only musician besides Tony Sheridan to be share billing with the band as the single "Get Back" was credited to "The Beatles With Billy Preston". He also portrayed Sgt. Pepper in the Robert Stigwood film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a film loosely based on The Beatles' album of the same name.

After signing with The Beatles' Apple Records in 1969 and the subsequent break-up of the band, he released a solo album, That's The Way God Planned It. Preston maintained a close working relationship with George Harrison, appearing on the Harrison single "My Sweet Lord" and making major contributions in both The Concert For Bangladesh album and film. He also worked on albums by John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Soon after, Preston left Apple and signed with A&M Records where his solo career became quite successful, beginning with the 1972 single "Outta Space", which went to #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the RnB charts. It was awarded a gold record and a Grammy Award that year for best pop instrumental.

Preston kept it going by following up in the next two years with the singles "Nothing From Nothing" and  "Will It Go Round In Circles", both  #1 hits. A third hit, "Space Race" topped at #4  and was so liked by Dick Clark that he used it for his show American Bandstand's mid-show bumper music for the remainder of the show's run. All three of these singles sold in excess of  a million copies. On the anecdotal side, Stephen Stills heard Preston use a particular  phrase several times while in his company. Stills liked the phrase so much he asked Preston if he could use it in a song he was writing. The phrase, "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" found its way to the top of the charts as the chorus and title of Stills' hit solo song.

Although Preston is often referred to as "the fifth Beatle", in terms of sheer man-hours he should more accurately be thought of as 'the sixth Rolling Stone". He appears on the Stones' albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock And Roll, and Black And Blue. As Mr. Carson stated in the preceding video, he supported The Stones on their 1973 European Tour. After taking a break to compose Joe Cocker's hit "You Are So Beautiful" , and along with Janis Ian being a musical guest on the premiere episode of  Saturday Night Live, he toured again with The Stones in 1976, this time playing with the band. They featured two of Preston's songs in the middle of each show. He played on solo records by the Stones and appeared on 1981's Tattoo You and 1997's Bridges To Babylon.

 Time will have its way no matter how gifted or successful one can be. In 1976 Preston's solo career started the decline that happens to all things sooner or later. After many years with A&M he left the label and signed with Motown Records. On that label he had a top 10 duet with Syreeta Wright, a song and performance of uncommon beauty titled "When I'm With You I'm Born Again". Unfortunately, Preston was unable to repeat that success and he left Motown to spend the rest of his career in session work.

Legal problems? Health issues? Rumours? Yes to all three, this is rock and roll after all. Preston's brushes with the law included no-contest pleas for seperate cocaine and sexual assault charges. Not to mention insurance fraud for setting his house on fire. Community service and house arrest followed. These complications prevented him from accepting an invitation to become a member of The Band after the death of their keyboardist Stan Szelest. Also, even though Keith Richards saw fit to state in his autobiography Life that Preston was an openly gay man, given that Preston himself never made a statement on the subject, I'm satified to consider this Billy's business and not Keith's, unassailably reliable source that he may be. (Where's the sarcasm button on this thing?)
What IS true is that Preston went on to tour with The Funk Brothers, Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton. He was also on albums by Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Norah Jones, Neil Diamond and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has also appeared on American Idol. Jazz legend Miles Davis was heavily influenced by Preston and his 1974 album Get Up With It includes a song titled "Billy Preston" in his honor.
Having battled kidney disease in his later years, William Everett Preston left this earth on June 6, 2006 due to kidney failure...but only after having in his 59 years a musical career anyone would be proud of.

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