William Everett Preston (2 September 1946-6 June 2006) was a soul musician from Houston, Texas. Along with Tony Sheridan, he was one of just two non-members to receive top billing on a Beatles record.
Billy Preston first met The Beatles while touring with Little Richard’s band in 1962. At the time The Beatles were the opening act, and were yet to find fame beyond their home city.
They met again in 1969, during the fraught sessions for the Let It Be album and film. George Harrison, unwilling to further endure the animosity within the group, had walked out of the studio and gone to a Ray Charles concert in London, where he saw Preston playing the organ.
Harrison brought Preston back into the studio, where his enthusiasm and easy-going personality helped ease the tensions.
John Lennon was in favour of making Preston a full member of the band; Paul McCartney disagreed, saying there was little point as the band was close to splitting. Nevertheless, he worked with The Beatles from 22-31 January 1969, playing Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Lowrey DSO Heritage organ.
Preston performed with The Beatles during their 42-minute performance on the rooftop of Apple, on 30 January 1969, which was the band’s final public performance.
Beyond The Beatles
Preston was signed to Apple in 1969, and released the album That’s The Way God Planned It. The title track, produced by George Harrison, was released as a single.
The pair had a strong relationship after The Beatles split. Preston was the first to record My Sweet Lord, for his 1970 album Encouraging Words, and he appeared on several subsequent albums by Harrison. He also appeared at the Concert for Bangladesh.
Preston also worked with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, and performed and recorded with The Rolling Stones from 1971 until 1977.
The 1980s were more troubled, and he battled alcohol and cocaine addictions. He was arrested in 1991 for assault and cocaine possession, and was sentenced to rehab and three months’ house arrest. He did, though, turn his fortunes around enough during the 1990s to tour with Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and The Band.
Billy Preston performed at Concert For George, the 2002 tribute concert for Harrison at the Royal Albert Hall, where he played My Sweet Lord and Isn’t It A Pity.
In 2003 he was heard on Let It Be… Naked, the de-Spectored version of the 1969 Let It Be sessions.
His final public appearance was at a 2005 press junket in Los Angeles, for the re-release of the Concert for Bangladesh film. Afterwards he performed Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth), My Sweet Lord and Isn’t It A Pity with Ringo Starr and George’s son Dhani.
Billy Preston had been battling kidney disease for some years, brought on by his drink and drug abuse. He fell into a coma on 21 November 2005, and died on 6 June 2006 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
According to his manager, Preston’s problems were caused in part by his homosexuality, a secret which he found difficult to publicly admit to; he was inadvertently outed by Keith Richards in his 2010 autobiography Life. The sexual abuse that Preston also experienced as a child also affected him deeply as an adult, and his unresolved problems contributed to his drug abuse.
In the years preceding his death he had worked on a collection of Beatles cover versions, which remains unreleased.