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.
When I went with Eric Clapton to see Ray Charles play at the Festival Hall, before Ray came on there was a guy on stage playing the organ, dancing about and singing ‘Double-O Soul’. I thought, That guy looks familiar,’ but he seemed bigger than I remembered. After a while Ray came on and the band played for a few songs and then he reintroduced… Billy Preston! Ray said, ‘Since I heard Billy play I don’t play the organ any more – I leave it to him.’ I thought, ‘It’s Billy!’ Since we had last seen him in Hamburg in 1962, when he was just a little lad, he had grown to be six foot tall.
Harrison invited brought Preston into the studio, where his enthusiasm and easy-going personality helped ease the tensions. At the time Preston was in London to film some BBC television appearances.
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 sang ‘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.
Preston had been battling kidney disease for some years, brought on by his drink and drug abuse, and towards the end of his life he was addicted to crack cocaine. He fell into a coma on 21 November 2005, and died on 6 June 2006 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
According to his friend and manager Joyce Moore, Preston’s homosexuality was a secret which he found difficult to publicly admit. He was outed by Keith Richards in his 2010 autobiography Life, for which Preston was interviewed, although the book was published after his death.
He voluntarily put himself into rehab. He had called me on the Thursday, and he was furious. He was just screaming, he was so angry. He was going: ‘I hope you’re satisfied and I hope you’re happy now’, and I’m going, ‘What? What are you talking about? Would you calm down and tell me what’s going on?’ He said: ‘Are you happy now I told him? I told him I’m gay, all right?’ And I said: ‘It’s more than all right, ’cause now I know that you’re going to be safe and I know you’re cured.’ And that was his demon; it had always been his demon, and I knew then that he’d beat it, he was going to be fine because he was finally able to confront who he was and deal with it, and all the reason that he’d get high and he’d go on these binges and stuff was all tied to it. And I knew at that point he was safe and he was saved, and four days later he was in a coma and he never came back.
Billy Preston: That’s The Way God Planned It, BBC
According to both Moore and Preston’s half-sister Lettie, sexual abuse that Preston also experienced as a child also reportedly affected him deeply as an adult, and his unresolved problems contributed to his drug abuse.
The demons from childhood abuse never left him, and he suffered nightmares and tears from the memories. Drugs helped him to escape.
Billy Preston: That’s The Way God Planned It, BBC
In the years preceding his death Preston had worked on a collection of Beatles cover versions, which remains unreleased.