American Grammy Award winning rhythm and blues musician, singer and songwriter Billy Preston won a Grammy for the instrumental single “Outa-Space” (1972). He had two Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits with the singles “Will It Go Round In Circles” (1973) and “Nothin' From Nothin” (1974). Other popular singles he released include “Struttin'” (1974), “You're So Unique” (1974) and “With You I'm Born Again” (with Syreeta Wright, 1979). As a soloist, Preston has released over 20 solo albums and nearly 10 gospel albums.
Nicknamed The Fifth Beatle, Preston is known for his association with the band The Beatles and its former lead guitarist George Harrison. He toured and recorded a few singles with the group, including the No. 1 hit “Get Back” (1969). After The Beatles disbanded, he joined The Rolling Stones as their keyboardist and worked with the group in eight of their albums during the 1970s to 1990s. Other musicians he collaborated with included Little Richard, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Sam Cooke, Ringo Starr and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name a few.
Also an occasional actor, Preston made his professional acting debut as young Will Handy in the 1958 biopic “St. Louis Blues.” His subsequent film credits included “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1978), “Blues Brothers 2000” (1998) and “The Derby Stallion” (2005).
Preston died on June 6, 2006, of kidney failure.
Childhood and Family:
Billy Preston was born William Everett Preston on September 9, 1946. He began playing piano at age 3 and had performed in various gospel bands by the time he was 10. He branched out to acting when he was 12 years old.
In 2002, Billy received a kidney transplant after fighting kidney disease for years, which was brought on by hypertension. His health, however, continued to decline after the operation. He eventually passed away on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, Arizona, of kidney failure. He was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
It has been falsely reported that Billy was the son of Ernestine Wade, who played Sapphire Stevens on the “Amos 'n' Andy” TV show in the 1950s. His real mother's name is Robbie Lee Williams, who died on February 2, 2005.
Will It Go Round In Circles
10 year old Billy Preston began playing keyboards for gospel big names like Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch and James Cleveland. Two years later, he made his feature film acting debut in the W.C. Handy biographical movie “St. Louis Blues” (1958). Regarded a bit as a child genius on piano and organ, he toured with Little Richard and Ray Charles in the 1960s and appeared regularly on the ABC TV musical variety series “Shindig,” where as part of the show's house band he demonstrated his talent as a pianist and singer in the mid 1960s. He also played organ on Sam Cooke's album “Night Beat” (1963).
Preston eventually signed with Vee-Jay Records and released his first album, “The Most Exciting Organ Ever,” on August 20, 1965, weeks before his 19th birthday. The fully instrumental album was produced by Steve Douglas. Later that same year, he launched a compilation album titled “Early Hits of '65.” His sophomore album, “The Wildest Organ in Town,” followed in March 1966 and was his first record with Capitol Records. It was arranged by Sly Stone and again produced by Steve Douglas. Preston took on co-producing duties for his subsequent album, “Club Meeting,” which was released on March 30, 1967, before he left Capitol and joined Apple Records in the late 1960s.
“That's the Way God Planned It,” Preston's debut album with Apple, was launched on September 26, 1969, and produced by George Harrison of The Beatles fame and Ray Charles. The album featured such popular guests as Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Keith Richards, among other artists. The title track, produced by Harrison, peaked at No. 62 on the U.S. Pop chart and No. 11 in the U.K.
A close friend of The Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison until his death in 2001, Preston first met the British rock band in 1962 in a Liverpool show where The Beatles were an opening act and he was a member of Little Richard's touring band. They were reunited in 1969 when The Beatles were about to breakup while recording the album “Let It Be” (1970). Preston was brought in by Harrison to help relieve tension and supplement the band in keyboards for live performances. He would work with the group throughout their stay at Apple Studios.
Preston memorably performed on the track “Get Back,” which was released as a single in the U.K. in April 1969. The song stayed at No. 1 on the U.K. singles charts for six weeks and marked the group's only single to enter the chart at the top position. It rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1969. “Get Back/Don't Let Me Down” became the only Beatles single to include an accompanying artist name, crediting “Get Back/Don't Let Me Down” to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” Preston also provided organ for the songs “Something” and “I Want You (She's So Heavy)” from the album “Abbey Road” (1969), the last album recorded by the Beatles although it was released prior to “Let It Be.”
Preston's partnership with Harrison continued even after the breakup of The Beatles. On January 7, 1970, Preston released the album “Encouraging Words,” in which Harrison contributed guitar, co-wrote a song with Preston titled “Sing One for the Lord,” contributed two of his own songs, “My Sweet Lord” and “All Things Must Pass,” and shared the producing duty with Preston. The single “My Sweet Lord” was a minor hit in the U.S., where it went to No. 90 and No. 23 on the Pop chart and the R&B chart, respectively. Shortly thereafter, the song was made famous by Harrison. Harrison's version, on which Preston served as the main musician, became a chart topper in the U.S. in December 1970 and in the U.K. in January 1971.
On June 25, 1971, Preston released the album “I Wrote a Simple Song,” his debut with A&M Records that was produced by Quincy Jones. The Funk/R&B instrumental “Outa-Space” (1972), which Preston produced and co-wrote with Joe Greene, rose to No. 1 on the R&B Singles chart and was certified gold by RIAA. It won a 1972 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. The title track, which featured Harrison on slide guitar, peaked at No. 77 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. Also in 1972, Preston re-released “That's the Way God Planned It,” which peaked at No. 65 on the U.S. Pop chart, and released the single “Slaughter,” which went to No. 50 on the U.S. Pop chart and No. 17 on the U.S. R&B chart.
Preston released his next studio album, “Music Is My Life,” on August 1 1972, which he also produced. It was notable for producing one of his most famous songs, “Will It Go Round in Circles,” which he co-wrote with Bruce Fisher. Released in 1973, the single topped the Billboard Hot 100 on July 7, 1973, and stayed in the position until July 14, 1973. It received platinum certification from RIAA. Preston also covered The Beatles' song “Blackbird” for the album. His third album with A&M Records, “Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music,” followed on September 21, 1973. It spawned the popular instrumental “Space Race,” a sequel of sorts to his Grammy winning single “Outa-Space,” which stayed at No. 1 on the R&B chart for one week and also made the top 10 on the Pop Singles chart (#4). The single “You're So Unique,” was a No. 48 on the Pop Singles chart and a No. 11 R&B hit.
Preston released “Live European Tour,” his first live album, on April 3, 1974. It was recorded during his opening stint for The Rolling Stones 1973 European Tour from September 1 to October 27, 1973, and featured Mick Taylor on lead guitar and Preston's band The God Squad. On May 5, 1974, he released the studio album “The Kids and Me,” which contained popular tracks like “Nothin' From Nothin” and “You Are So Beautiful,” which was later made famous by Joe Cocker, and “Struttin'.” “Nothin' From Nothin” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for one week in October 1974 and went to No. 8 on the R&B chart. “Struttin'” peaked at No. 22 on the Pop Singles chart and No. 11 on the R&B chart.
On October 31, 1975, Preston launched “It's My Pleasure,” which he produced with Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. He collaborated with singer Syreeta Wright on the track “Fancy Lady,” which rose to No. 71 on the Pop Singles chart and No. 23 on the R&B chart. George Harrison, credited as Harri Georgeson, contributed guitar on the song “That's Life” while Steve Wonder provided harmonica in two of the album's tracks. He was reunited with Robert Margouleff to produce his next album, “Billy Preston,” (also known as “Do What You Want”) which was released on November 19, 1976.
The album “A Whole New Thing” hit music stores on July 14, 1977, and was produced by Preston and Truman Thomas. It was followed by “Late at Night,” his first album with Motown Records, on October 22, 1979. The latter album spawned the international hit single “With You I'm Born Again,” which was a reunion with Syreeta Wright. The song made the Top 10 in the U.S. (#4) and the U.K. (#2). Preston's subsequent duets with Syreeta, “It Will Come in Time” and “One More Time for Love” (both 1980), peaked at No. 47 on the U.K. Singles chart and No. 52 on the U.S. Pop chart, respectively. Meanwhile, in 1978, Preston landed the famed role of Sergeant Pepper on the Michael Schultz directed musical “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which was very loosely based on The Beatles' album of the same name. It was his first movie since 1958.
During the 1970s, despite having a prolific career as a soloist, Preston contributed to other artists' works, most notably was his partnership with The Rolling Stones. As a keyboardist for the band, he appeared on the Stones’ albums “Sticky Fingers” (1971), “Exile on Main Street” (1972), “Goats Head Soup” (1973), “It's Only Rock 'n' Roll” (1974), “Black and Blue” (1976) and “Love You Live” (1976). He parted ways with the Stones in 1977 because of a money dispute and would be reunited with the group for the 1981 album “Tattoo You” and 1997's “Bridges to Babylon.” Preston also played piano on “God” for John Lennon's debut solo album “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” (1970) and “That's the Way God Planned It” for “The Concert for Bangla Desh (1971), a live album by George Harrison and celebrity friends recorded in support of the homeless Bengali refugees of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. He also recorded on Ringo Starr's albums “Ringo” (1973) and “Goodnight Vienna” (1974).
Preston was reunited with Syreeta Wright for the album “Billy Preston & Syreeta,” which was released in 1981. Later that same year, he released the album “The Way I Am.” It was followed by “Pressin' On” in 1982 and “On the Air,” which marked his return to music after problems with cocaine and alcohol, in 1984. “Pressin' On” produced the single “I'm Never Gonna Say Goodbye,” a No. 88 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1986, he released the album “You Can't Keep a Good Man Down,” his last solo studio album for 15 years. His single “So Good, So Fine” (with Ann-Louise Hanson, 1986), failed to enter any chart.
After dealing with his addictions in the early 1990s, Preston toured with Eric Clapton and recorded with many artists, including Ringo Star (1991's “Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band”), Italian singer/rapper Jovanotti (1990's “Giovani Jovanotti”), Mick Jagger (1993's “Wandering Spirit”) and Richie Sambora (1998's “Undiscovered Soul”). In 1991, he joined Ringo Starr's band following the death of their pianist Stan Szelest, but was later fired. Preston, who had released five gospel albums during the 1960s to 1980s, recorded three additional gospel albums in the 1990s titled “Ministry of Music” (1994), “Minister of Music” (1995) and “Words of Music” (1996). On the acting front, Preston provided the voice of Marvelous Mose on the direct to video animated film “The Kingdom Chums: Original Top Ten” (1992) and was featured in the John Landis 1998 film “Blues Brothers 2000.”
In 2001, Preston released a solo album titled “You and I” (featuring the Italian band Novecento). The same year, he also released the gospel album “Music From My Heart.” He scored a minor single in 2003 called “Go Where No One's Gone Before.” Despite a small number of solo projects, Preston was sought after as a session musician and guest performer. Some of the artists he collaborated with in the 2000s were Fastball, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rebecca Pidgeon. Preston also acted in the films “Ticker” (2001), “On Faith Alone: The Jozy Pollock Story” (2003, TV) and “The Derby Stallion” (2005, as Will Gentry).
Grammy: Best Pop Instrumental Performance, “Outa-Space,” 1972