The blazing talent – and heartbreaking decline – of ‘fifth Beatle’ Billy Preston

Billy Preston with Ringo Starr and George Harrison in 1990 - FilmMagic
Billy Preston with Ringo Starr and George Harrison in 1990 - FilmMagic

For The Beatles, a slot on the same bill as Little Richard at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton on October 12 1962 was a dream made real. Six years earlier, in a transformative moment at a cinema in Liverpool, the 14-year old Paul McCartney had watched transfixed as Richard sang the song Ready Teddy in The Girl Can’t Help It. When McCartney met John Lennon for the first time the following year, the two boys bonded over a love of the film.

While The Beatles posed in the wings for photographs they hoped would capture them in the same frame as Little Richard, onstage, playing with the band, sat a key participant in their group’s future. In 1962, Billy Preston was a keyboardist on his first tour as a rock’n’roll musician. Age 16, he was so young that entry into Britain had been contingent on Richard becoming his legal guardian. By the end of the decade, however, he would be known as “the Fifth Beatle”.

As well as much else, this week The Beatles: Get Back has helped restore a measure of lustre to this faded soubriquet. With a running time of 468 minutes – down from a working cut said to be 18 hours long – Peter Jackson’s three part film, covering the making of 1970’s Let It Be, the band’s 12th and final studio album, leaves viewers in no doubt as to the contribution of William Everett Preston. Not for nothing was the single release of Get Back and Don’t Let Me Down credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston.

“Every keyboard player I know loves Billy Preston,” said Rick Wakeman in the 2010 Radio 4 documentary That’s The Way. “You can spot his playing a mile off, whether it’s the Hammond organ, the Fender Rhodes or the piano. He had such a spiritual touch to his technique it made him completely unique.”

Alongside dozens of solo albums, Preston’s distinctive piano and organ style can be heard on singles and LPs by such Hall of Fame artists as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Sly & The Family Stone, Luther Vandross, and many more. He co-wrote the Joe Cocker classic You Are So Beautiful and appeared on Exile On Main Street, the Rolling Stones’ one true masterpiece. As a member of the Stones’ touring party for much of the seventies, he was so well liked that Keith Richards threatened to put him in hospital only once.

“There was one time in Glasgow when he was playing so loud he was drowning out the rest of the band,” Richards recalled in his autobiography, Life, from 2010. “I took him backstage and showed him the blade. ‘You know what this is, Bill? Dear William. If you don’t turn that f_____ thing down right now, you’re going to feel it.’ It’s not Billy Preston and the Rolling Stones. You are the keyboard player with the Rolling Stones.”

Come the end of the tour – a campaign from which saxophonist Bobby Keys was fired for attempting to fill a hotel bathtub with Dom Perignon – Billy Preston surely had cause to consider the distance he’d travelled as a self-taught musician. Raised by his mother, Robbie Lee Williams, by age 10 he was playing with professional gospel singers in the churches of Los Angeles. Throughout his career, Preston kept faith with this style of music – in 43-years as a recording artist he released seven gospel albums – and with Christianity itself.

His belief that audiences would enjoy his faith-based material was justified when That’s The Way God Planned It became a hit single in the UK in 1969. Three years later he told Rolling Stone that while record buyers “might not understand the religion” behind his gospel music, nonetheless “people should see something new because they always come expecting the same old thing… I’m not going to be preaching hellfire and damnation, just rejoicing.”

Billy Preston on stage with the Rolling Stones in Redferns - Redferns
Billy Preston on stage with the Rolling Stones in Redferns - Redferns

But if Billy Preston had no appetite casting out sinners, he certainly knew a man who did. Five years after renouncing rock’n’roll in favour of becoming a preacher, in 1962 Little Richard told the English promoter Don Arden that his offer of a European tour was an insult to God. “I’ve always believed it’s going to be somebody evil who’s going to bring me back,” he said, packing a suitcase. Arden was certainly wily enough to ensure Richard signed a contract stipulating that he would play hits such as Tutti Frutti and Good Golly, Miss Molly.

There is, I think, a case to be made that inner turmoil was the rocket fuel that first propelled the founding fathers of rock’n’roll onto the international stage. The helplessness of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard in the face of the Devil’s music filled their songs with joy and rage and guilt. Confusion abounded. Like Richard, Billy Preston was a deeply religious man conflicted by his own homosexuality; unlike Richard, he remained closeted until the end of his life. His sexuality, in fact, remained (largely) secret until Keith Richards let rip in 2010.

“He was gay at a time when nobody could be openly gay, which added difficulties to his life,” the guitarist wrote in Life. “Billy could be, most of the time, a bundle of fun. But sometimes he would get on the rag. I had to stop him beating up a boyfriend in an elevator once.”

Billy Preston in 1965 - Redferns
Billy Preston in 1965 - Redferns

Preston grew close with The Beatles when Little Richard’s European tour set up camp at the Star Club, in Hamburg, for a two-week run of dates at which the Englishmen provided support. On the Reeperbahn, only the headline act was allowed to order food from the kitchen; in order that his new friends be fed, Billy Preston would order a vast array of steaks and chops from the kitchen. By way of thanks, the group taught their benefactor to play the harmonica.

“Right from the start, I fell in love with The Beatles,” he is reported as saying in Tune In, Mark Lewisohn’s definitive doorstop book about the Fab Four’s early years. “I was probably their first American fan and friend. John [Lennon] was great – he was funny, he was so smart and clever. I admired him instantly for his wit and manner. You just knew he was special; genius, I suppose, stood out even then, and even to me, a very naïve kid.”

Seven years later, following a part of concerts with Ray Charles – a man whose style Preston would attempt to emulate as a child by covering his eyes with tape – at the Royal Festival Hall, a call came in from an unhappy George Harrison. Over at Apple Corps, The Beatles’ recently founded media company, the by now fractious four were making a horlicks of completing the Let It Be album. With frustration metastasizing into rancour, Billy Preston was recruited as a first responder.

“That period was the low of all time,” Harrison later told the BBC. “The Let It Be album. Everyone left one time or another, but I left during Let It Be. But it was decided that we would just get together and complete the record, but it was still very strained, the atmosphere. And Billy Preston walked in the office and I just grabbed him and brought him down to the studio and said, ‘How would you like to play the piano?’ It put everything more at ease, you know, having a fifth person to offset the vibes.”

John Lennon’s proposal that the emollient keyboardist become a full-time Beatle may have been scotched by Paul McCartney – “four [people] is bad enough,” he said – but Billy Preston did play with the band at their final live appearance, on the roof of Apple’s Saville Row office, on January 30th 1969. As if to say thank you, as producer of Preston’s solo album, That’s The Way God Planned it, George recruited Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker as session musicians. The following year, in 1970, he produced its successor, Encouraging Words.

If Preston’s association with The Beatles catapulted him into the super league of session players, his iconic style – captured magnificently in stabs and swirls at the start of Shine A Light, from Exile On Main Street – meant that he was usually more than a sideman. Out on the road, the Rolling Stones allowed him a two-song slot in each night’s set during which they were the accompanying musicians. Even Miles Davis wrote a song about him.

Billy Preston with Lulu, in 1969 - Getty
Billy Preston with Lulu, in 1969 - Getty

In the face of a worsening cocaine habit, Preston’s talents remained in demand. In the 21st Century, at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin, he played on landmark stripped-down albums by Johnny Cash (American IV: The Man Comes Around) and Neil Diamond (the especially gorgeous 12 Songs). In 2002 he appeared onstage at the Royal Albert Hall for a concert in honour of his old friend George Harrison. Up to the last, he accepted commissions from ageing stagers (Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton) and younger bucks (Red Hot Chili Peppers) alike.

The end, though, when it came, was bumpy and grim. Billy Preston’s declining years saw him mixed up in insurance fraud and arson, solicitation, crack cocaine and drink-driving. After suffering pericarditis at a rehabilitation clinic in Malibu, he spent the six months before his death, in 2006, in a coma. Little Richard spoke at his funeral. Joe Cocker sang a song. In the wake of his passing, his former manager, Joyce Moore, spoke of a trauma inflicted long before the wider world had ever heard his name.

“Billy had been the victim of paedophilia as a young kid out on the [church circuit] with his mother,” she said. “A couple of the people in the touring company got a hold of him, and [when] he went and told his mother she [said], ‘Oh no, there’s no way. What are you talking about?’ She didn’t believe that these people she was involved with would do these things to her son. But they did, and they were. That was his demon. That had always been his demon… The reason he’d get high and go on his binges and stuff was tied to this.”

Billy Preston is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.