Session musician. Singer. Songwriter. Touring musician. The Fifth Beatle. Billy Preston blazed a path through the history of rock & roll with the smoking sounds of his B3 organ, the funky rhythms of his clavinet, and the exciting tones of his gospel-inspired vocals and piano. A child prodigy, Billy played organ with Mahalia Jackson, and in 1957 at the age of 10, he appeared on the Nat King Cole Show, performing a duet with Cole – trading vocal parts and organ licks – Preston’s natural talent shining through.
In 1962, Preston joined Little Richard’s touring band, and a year later he performed on Sam Cooke’s Night Beat album. Cooke signed him to his SAR Records label and released the album 16 Yr. Old Soul, which contained the organ powerhouse instrumental “Greazee.” During the late 1960s, his work with George Harrison and the Beatles elevated Preston to a new level of international recognition. The single “Get Back” b/w “Don’t Let Me Down” was credited to “the Beatles with Billy Preston” – an unprecedented honor. He played on the final two Beatles albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road, and joined the band during their final rooftop performance.
Throughout his solo career, Preston wrote and recorded songs that mixed his gospel and soul roots with rock and funk power. “That’s the Way God Planned It” became an international hit and featured the backing band of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Ginger Baker, and George Harrison. Preston’s performance of the song stole the show at the “Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971. Throughout the 1970s, he released innovative instrumentals, playing the clavinet through a wah-wah pedal on “Outa-Space” and creating futuristic synthesizer parts on “Space Race.” His soulful voice was featured on the chart-topping hits “Will It Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing.” Preston was always in high demand, performing with Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and countless others. Billy Preston is an essential part of the fabric of rock & roll, the magic ingredient that could take a song from “good” to “legendary.” Even Little Richard was in awe of Preston’s ability, proclaiming, “There is nobody in this world who could play the piano like Billy Preston.”
“Greazee,” 16 Yr. Old Soul (1963) • “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” (with the Beatles) (1969) • “That’s the Way God Planned It,” That’s the Way God Planned It (1969) • “Outa-Space,” I Wrote a Simple Song (1971) • “Shine a Light” (with the Rolling Stones), Exile on Main St. (1972) • “Will It Go Round in Circles,” Music Is My Life (1972) • “Space Race,” Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music (1973) • “Nothing From Nothing,” “You Are So Beautiful,” The Kids & Me (1974) • “I’m Really Gonna Miss You,” A Whole New Thing (1977) • “With You I’m Born Again” (duet with Syreeta Wright), Late at Night (1979) • “Show Me Your Soul” (with Red Hot Chili Peppers) (1990).
Influences: Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Louis Jordan
Legacies: Daryl Hall and John Oates, Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Legend
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