Billy Preston

September 2, 1946 - June 6, 2006
  • Songs
  • Artistfacts ®
  • Born in Houston, Texas, and raised in Los Angeles, Preston began playing the piano at age 3 and by age 10 he was accompanying gospel greats Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland on the organ. During one such performance, a movie producer was in the crowd and was struck by Preston's talent. He recruited the boy to play the young role of gospel legend W.C. Handy in the movie 1958 movie St. Louis Blues, alongside Nat King Cole playing Handy as an adult.
  • He was just 16 years old when he toured with Little Richard in 1962 and met the Beatles for the first time in Hamburg, Germany. In 1969, the group was reaching their breaking point, and George Harrison invited Preston to join recording sessions for Let It Be and Abbey Road to ease the tension between the brawling band members. As a result, the hit "Get Back" is credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston," making Preston the only artist to share credit on a Beatles single. He also joined the group for their famous 1969 rooftop concert.
  • Shortly after the rooftop gig, Preston signed with Apple Records and released two albums through the label before moving on to a more successful stint at A&M Records. Throughout the '70s, he released a handful of Top 10 hits on the Hot 100, including "Outa-Space," "Will It Go Round In Circles," "Space Race," "Nothing From Nothing," and "With You I'm Born Again" - a duet with Syreeta Wright.
  • A prolific session musician, Preston also backed Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, and recorded with Sly Stone. His extensive work with white musicians like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (he toured with the Stones and played keyboards on nearly all of their '70s albums), however, didn't go unnoticed by fellow black artists and fans. He told Rolling Stone in 1975: When I first started playing with the Beatles, some of the brothers and sisters were saying that I'd sold out and asked what I was doing out there with those 'white boys.' They said I'd deserted them, but I just told them the truth - that I was trying to spread us. They didn't expect that. Over a period of time they've come to appreciate the fact that at least a brother was in there."
  • He was instantly recognizable for his voluminous afro and gap-toothed grin.
  • He was still in high school when he released his debut album, 16 Yr. Old Soul, through Derby Records, an imprint of Sam Cooke's SAR label.
  • He continued to perform into the 2000s, playing piano on Johnny Cash's rendition of "Personal Jesus," adding the clavinet to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Warlocks," touring with Eric Clapton, and appearing on American Idol, among other feats.
  • He co-wrote "You Are So Beautiful," which was a #5 hit for Joe Cocker in 1974.
  • He was devastated when his fiancee Kathy Silva, an actress and model, had an affair with his friend Sly Stone. Preston's former pal married Silva in a very public fashion in 1974 - on stage during a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden.
  • His struggles with kidney disease and drug addiction destroyed his health. In November 2005, he went into respiratory failure that left him in a coma until he died on June 6, 2006.
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