Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Billy Preston, 59, Made Great Contributions to the Music Field
By David Hinckley, Special to AOL Black Voices
If you don't believe it, ask Ringo Starr:
Billy Preston 1946 -- 2006
The only musician who had a legitimate claim as the "Fifth Beatle" was Billy Preston, who is most famously heard with the Fab Four playing the organ solo on "Get Back."
But perhaps the real mark of Preston's skill and achievement is that however much he liked the Beatles and appreciated the honor and distinction of playing with them, he didn't need that connection to leave his mark on 20 years of popular music.
The Beatles were one whistle stop in a long and rich career where playing with the greats was just part of a day's work.
Preston, who died Tuesday at the age of 59 from kidney failure based complications, was a rare musical bird in many ways - not least of which was that he made the long leap from ace sideman to up-front star, scoring a pair of No. 1 hits in the early 1970s with "Will It Go Round In Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing."
These songs suggested correctly that he was not a great lyricist, but they showcased his sparkling sense of rhythm and his powerful way with a melody. Both tunes will run forever through the heads of everyone who owned a radio when they were popular.
Born in Houston and raised in Los Angeles, Preston seemed to have music imbedded in his genes from birth. By the time he was 3 he had learned piano and that led in turn to the organ, a natural move since his mother was the organist at the Victory Baptist Church.
When Mahalia Jackson sang at Victory on a tour through L.A., pre-teen Billy was her accompanist. A movie producer, seeing that performance, cast him as the young W.C. Handy in the film "St. Louis Blues." At 16 he was hired to tour Europe with Sam Cooke and Little Richard. Nominally they were singing gospel, but it turned out the crowds wanted rock 'n' roll - which Cooke was happy to promote, Little Richard had renounced and Preston had never played at all.
But once he got a taste, he liked it, which opened up his next musical world. On that tour he also met the young Beatles , then just starting to get noticed in their homeland.
Back in the States in 1965 Preston was playing in the house band for the TV show "Shindig" when Ray Charles spotted and hired him. On a tour of Europe, Charles introduced Preston as a man who could pick up Charles' musical torch and carry it forward.
Meanwhile, Preston had recorded for Cooke's SAR label and Vee Jay, without much commercial success. But his reputation in the music world grew and after a show with Charles' band at Royal Festival Hall in Britain, Harrison renewed acquaintances and invited him to the "Get Back" session. He also signed with the Beatles' Apple Records, where Harrison produced his first hit album.
After the Beatles broke up, Harrison got custody of Preston, featuring him at his 1971 Bangladesh concert. Harrison also gave Preston his blessing to leave Apple and sign with A&M. Preston's first A&M sessions included an early version of "Will It Go Round In Circles," titled "I Wrote a Simple Song," but Preston felt more comfortable with the instrumental "Outa Space" as his first single.
It went to No. 4 on the pop charts and won him a Grammy. But even as his solo life began, he remained in demand as a sideman, and he soon fell in with the Rolling Stones, playing on their classic albums "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street" before joining their 1975 tour. That same year he also wrote Joe Cocker's biggest hit, "You Are So Beautiful." Perhaps because he grew up playing behind Mahalia, Sam and Ray, Preston never felt intimidated by the company he kept. He was the consummate sideman in always complementing the boss, but he was also a distinctive sideman, like the Motown rhythm section or James Brown's horn men.
The range of artists with whom he played also testifies to the catholic nature of his music, and he always resisted being dropped into R&B, funk, soul, pop or any other music biz marketing slot. Neither did he ever abandon those early gospel roots, and his last big hit, a 1979 duet with Syreeta Wright from the film "Fastbreak," was titled "With You I'm Born Again."
If that title was fitting, though, it wasn't prophetic. As the '70s drifted into the '80s and classic '60s rock and soul was nudged to the sidelines by a new generation with its own sounds, Preston found himself increasingly nudged over there with it.
The gigs never completely dried up. When Starr went on tour in 1989 with his first "All-Starr Band," he made Preston a charter member.
But the devils from the good years stayed with Preston, too, and he pleaded guilty in 1992 to assault with a deadly weapon and cocaine possession. In 1997 he did prison time after failing a cocaine test.
He went into rehab, but by then his legacy was pretty much his history: a splendid sideman who made good-time records with a big wink and bigger hooks.
Sadly, it may take his death to remind people just how alive Billy Preston's music made them feel.
About the Author: David Hinckley is the critic-at-large at the New York Daily News, where he has written about music and popular culture since 1980. He is the co-author of 'Black and White Blues: The Rolling Stones 1963,' a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee and a former judge in the annual Ralph J. Gleason book awards. He has written for Rolling Stone, Us, Cosmopolitan and other magazines.
'Fifth Beatle' Billy Preston dies at 59
Manager: Preston had chronic kidney failure
PHOENIX, Arizona (AP) -- Billy Preston, the exuberant keyboardist who landed dream gigs with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and enjoyed his own hit singles, including "Outta Space" and "Nothing From Nothing," died Tuesday at 59.
His longtime manager, Joyce Moore, said a heart infection in November left him in a coma, and he never regained consciousness; he was taken to a Scottsdale hospital Saturday after his condition deteriorated.
Preston had battled chronic kidney failure and received a kidney transplant in 2002. But the kidney failed and he had been on dialysis since.
Known for his big smile and towering Afro, Preston was a teen prodigy on the piano and organ, and lent his gospel-tinged touch to classics such as the Beatles' "Get Back" and the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?"
He broke out as a solo artist in the 1970s, winning a best instrumental Grammy in 1973 for "Outta Space," and scoring other hits with "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," "Nothing From Nothing" and "With You I'm Born Again," a duet with Syreeta Wright that became a favorite at weddings. He also wrote Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful."
Other career highlights included being a musical guest on the 1975 debut of "Saturday Night Live"; having a song named after him by Miles Davis; and appearing last year on "American Idol." Among his film credits: "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
His partnership with the Beatles began in early 1969 when friend George Harrison recruited him to play on "Let It Be," a back-to-basics film and record project that nearly broke down because of bickering among band members. Harrison himself quit at one point, walking out on camera after arguing with Paul McCartney.
Preston not only inspired the Beatles to get along -- Harrison likened his effect to a feuding family staying on its best behavior in front of a guest -- but also contributed a light, bluesy solo to "Get Back," performing the song with the band on its legendary "rooftop" concert, the last time the Beatles played live. He was one of many people sometimes labeled "The Fifth Beatle," a title he did not discourage.
Preston remained close to Harrison and performed at Harrison's all-star charity event "The Concert for Bangladesh," and at the "Concert for George," a tribute to Harrison, who died of cancer in 2001. He played on solo records by Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon.
Jagger: I will miss him
Preston also toured and recorded extensively with the Rolling Stones, playing on such classic albums as "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street." In the mid-'70s, he parted from the Stones, reportedly unhappy over not getting proper credit for "Melody" and other songs, but reunited with the band in 1997 on its "Bridges to Babylon" record.
"Billy was a fantastic and gifted musician ... a superb singer in both recording sessions and on stage," Stones singer Mick Jagger said. "He was great fun to be with onstage when touring with us and I will miss him a lot."
His sessions credits included Aretha Franklin's "Young, Gifted and Black," Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" and Sly and the Family Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On," three of the most acclaimed albums of the last 35 years.
"His legacy is so huge I don't even know where to start," Moore said. "It's many genres, so many years. ... It's rock 'n' roll, it's soul, it's funk, it's everything. He was truly, truly, truly a genius."
A Houston native who soon moved to Los Angeles when his parents split up, Preston was in and around show business for much of his life. He was taking piano lessons at age 3 and was just 10 when he played keyboards for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Two years later he portrayed a young W.C. Handy -- played as an adult by Nat "King" Cole -- in the 1958 biopic "St. Louis Blues." He toured with mentors and fellow piano greats Ray Charles and Little Richard in the early 1960s, first encountering the Beatles while on the road in Germany.
Cole's daughter, singer Natalie Cole, said she appreciated Preston "and his musical genius over the two decades we crossed personal and professional paths," adding: "He is my favorite keyboardist of all times."
Gospel musician Andrae Crouch, whose friendship and musical collaboration with Preston spanned four decades, said he had a knack for knowing how to play a song.
"If I played a new idea, he would know where to put it and in what category," said Crouch, who has performed with Quincy Jones and Elton John. "He was the best keyboard player in the world ... It was like having a harmonica in his mouth. He had that much control over it."
Exposed to drugs and alcohol early on, Preston had numerous personal troubles in recent years. In 1992, he was given a suspended jail sentence, but ordered incarcerated for nine months at a drug rehabilitation center for his no-contest pleas to cocaine and assault charges. Five years later, he was sentenced to three years in prison for violating probation. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and agreed to testify against other defendants in an alleged scam that netted about $1 million.
"It (jail) was a great lesson, an awakening. I needed to reflect, to get rid of some of the dead weight around me," he later said. "You take the bitter with the sweet and I have to say it was my faith that kept me going. I had nothing else to fall back on."
Preston is survived by two sisters.
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Keyboards star Billy Preston dies
US singer and song-writer Billy Preston has died at the age of 59 in Arizona after a long illness.
A former teenage keyboard prodigy, Mr Preston was one of the few musicians to play with both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
He contributed to The Beatles' Let it Be, and Rolling Stones records including Exile on Main Street.
Mr Preston later had a string of hit singles in his own right, winning a Grammy for the song Outta Space.
Mr Preston had been in a coma at a health centre in Scottsdale, Arizona, since last November after suffering kidney failure.
Mr Preston, who was born in Texas, spent most of his life in the entertainment industry in a career that spanned five decades.
As a teenager he played keyboards for the likes of Little Richard and Ray Charles.
Mr Preston became the only person to be given a label credit alongside The Beatles after his work on the song Let it Be, as well as the Abbey Road and White Album recordings.
Mr Preston's fame was galvanised with a string of Number 1 hit singles of his own, including Outta Space, Will It Go Round In Circles, Nothing From Nothing and Space Race.
A prolific writer, he also wrote You Are So Beautiful, a major hit for his friend, British blues singer Joe Cocker.
And he collaborated with superstars such as The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, The Jackson Five, Sly and the Family Stone and Barbra Streisand.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/06/06 20:29:08 GMT