September 26, 2021

He was considered the fifth beatle and the sixth stone and lost the battle against his ghosts and his addictions.

Sunday, June 06, 2021 12:13

The Texas-born, Los Angeles-raised pianist knew how to combine the egos of the greatest artists of his time, but could not master the demons that ravaged his body, let alone his soul.


In 1962, Little Richard, one of the heroes of the first wave of rock and roll, decides to return to the stage after being in retirement for a while. A manager convinces him to shoot in Europe and he goes there, to find a totally different scene from the one he remembered last time. The rock fever had caught on in young people from different parts of the continent, and in Liverpool, there were four young boys who made it known that they had it as one of their main references.

The Beatles opened some of Little Richard’s concerts and its four fabulous members paid attention to the adolescent pianist who accompanied their idol Ricardito, trained in the gospel tradition, with an innate talent and a special pulse to play rock and to absorb everything related to that culture. By now, fifteen-year-old Billy Preston had already shown that he was destined to be at the right times in the right places.

When William Everett Preston embarked with Little Richard to cross the ocean, he already had an enviable resume despite his young age. He was born in Houston, Texas, on September 2, 1946, but as a boy he settled with his mother Robbie Lee Williams in Los Angeles. From her he inherited the musical genes and the passion for the piano and the gospel, and between his house and the church he had his only musical training, in which he soon showed himself as a prodigy.

The church’s music director saw so much talent in this seven-year-old boy that he did not hesitate to put him in charge of the choir. At ten he was already a professional musician and had shared the stage with figures like Mahalia Jackson. A year later his charms reached Nat King Cole himself, whom he captivated on his television show with his interpretation of “Blueberry hill”, and Billy Preston was already an open secret. He stood out both for his talent for playing the piano, as well as for his striking charisma on stage, and he was beginning to develop a special ability to make friends.

A pianist in the middle of the beatle tornado

After that meeting in 1962, beatlemania was exploding in all parts of the world, while Billy continued his musical career, divided between his own material and collaborations with stars such as Sam Cooke. During a time on Shinding !, one of the typical television variety shows of the time, he met Ray Charles, who was quick to adopt him. Billy was a musical and energetic injection to the music of the King of Soul and his gospel roots were decisive in finishing coloring the album Crying Time.

The name of Billy Preston was already associated with key figures in popular music and it was just a short time before the leap to massive stardom. In the meantime, he had been on good terms with those youngsters from Liverpool who were now on all radio stations in the world. When their schedules matched, they shared a few pub nights, but nothing more than that. They still could not fulfill that tacit agreement that they had agreed with that Liverpool crush.

In 1968, during their British tour, Ray Charles and his band performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Among the audience was George Harrison, who sought to unplug himself from the atmosphere that existed within The Beatles. The tensions, the egos, the hangover of beatlemania raged in the group. Paul sought to channel the ship in his own way and John was in his, while George clamored for more space as a songwriter and Ringo balanced, less and less effectively.

Instead of leaving the band, as it was going around in his head, Harrison returned to Apple’s studios with an old friend, with the aim of resuscitating the chemistry and freshening up the atmosphere and being able to carry out the Let it be recordings. They started off in zapada mode, playing old songs, and according to Billy’s word, it all flowed so naturally that John offered to join him in rehearsals. The band was looking to re-feel the urge to play live music, and their presence not only brought their recognized talent for pianos and keyboards: it was the external element necessary to balance the tensions between the four from Liverpool.

On January 30, 1969, on a cold and windy noon, The Beatles went up to the terrace of Apple Records to give a concert for the first time in two and a half years. The image is one of the most iconic in rock history. John and George in fur coats, Paul stoic in his black suit and Ringo in a colorful red jacket. To his right, an energetic Billy Preston sparks his organ and manages to sneak into the background in some shots. Billy would always remember the rooftop concert as his favorite moment in music history, and his face shows it “It was a struggle for them, they were very discouraged. They had lost the joy of doing it ”, he highlighted.

The camera edition did not do justice to the performance of the pianist, more concerned with capturing the surprise of the passers-by and the actions of the police. However, he was the only artist to be credited for a single. In addition, he collaborated on two other pieces that would be part of the album, such as “Don’t let me down” and “Let it be”, and also on I want you (She’s so heavy) ”, by Abbey Road.

The best recognition was made by his friend George, in one of the editions of the Anthologies: “Having this fifth person helped us break the ice that had been created between us. Billy knew nothing of everything that had happened, so his innocence served to give us the push we needed. Everyone was happy that someone else was there, which made the experience more enjoyable. We all played better and it was a great session. ” A recognition of his musical work but also of his invaluable collaboration in making the farewell process a little longer and less painful.
Billy Preston during the Let it be sessions, according to the documentary prepared by Peter Jackson


A bridge to Babylon

Simultaneously with his collaboration with The Beatles, Billy continued his solo career now under the wing of Apple Records, where he released two albums co-produced by Harrison. In 1969 That’s The Way God Planned It, where he brought out his whole soul palette and gospel base, with his increasingly solid rocker pulse. The following year, in Encouraging words, he premiered “My sweet lord” and “All things must pass”, which months later would be popularized by its author, George Harrison. The album had deluxe collaborations, such as Keith Ricards and Eric Clapton, two artists who were to be decisive in its next few years.

During the ’70s his star shone at the top. Along with Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins, he was part of the keyboard bra for the Rolling Stones, with contributions on key albums and tours in the band’s history. He left his stamp on hymns like the tear gas “I got the blues”; he moves with his gospel organ in the prayer “Shine a light”, he gets street and protesting in “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”, and brings all the swing he asks for in “Aint too proud to beg”, the cover of the Temptations, among other golden pieces from the British.

Preston was the sixth man on the Stones’ wildest stage, both up and down the stage. The concerts were incendiary and many of those pirates that circulated underground were edited by the band in recent times. Among them, the 1975 one at the LA Forum in Los Angeles that shows the chemistry between the pieces. With a band in a state of grace, Billy shines as a soloist and has his own set in the middle of the concert, where he performs two of his own songs, “That’s Life” and “Outa-Space,” and takes Mick Jagger himself out to dance.

That’s how things were when the group began working for Black and Blue, a transitional album and the first with the addition of Ron Wood in place of Mick Taylor. In the midst of a varied collage of styles, Billy contributes with “Melody”, a jazzeado blues where he contributes keys and voices, which the compositional duo Jagger-Richards credited as “Inspiration of Billy Preston”. Since then, there has been talk of fights and demands that have never been clarified, but things have not been the same again. He returned on studio albums such as Tattoo You and Bridges to Babylon, and was the mainstay of the great Mick Wandering Spirit soloist, but already as a session player. The man behind the piano already had a name and a few number one to go his own way.

“Nobody in the world played the piano like Billy Preston”

These scrolls can confuse and think of Billy Preston as a mere companion to the largest groups in history, but nothing could be further from the truth. His role as performer and composer marked a hallmark in the line of great rock pianists, dominating the scene, a showman in the best James Brown style and without letting the heavy hulks limit his movement. He put the voice and the body to “Nothing of nothing”, -maybe his great solo hit- “Will It Go Round In Circles” and “With You I’m Born Again”; and signed others such as “You are so beautiful,” an offering to his mother that became popular on the voice of Joe Cocker.

Since the late ’80s he shared his solo adventures with different works as a session player, be it with comrades of the old guard, such as Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell or Johhny Cash or new figures, such as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Jet and even an Argentine credit : Juana La Loca, Rodrigo Martin’s band, with whom he recorded “You’re in me”. By then, the body and the head were beginning to take their toll. The excesses of so many years had not been gratuitous.

Despite the overflow he showed on stage, Billy was very reserved in his private life and only those close to him knew about his homosexuality, something that he never publicly stated. A little because of his religious background, and another because, as Keith Richards tries to explain in his autobiography, the world was not prepared for it. Perhaps it would also function as a shield to ward off the pain caused by remembering traumatic moments of his childhood that his agent Joyce Morre revealed after the artist’s death. Billy was nine years old when he was sexually abused by a pianist while on tour. His mother did not believe him there, and neither when he told her that a pastor had abused him.

In 1991 his problems collapsed in a string of events that kept him on the front page of the newspapers. On full probation for being found driving while intoxicated, he was charged with threatening a man with a gun he had hired to do work at his home. His problems were compounded when he was arrested on charges of sexually abusing a minor under 16, possessing cocaine and exhibiting pornography.

Preston called the incident “a misunderstanding” and the charges of sexual abuse and threats were later dropped. He was sentenced to three months of house arrest and nine months in a rehabilitation center for his drug addiction, a disease from which he could never recover. Towards the end of the decade, he returned to prison with cocaine as an unbeatable enemy, and on that occasion he sought help at other levels: “I believe that God has his hands on me and he has a lot of work to do,” the pianist said by way of prayer.

As a result of his addictions, his kidneys had also begun to fail, which led to a transplant in 2002 that marked the beginning of the end. Some time later, he began a new detoxification treatment, but at the clinic he suffered pericarditis that led to respiratory problems. In November 2005, he fell into a coma and passed away on August 6, 2006 in Scottsdale, Arizona. “He spent a very beautiful last hours and he left us quietly. He went to heaven in high spirits, ”said his agent. He was 59 years old and his name was already inscribed among the rock legends for a long time.

Fortunately, he got to say goodbye to his friend Harrison and was able to honor him at the Concert for George with a moving version of “My sweet lord.” His own funeral lived up to his legend: Joe Cocker performed “You’re so beautiful”, McCartney, Clapton and the Stones sent their condolences and Little Richard recalled old adventures “Nobody in the world played the piano like Billy Preston”, Ricardito said, and it sounds like the best epitaph possible. A recognition for a fundamental artist in the soundtrack of our lives. / Teleshow



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