Thursday, June 08, 2006

LEGENDOBIT: Billy Preston

As has been widely reported, singer-songwriter and keyboardist Billy Preston has died.

Preston was born in Houston in 1946, and was something of a fast developer. At the age of ten, he was already providing keyboards for Mahalia Jackson; two years later, he was cast as the young WC Handy in a Hollywood biography, St Louis Blues, although it was clear he could have handled the musical demands of the part of the elder Hardy.

Since this was the 1950s, and child labour laws were more relaxed, Preston found himself clocking up the hours in the studio as a session musician for Vee-Jay records. It was from these sessions that he found himself touring Germany with Little Richard in the summer of 1962. During a date in Hamburg, Billy struck up a friendship with the young George Harrison - mainly because the pair were fairly close in age. It was a chance which would work in Preston's favour in the years to come.

Back in America, he continued to work - playing keyboards with Sam Cooke, as a member of the house band on TV's Shindig - and in 1966 VeeJay eventually gave him a chance at his first above-the-line record, The Most Exciting Organ Ever.

He crossed the Atlantic again - this time to play with Ray Charles - which gave an opportunity for him to catch up with his now considerably more successful friend George. Two things came from the visit - first, The Beatles bought out his Vee-Jay contract; second, he was invited to play the keyboards on the Let It Be sessions.

Harrison hoped an outsider would help calm tensions within the band, and it sort-of worked for a while. In recognition of what he brought to the mix, Preston was given a joint credit on Get Back; he was also in the version of the band who gave the oft-copied rooftop concert. This closeness to the group gave Preston one of the strongest claims to the oft-conferred Fifth Beatle title. But for Billy, the joint credit was the crowning glory:

"I was at the Beatles' office, and John said, 'Look, Willy' and he showed me the record. I looked, and it was great. Wow! It was really something to do that for me."

Apple records released two solo Preston albums, and he continued his links with the Fabs throughout his life - he played at George's Concert For Bangladesh, and had a slot at Harrison's memorial concert; his keyboards can be heard on Harrison, Lennon and Starr solo albums. In 1978, he took a role in the BeeGee's Sgt Pepper Movie as the good Sergeant himself. But everyone makes mistakes.

But the Beatles connection is only part of Preston's extraordinary story - his solo records did incredibly well, winning him a string of gold records and the 1972 instrumental Grammy award for Outa-Space. He played on Let It Bleed for the Stones, Blood on the Tracks for Dylan and There's A Riot Goin' On for Sly and the Family Stone. Amongst his successes as a writer was Joe Cocker's You Are So Beautiful To Me. He recorded with The Band when they all backed up Eric Clapton on No Reason To Cry - he was offered a role in the reactivated Band line-up in 1991, but never got to take up the offer.

His private life didn't run quite so smoothy - he was convicted of drug offences and assault in 1992; he was jailed in 1997 as a result of more drug trouble, and in 1998 pleaded guilty to insurance fraud. Preston got a relatively light sentence - five years probation and one year's jail-time, and a restitution of $60,000 - after giving evidence against his partners in a fire-setting and crime-faking scam which attempted to sting a million dollars over 18 different incidents. Merle Otis Greene, Preston's one-time manager, was also implicated in the fraud.

Attempts to take control of his life were then hampered by ill-health: he had a kidney transplant in 2002, but continued to work. Shortly before falling into a coma last November, he left his sick bed to provide clavinet for a track on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' comeback album, and organ on Neil Diamond's 12 Songs.

The 59 year-old died yesterday in Arizona of complications following malignant hypertension.

[Related obituary: Syreeta Wright, Preston's collaborator on 1979's With You I'm Born Again]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Didn't mention his kiddie-touching though?

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