Few musicians can claim to have played with so many superstars of pop and rock and to have inspired so many audiences as Billy Preston. Along with backing both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he was associated with such influential artists as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones and Sly Stone.
Besides his eminent backing work, he scored hits with such songs as “That’s The Way God Planned It,” and “Nothing From Nothing,” wrote Joe Cocker’s will biggest solo hit, “You Are So Beautiful.”
Singing with his church choir, he appeared locally playing organ with Mahalia Jackson when he was 10. By the age of 16, he had been selected to play with Little Richard on a 1962 tour of Europe. They had planned to play gospel but the kids wanted rock ‘n roll. “It was quite an experience,” he remembered in an interview on Maui. “It was the first time I had ever played rock ‘n roll. In England the kids were wild, they would have to call the guards.”
Preston first met the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany, when they opened for Little Richard. The tour also featured Sam Cooke. Later in the mid-1960s he was hired to play with the house band on the TV music show Shindig. Preston’s impressive imitation of Ray Charles caught the attention of the legend and Charles hired him to play with his band.
After a concert in London while touring Europe with Charles in 1968, George Harrison invited Preston to attend a Beatles’ recording session. At the Abbey Road studios, the Fab Four were in the midst of “Get Back” and Paul McCartney invited Preston to join in on organ. His playing was so well received that the Beatles credited his contribution – the Beatles with Billy Preston – and thus began a fruitful collaboration.
Buying up his old contract, the Beatles signed Preston to their Apple label. As the fifth Beatle, he played on the album’s “Abbey Road,” “Let it Be” and “The Beatles” (the White album) and also performed with the group on their last live gig atop the roof of the Apple offices.
“I was treated as a Beatles and it was wonderful,” he recalled. “I stayed with George and they were very nice to me. They said, just play whatever you feel, and it was great to watch them work in the studio, they were so creative.”
It was during this period, with George Harrison producing, he made an album featuring the exuberant title song “That’s The Way God Planned It,” with Harrison and Eric Clapton on guitar.
The song was a highlight of the Concert for Bangladesh, where Preston was backed by Harrison and Clapton along with Leon Russell and Ringo Starr. It was inspired by Let it Be,” he explained. “One day I was in the studio playing “Let it Be” and it kind of went right into “That’s The Way God Panned It. It’s a testimonial song for me because everything that’s happened to me has been the way God planned it. I never expected to do the things I’ve done or had to be pushy, everything has been a blessing.”
Preston was later asked to work on a number of solo Beatle projects including John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” “33 1/3” and “Dark Horse,” and Ringo Starr’s “Ringo” and “Good Night Vienna.”
Traveling the US with Harrison on his 1974 Dark Horse tour, Preston routinely stole the show with his high-energy performances. Some critics even labeled it the Billy Preston show.
A frequent player with the Rolling Stones, he helped ignite the stones massive 1975 tour of the Americas, rousing crowds with his joyful music.
Gospel was Preston’s initial inspiration and it imbued his playing all his life. “There was always gospel music around and it’s been my foundation, he recalled. “Before I go on stage I usually have a few seconds of prayer and meditation to put myself in the right spirit.”
“I love to play and when you see people enjoying themselves it gives you inspiration,” he said. “I just lose it and go crazy. Even though we do the same songs, each time there’s always something different. I like to work on inspiration and to what the spirit tells me to do.”