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Preston, Billy 1946–

Billy Preston 1946

Keyboardist, vocalist, songwriter

Appeared in Film at Age 12

Developed Hit Sang from Chance Remark

Frequented Open-Air Drug Market

Started Prison Choir

Selected discography

Sources

Billy Preston is known to the musical world for a string of pop and R & B hits in the 1970s, in particular for the enigmatic Will It Go Round in Circles? Less well known is the fact that Preston was one of the most active and sought-after session keyboard players in rock music. He played keyboards on many hit recordings with superstars such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and other artists. As a musician who thrived on constant activity, Preston was dragged down by the perils of cocaine addiction, and experienced severe personal difficulties in the 1990s. But he has remained a much-revered and much-loved icon of modern pop keyboard playing.

One of four children, William Everett Preston was born in Houston, Texas, on September 9,1946. His parents were divorced when he was a year old, and his mother moved the family to south central Los Angeles and took a job as a funeral home secretary. She also played the organ at the citys historic Victory Baptist Church, and by the time he was three, Preston was sitting at the family piano in his sisters lap, playing back tunes he had heard. When he was seven, the churchs choir director noticed Preston imitating his conducting motions and put him in front of the group. That turned into a regular Sunday choir-directing slot. Here was a 150-voice choir of adults directed by this little kid, Preston told New Times Los Angeles, adding, I loved it.

Appeared in Film at Age 12

By the time he was ten, Preston was backing visiting gospel giants such as Mahalia Jackson and the Rev. James Cleveland on keyboards, and was the youngest member ever in the local musicians union. In 1958 Preston appeared in the film St. Louis Blues, performing the role of blues bandleader W.C. Handy as a child. Prestons gospel performances around Los Angeles drew the notice of rock-and-roll star and ordained minister Little Richard, who asked Preston to join his gospel-oriented tour of Europe in 1962.

The European trip had several important effects. Preston ended up playing both gospel music and Little Richards secular hits, energizing crowds with the powerful tones of a Hammond B3 organ. Partly due to Prestons influence, the instrument became central to many recordings in the genre that would soon be called rock. He met the four members of the Beatlesa rising

At a Glance

Born on September 9, 1946, in Houston, TX; son of Robbie (a funeral home secretary). Religion: Baptist.

Career: Directed church choirs in childhood; played the young W.C. Handy in film St. Louis Blues, 1958; toured Europe with Little Richard, 1962; released debut album Sixteen Year Old Soul, 1963; released album The Most Exciting Organ Ever, 1965; appeared on television series Shindig, mid-1960s; recorded with the Beatles, 1968-69; signed to Apple label, 1969; recorded and performed with George Harrison, 1971; signed to A & M records, 1971; released hit records Will It Go Round In Circles?, 1973, and Nothing from Nothing, 1974; wrote song You Are So Beautiful, recorded by Joe Cocker and others, 1975; recorded duet album with Syreeta Wright, 1981; music director, David Brenner Show, 1986; numerous recordings as session man, mid-1990s; recorded gospel music, late 1990s-.

Addresses: Home5410 W. 61st St., Los Angeles, CA 90056,

English band who opened several concerts for Little Richard. I used to stand on the side of the stage and watch them work, Preston said in an an interview quoted in the St. Petersburg Times. I thought they were sharp, good-looking guys. And they were different from all the other bands. He met soul vocalist Sam Cooke and played in his tour band after Little Richards tour ended. The 16-year-old Preston drank vodka, and not long after that began experimenting with cocaine.

Back in the United States, Preston appeared on Cookes hit Little Red Rooster, and recorded an album of his own, Sixteen-Year-Old Soul, for Cookes Derby label. He followed that up in 1964 with The Most Exciting Organ Ever, recorded for Vee Jay, the U.S. label that distributed the Beatles early recordings. That was followed by two more electric organ recordings for the Capitol label. Prestons records led to a band slot and some solo appearances on the Shindig television series, featuring both his singing and keyboard playing.

Two important musicians saw Prestons Shindig appearancespop singer and keyboardist Ray Charles hired Preston for his own European tour, and Beatle George Harrison invited Preston to join the Beatles at their upcoming recording sessions in England. Preston performed the jazzy electric piano part on the Beatles Get Back, one of their major hits of the late 1960s. In its original release the song was credited as The Beatles with Billy Preston, the only time the band shared billing with a collaborator in its entire career. Preston appeared on the Beatles last two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be. He played on Harrisons triple LP All Things Must Pass and at the giant Concert for Bangladesh benefit, where he sang his gospel trademark, Thats the Way God Planned It.

Developed Hit Sang from Chance Remark

Preston himself was subsequently signed to the Beatles Apple label, and after recording two moderately successful albums for Apple, Thats the Way God Planned It and Encouraging Words, Preston signed with the A & M label in 1971. That inaugurated the prime hitmaking period of Prestons career. He topped R&B charts and had major pop success with the instrumental Outa Space in 1972, and notched his first number one pop song with Will It Go Round in Circles? the following year. The lyrics of the song grew from a remark Preston made to songwriting partner Bruce Fisher that he had a song with no melody. It first appeared on Prestons 1972 Music in My Life album, and its near-universal familiarity was cemented in 2001 when it was used in a television auto commercial featuring golfer Tiger Woods.

Preston hit the top of the charts again in 1974 with Nothing from Nothing, and had several other hits on A & M. He toured with the Rolling Stones in the mid-1970s and enjoyed the beginning of massive royalty payments for his popular 1975 composition You Are So Beautiful. The song was originally recorded by British rock singer Joe Cocker and later covered by artists ranging from country-pop vocalist Kenny Rogers to modern romancemeister Kenneth Babyface Edmonds. Preston played keyboards on a startling variety of what are now considered to be classic rock and soul albums, including the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers, Sly and the Family Stones Theres a Riot Goin On, and Bob Dylans Blood on the Tracks.

With You Im Born Again, Prestons 1979 duet with vocalist Syreeta Wright, brought him another number one single, and by the early 1980s Preston was living in a Topanga Canyon mansion, making an estimated $20,000 a week, and driving a white Rolls-Royce. He was also in the grip of a cocaine addiction that by his own estimate cost him as much as $1,000 a day. Preston, one of the hardest workers in show business, stayed afloat for a time, even though his string of hits was at an end. He became musical director for comedian David Brenners late-night television talk show in 1986, often appearing on the air under the influence of cocaine, and toured with the band of ex-Beatle Ringo Starr in the late 1980s.

Frequented Open-Air Drug Market

In 1989 Prestons high life began to unravel. He was hospitalized twice that year for drug-induced heart seizures and arrested twice for drunk driving. Rehabilitation efforts failed, and Preston began buying and using drugs openly in Los Angeless MacArthur Park. Cops would drive by and just let it go, he told People. They figured we were all killing ourselves anyway. In 1991 Preston was charged by two Mexican laborers with attempted sexual assault at knifepoint. Preston denied the charges, which were eventually dropped, but during the ensuing investigation police found cocaine in the singers home.

A court-ordered stint in Californias Promises Residential Treatment Center was temporarily successful, and by 1997 Preston had resumed his busy schedule. That year he appeared on albums by Art Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Bebe Winans, and Enrique Iglesias, among others. The same year, however, he failed a drug test and spent 60 days in jail in Culver City, California. Released on probation, he landed what seemed like a perfect job, portraying an organist on the television sitcom The Good News. But Preston once again tested positive for drug use and in November of 1997 was sentenced to three years in prison. Another year was added to his sentence when he was convicted of having arranged a fake burglary of his house in 1994.

Started Prison Choir

Preston was released after 18 months in Californias Avenal State Prison, during which he gave up drugs cold turkey. His fellow inmates, he said, made his ordeal easier: People knew who I was, they felt sorry for me, he told the New Times Los Angeles. They were happy to see that I was getting it together. Preston made music constantly, performing at prison church services and starting a choir during his incarceration. He returned to the road once again after his release from prison.

In 2001 Preston was slated to join the band of rock guitarist Eric Clapton for Claptons world tour, but during the tours first few dates he complained of leg pain. Hospitalized in Nashville, Preston was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. He was within 72 hours of an all-out catastrophe, Prestons manager, Joyce Moore, told the New Times Los Angeles. But dialysis treatments, which Preston would undergo three times a week while on tour, saved his life, and he became a candidate for a kidney transplant.

The early 2000s saw Preston returning to his roots, leading the choir at Los Angeless Brookins AME Community Church, and moving in with several family members, including his 87-year-old mother, Robbie. He was still a powerful draw when on tour, and the frequency with which hip-hop and electronic musicians sampled his classic recordings of the 1970s has testified to their distinctive sound and to Prestons importance in the African-American musical tradition. Indeed, the histories of pop, rock, and R&B have all included prominent chapters devoted to Billy Prestons music.

Selected discography

The Wildest Organ in Town, Capitol, 1967.

The Wildest Organ Ever, Vee Jay, 1967.

Thats the Way God Planned It, Apple, 1969.

Encouraging Words, Apple, 1969.

Wrote a Simple Song, A & M, 1971.

Music Is My Life, A & M, 1972.

Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music, A & M, 1973.

The Kids and Me, A & M, 1974.

Its My Pleasure, A & M, 1975.

Billy Preston, A & M, 1976.

A Whole New Thing, A & M, 1977.

Billy and Syreeta, Motown, 1981.

Minister of Music, Pepperco, 1995.

Ultimate Collection, Hip-O, 2000.

Music from My Heart, MCG, 2001.

Sources

Books

Pareles, John, and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.

Periodicals

Columbus Dispatch, May 14, 1992, p. Features-8.

Jet, November 24, 1997, p. 62.

New Times Los Angeles, August 16, 2001, Music/Features section.

People, December 21, 1992, p. 59.

St. Petersburg Times, July 22, 1988, p. Weekend-21.

USA Today, June 4, 2001, p. D2.

On-line

Billy Preston, All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 27, 2003).

Billy Preston, Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 27, 2003).

James M. Manheim

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Manheim, James. "Preston, Billy 1946–." Contemporary Black Biography. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Manheim, James. "Preston, Billy 1946–." Contemporary Black Biography. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2874100059.html

Manheim, James. "Preston, Billy 1946–." Contemporary Black Biography. 2003. Retrieved June 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2874100059.html

Preston, Billy

Billy Preston

1946–2006

Pianist, singer, songwriter

Billy Preston is known to the musical world for a string of pop and R&B hits in the 1970s, in particular for the enigmatic "Will It Go Round in Circles?" and his 1973 Grammy Award winning instrumental "Outa Space." Less well known is the fact that Preston was one of the most active and sought-after session keyboard players in rock music. "He made the greats greater," his longtime friend Reve Gibson told the Los Angeles Sentinel. He played keyboards on many hit recordings with superstars such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and other artists. Indeed, Preston was often referred to as the "Fifth Beatle" because he played on so many of the Beatles hit recordings. Though personal and health difficulties impeded his musical career in the last decades of his life, his body of work remains a much-revered and much-loved treasure of modern pop keyboard playing.

Child Prodigy

One of four children, William Everett Preston was born in Houston, Texas, on September 2, 1946. His parents were divorced when he was a year old, and his mother moved the family to south central Los Angeles and took a job as a funeral home secretary. She also played the organ at the city's historic Victory Baptist Church, and by the time he was three, Preston was sitting at the family piano in his sister's lap, playing back tunes he had heard. When he was seven, the church's choir director noticed Preston imitating his conducting motions and put him in front of the group. That turned into a regular Sunday choir-directing slot. "Here was a 150-voice choir of adults directed by this little kid," Preston told New Times Los Angeles, adding, "I loved it."

By the time he was ten, Preston was backing visiting gospel giants such as Mahalia Jackson and the Rev. James Cleveland on keyboards, and was the youngest member ever in the local musicians' union. In 1958 Preston appeared in the film St. Louis Blues, performing the role of blues bandleader W.C. Handy as a child. Preston's gospel performances around Los Angeles drew the notice of rock-and-roll star and ordained minister Little Richard, who asked Preston to join his gospel-oriented tour of Europe in 1962.

The European trip had several important effects. Preston ended up playing both gospel music and Little Richard's secular hits, energizing crowds with the powerful tones of a Hammond B3 organ. Partly due to Preston's influence, the instrument became central to many recordings in the genre that would soon be called rock. He met the four members of the Beatles—a rising English band who opened several concerts for Little Richard. "I used to stand on the side of the stage and watch them work," Preston said in an interview quoted in the St. Petersburg Times. "I thought they were sharp, good-looking guys. And they were different from all the other bands." He met soul vocalist Sam Cooke and played in his tour band after Little Richard's tour ended. The 16-year-old Preston drank vodka, and not long after that began experimenting with cocaine. These habits would prove very destructive in his life.

Career Flourished

Back in the United States, Preston appeared on Cooke's hit "Little Red Rooster," and recorded an album of his own, Sixteen-Year-Old Soul, for Cooke's Derby label. He followed that up in 1964 with The Most Exciting Organ Ever, recorded for Vee Jay, the U.S. label that distributed the Beatles' early recordings. That was followed by two more electric organ recordings for the Capitol label. Preston's records led to a band slot and some solo appearances on the Shindig television series, featuring both his singing and keyboard playing.

Two important musicians saw Preston's Shindig appearances—pop singer and keyboardist Ray Charles hired Preston for his own European tour, and Beatle George Harrison invited Preston to join the Beatles at their upcoming recording sessions in England. Preston performed the jazzy electric piano part on the Beatles' "Get Back," one of their major hits of the late 1960s. In its original release the song was credited as "The Beatles with Billy Preston," the only time the band shared billing with a collaborator in its entire career. Preston appeared on the Beatles' last two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be. He played on Harrison's triple LP All Things Must Pass and at the giant Concert for Bangladesh benefit, where he sang his gospel trademark, "That's the Way God Planned It."

Preston himself was subsequently signed to the Beatles' Apple label, and after recording two moderately successful albums for Apple, That's the Way God Planned It and Encouraging Words, Preston signed with the A&M label in 1971. That inaugurated the prime hit-making period of Preston's career. He topped R&B charts and had major pop success with the instrumental "Outa Space" in 1972, and notched his first number one pop song with "Will It Go Round in Circles?" the following year. The lyrics of the song grew from a remark Preston made to songwriting partner Bruce Fisher that he had a song with no melody. It first appeared on Preston's 1972 Music in My Life album, and its near-universal familiarity was cemented in 2001 when it was used in a television auto commercial featuring golfer Tiger Woods.

Preston hit the top of the charts again in 1974 with "Nothing from Nothing," and had several other hits on A&M. He toured with the Rolling Stones in the mid-1970s and enjoyed the beginning of massive royalty payments for his popular 1975 composition "You Are So Beautiful." The song was originally recorded by British rock singer Joe Cocker and later covered by artists ranging from country-pop vocalist Kenny Rogers to modern romance-meister Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Preston played keyboards on a startling variety of what are now considered to be classic rock and soul albums, including the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

"With You I'm Born Again," Preston's 1979 duet with vocalist Syreeta Wright, brought him another number one single, and by the early 1980s Preston was living in a Topanga Canyon mansion, making an estimated $20,000 a week, and driving a white Rolls-Royce. He was also in the grip of a cocaine addiction that, by his own estimate, cost him as much as $1,000 a day. Preston—one of the hardest workers in show business—stayed afloat for a time, even though his string of hits was at an end. He became musical director for comedian David Brenner's late-night television talk show in 1986, often appearing on the air under the influence of cocaine, and toured with the band of ex-Beatle Ringo Starr in the late 1980s.

At a Glance …

Born on September 2, 1946, in Houston, TX; son of Robbie (a funeral home secretary); died on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, AZ. Education: self-taught musician.

Career: Directed church choirs in childhood; played the young W.C. Handy in film St. Louis Blues, 1958; toured Europe with Little Richard, 1962; released debut album Sixteen Year Old Soul, 1963; released album The Most Exciting Organ Ever, 1965; appeared on television series Shindig, mid-1960s; recorded with the Beatles, 1968–69; signed to Apple label, 1969; recorded and performed with George Harrison, 1971; signed to A&M records, 1971; released hit records "Will It Go Round In Circles?," 1973, and "Nothing from Nothing," 1974; wrote song "You Are So Beautiful," recorded by Joe Cocker and others, 1975; recorded duet album with Syreeta Wright, 1981; music director, David Brenner Show, 1986; numerous recordings as session man, mid-1990s; recorded gospel music, late 1990s.

Awards: Grammy Award, 1973.

Drug Use Took Toll

In 1989 Preston's high life began to unravel. He was hospitalized twice that year for drug-induced heart seizures and arrested twice for drunk driving. Rehabilitation efforts failed, and Preston began buying and using drugs openly in Los Angeles's MacArthur Park. "Cops would drive by and just let it go," he told People. "They figured we were all killing ourselves anyway." Preston's addiction to drugs overwhelmed his life for much of the 1990s.

A court-ordered stint in California's Promises Residential Treatment Center was temporarily successful, and by 1997 Preston had resumed his busy schedule. That year he appeared on albums by Art Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, BeBe Winans, and Enrique Iglesias, among others. The same year, however, he failed a drug test and spent 60 days in jail in Culver City, California. Released on probation, he landed what seemed like a perfect job, portraying an organist on the television sitcom The Good News. But Preston once again tested positive for drug use and in November of 1997 was sentenced to three years in prison. Another year was added to his sentence when he was convicted of having arranged a fake burglary of his house in 1994.

Preston was released after 18 months in California's Avenal State Prison, during which he gave up drugs cold turkey. His fellow inmates, he said, made his ordeal easier: "People knew who I was, they felt sorry for me," he told the New Times Los Angeles. "They were happy to see that I was getting it together." Preston made music constantly, performing at prison church services and starting a choir during his incarceration. He returned to the road once again after his release from prison.

Health Declined

In 2001 Preston was slated to join the band of rock guitarist Eric Clapton for Clapton's world tour, but during the tour's first few dates he complained of leg pain. Hospitalized in Nashville, Preston was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. "He was within 72 hours of an all-out catastrophe," Preston's manager, Joyce Moore, told the New Times Los Angeles. But dialysis treatments, which Preston would undergo three times a week while on tour, saved his life, and he became a candidate for a kidney transplant, which he received in 2002. Yet his kidneys failed again and he remained on dialysis for the rest of his life.

The early 2000s saw Preston returning to his roots, leading the choir at Los Angeles's Brookins AME Community Church, and moving in with several family members, including his 87-year-old mother, Robbie. He was still a powerful draw when on tour, and the frequency with which hip-hop and electronic musicians sampled his classic recordings of the 1970s testified to their distinctive sound and to Preston's importance in the African-American musical tradition. Indeed, the histories of pop, rock, and R&B have all included prominent chapters devoted to Billy Preston's music. A testament to his lasting appeal came in 2005 when Preston appeared on the his television program American Idol, and again in 2006 when Sam Moore's remake of Preston's "You Are So Beautiful," which featured Preston on the keyboard, was nominated for a Grammy award. Preston, however, did not outlive his music. He died on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He will be remembered, as Little Richard put it to the New York Times, for being able to make the piano "walk and talk."

Selected discography

The Wildest Organ in Town, Capitol, 1967.
The Wildest Organ Ever, Vee Jay, 1967.
That's the Way God Planned It, Apple, 1969.
Encouraging Words, Apple, 1969.
I Wrote a Simple Song, A&M, 1971.
Music Is My Life, A&M, 1972.
Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music, A&M, 1973.
The Kids and Me, A&M, 1974.
It's My Pleasure, A&M, 1975.
Billy Preston, A&M, 1976.
A Whole New Thing, A&M, 1977.
Billy and Syreeta, Motown, 1981.
Minister of Music, Pepperco, 1995.
Ultimate Collection, Hip-O, 2000.
Music from My Heart, MCG, 2001.

Sources

Books

Pareles, John, and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.

Periodicals

Columbus Dispatch, May 14, 1992, p. Features-8.

Jet, November 24, 1997, p. 62.

Los Angeles Sentinel, June 22-28, 2006, p. A1.

Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2006, p. B9.

New Times Los Angeles, August 16, 2001, Music/Features section.

New York Beacon, June 8-14, 2006, p. 3.

New York Times, June 22, 2006, p. E2.

People, December 21, 1992, p. 59.

St. Petersburg Times, July 22, 1988, p. Weekend-21.

USA Today, June 4, 2001, p. D2.

Washington Post, June 8, 2006, p. C5.

On-line

Billy Preston, www.billypreston.net (January 3, 2007).

"Billy Preston," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 27, 2003).

"Billy Preston," Biography Resource Center Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 27, 2003).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Preston, Billy." Contemporary Black Biography. 2007. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Preston, Billy." Contemporary Black Biography. 2007. Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2694400053.html

"Preston, Billy." Contemporary Black Biography. 2007. Retrieved June 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2694400053.html

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