Billy Preston – My Sweet Lord (Live)
William Everett Preston (September 2, 1946 – June 6, 2006) was an American musician whose work encompassed R&B, rock, soul, funk, and gospel. Preston was a top session keyboardist in the 1960s, during which he backed artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Reverend James Cleveland, and the Beatles. He went on to achieve fame as a solo artist with hit singles such as “That’s the Way God Planned It“, the Grammy-winning “Outa-Space“, “Will It Go Round in Circles“, “Space Race“, “Nothing from Nothing“, and “With You I’m Born Again“. Additionally, Preston co-wrote “You Are So Beautiful“, which became a #5 hit for Joe Cocker.
Preston was one of five musicians credited on a Beatles recording other than the group’s four members. Preston continued to record and perform with other artists, notably George Harrison after the Beatles’ breakup, and Eric Clapton, and he played keyboards for the Rolling Stones on many of the group’s albums and tours during the 1970s.
Preston was born September 2, 1946, in Houston and moved to Los Angeles as a child with his mother, Robbie Lee Williams. Noted as a child prodigy, Preston was entirely self-taught and never had a music lesson. By the age of ten, he was playing organ onstage backing several gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson. At 11, Preston appeared on an episode of Nat King Cole‘s NBC TV show singing the Fats Domino hit “Blueberry Hill” with Cole. He also appeared in St. Louis Blues, the 1958 W. C. Handy biopic starring Nat King Cole; Preston played Handy at a younger age.
In 1962, Preston joined Little Richard‘s band as an organist, and it was while performing in Hamburg that he met the Beatles. In 1963, he played the organ on Sam Cooke‘s Night Beat album and released his own debut album, 16 Yr Old Soul, for Cooke’s SAR label. In 1965, he released the album The Most Exciting Organ Ever and performed on the rock and roll show Shindig! In 1967, he joined Ray Charles‘ band. Following this exposure, several musicians began asking Preston to contribute to their sessions.
Relationship with the Beatles
Preston first met the Beatles as a 16-year-old in 1962, while part of Little Richard’s touring band, when their manager Brian Epstein organized a Liverpool show, at which the Beatles opened. The Washington Post explained their subsequent meeting:
They’d hook up again in 1969, when the Beatles were about to break up while recording the last album they released, Let It Be (they would later record Abbey Road, which was released prior to Let It Be). George Harrison, a friend of Preston, had quit, walked out of the studio and gone to a Ray Charles concert in London, where Preston was playing organ. Harrison brought Preston back to the studio, where his keen musicianship and gregarious personality temporarily calmed the tension.
Preston is one of several people referred to as the “Fifth Beatle“. At one point during the Get Back sessions, John Lennon proposed the idea of having him join the band (to which Paul McCartney countered that it was difficult enough reaching agreements with four). Preston played organ and electric piano for the Beatles during several of the Get Back sessions; some of these sessions appeared in the film Let It Be and on its companion album. Preston also accompanied the band on electric piano for its rooftop concert, the group’s final public appearance. In April 1969, their single “Get Back” was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”, the only time such a joint credit had been given on an official Beatles-sanctioned release (as distinct from an unsanctioned reissue of some Hamburg-era recordings on which they were the backing group for Tony Sheridan). The credit was bestowed by the Beatles to reflect the extent of Preston’s presence on the track; his electric piano is prominent throughout and he plays an extended solo. Preston also worked, in a more limited role, on the Abbey Road album, contributing organ to the tracks “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Something“.
In 1978, he appeared as Sgt. Pepper in Robert Stigwood‘s film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was based on the Beatles’ album of the same name, and sang and danced to “Get Back” as the penultimate song.
Post-Beatles solo career
Preston singing at the piano in 1971
Signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, in 1969, Preston released the album That’s the Way God Planned It, produced by Harrison, the title song from which was a hit single in Britain. His relationship with Harrison continued after the Beatles’ break-up in 1970; Preston was the first artist to record Harrison’s subsequent international hit “My Sweet Lord“, on his 1970 album Encouraging Words, which Harrison co-produced with him. He appeared on several of Harrison’s 1970s solo albums, starting with All Things Must Pass; made a notable contribution to the Concert for Bangladesh, the Harrison-organized 1971 charity benefit; performed with the ex-Beatle on his 1974 tour of North America; and played at the 2002 Concert for George tribute, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Preston also worked on solo releases by Lennon and Ringo Starr.
In 1971, Preston left Apple and signed with Herb Alpert‘s A&M Records. The previous year, he contributed to another hit single when Stephen Stills asked to use Preston’s phrase “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with“, a song on Stills’ self-titled debut solo album.
Following the release of I Wrote a Simple Song on A&M, Preston’s solo career peaked at this time, beginning with 1972’s “Outa-Space“, an instrumental track that further popularized the sound of the clavinet in funk music. The song reached number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and topped Billboard‘s R&B chart, before going on to win the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. “Outa-Space” sold over 1 million copies in America, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA in June 1972. Later that year, Preston contributed the title song to the hit blaxploitation film Slaughter starring Jim Brown.
Over the next two years, Preston followed up with the US chart-topping singles “Will It Go Round in Circles” (which displaced Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” at the top on 7 July 1973) and “Nothing from Nothing“, and the number 4 hit “Space Race“. Each of the three singles sold in excess of 1 million copies American Bandstand host and executive producer Dick Clark enjoyed “Space Race” so much that he used the instrumental for the mid-show break for virtually the remainder of its run.
Preston (seated behind grand piano in foreground) performing with the Rolling Stones in 1975
From 1970, Preston played keyboards (including piano, organ, clavinet and various synthesizers) for the Rolling Stones, sometimes alongside pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart, on their albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll and Black and Blue. As the band’s primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977, he also performed as a support act with his own band (including Mick Taylor on guitar) on their 1973 European tour. A Munich performance from this tour was documented on Preston’s album Live European Tour 1973. In 1974, along with Bruce Fisher, one of his regular songwriting collaborators in the 1970s, he composed one of Joe Cocker’s biggest hits, “You Are So Beautiful“. On October 11, 1975, he was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live‘s series premiere episode. Preston’s 1973 song “Do You Love Me” was the basis for the Rolling Stones’ track “Melody”, released on Black and Blue in 1976. Although two of his songs were included in the band’s 1975 and 1976 live sets, the Stones and Preston parted company in 1977, mainly due to a disagreement over money. He continued to play on solo records by Stones members like Mick Jagger‘s Wandering Spirit, and made appearances on the band’s Tattoo You and Bridges to Babylon.
After seven years with A&M, he signed with Motown. In 1979, he duetted with Syreeta Wright on the ballad “With You I’m Born Again“, which reached number 4 on the charts in the US. Preston’s career lost momentum in the 1980s due to his cocaine and alcohol addictions. He left Motown in 1984 and focused on session work, contributing to works by artists such as Luther Vandross (his organ solos were included on Vandross’ 1985 hit “Til My Baby Comes Home”), Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle, among others. He served as musical director for Nightlife, a late-night talk show hosted by David Brenner that lasted one season from 1986 to 1987.
Preston toured with Eric Clapton, recorded with Gary Walker, one of the vocalists in his Los Angeles-based band, and worked with a wide range of other artists. He also toured with Ringo Starr, appearing on his 1990 live album. He was invited to become a member of The Band in 1991, after the death of piano player Stan Szelest. He performed on tour with the group, but the sentencing from his cocaine and sexual assault charges in 1991 ended the collaboration.
In 1997, Billy Preston recorded the album You and I, in Italy, with Italian band Novecento. The album was produced by Vaughn De Spenza and Novecento members Lino and Pino Nicolosi. In 1998, Preston played organ during the choir numbers on the UPN comedy show Good News. The same year he sang and played synthesizer in the film Blues Brothers 2000, as part of the Louisiana Gator Boys supergroup.
On November 29, 2001, while touring and fighting his own health problems, Preston received the news that George Harrison had died, having long suffered from throat cancer. Preston, among many of Harrison’s longtime friends, performed in the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Preston’s performance of “My Sweet Lord” received critical acclaim. Additionally, he sang “Isn’t It a Pity“, provided backing vocals on most of the other songs, and played the Hammond organ for the show.
In 2004, Preston toured with the Funk Brothers and Steve Winwood in Europe, and then with Clapton in Europe and North America. After the Clapton tours, he went to France, where he was featured in one episode of the Legends Rock TV Show. His performance included a duet with Sam Moore on “You Are So Beautiful”; this was Preston’s last filmed concert.
In March 2005, he appeared on the American Idol fourth season finale. Playing piano, he performed “With You I’m Born Again” with Vonzell Solomon (who finished the contest in third place). The same year, he recorded “Go Where No One’s Gone Before”, the main title song for the anime series L/R: Licensed by Royalty.
Preston played clavinet on the song “Warlocks” for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Stadium Arcadium (2006). Although very ill by this point, he jumped out of his bed after hearing a tape of the song given to him by the band, recorded his part, and went back to bed. Preston’s final recorded contributions were the gospel-tinged organ on the Neil Diamond album 12 Songs (2005), and his keyboard work on The Road to Escondido (2006) by Eric Clapton and J. J. Cale.
In late 2005, Preston made his last public performance, in Los Angeles, to publicize the re-release of the 1972 documentary film The Concert for Bangladesh. He played a set of three Harrison songs – “Give Me Love”, “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity” – with Dhani Harrison and Starr joining on guitar and drums, respectively, for the last song.