After a long battle with malignant hypertension and chronic kidney failure, keyboardist Billy Preston died today at Shea Scottsdale Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona. He had been in a coma since November, but there had been some signs of recovery. He was 59 years old. Preston received a kidney transplant in 2002, but the kidney failed and he has been on dialysis ever since.
Known as the “Fifth Beatle,” he worked intimately with the Fab Four as keyboardist on The White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road. The versatile Preston also worked with The Rolling Stones on Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Some Girls, and Bridges to Babylon; and toured with the band in 1975. He played on solo records by George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon, often played with Eric Clapton, and played on other classics including Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and Sly and Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
The piano and organ virtuoso with the big smile and bigger Afro also had a quite successful solo career in the ’70s, which included the funky instrumental hits “Outa-Space” and “Space Race,” as well as vocal hits “Will It Go Round In Circles,” “Nothing From Nothing,” and the ballad duet with Syreeta Wright, “With You I’m Born Again.” Preston also wrote and first recorded the Joe Cocker smash “You Are So Beautiful.”
A-list talent such as Ray Charles, Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland mentored the child prodigy, and Richard made the original Beatles connection for Preston when he opened for them in Hamburg in the early-’60s. Preston’s job: making sure the Beatles were fed.
From there and throughout the ’60s, Billy maintained a relationship with them. This led to eventually to him recording and performing with them, and his signing to the Beatles’ own Apple Records. Such fortune inspired the title of the album, That’s the Way God Planned It
The last anyone saw of Preston in public was at a reunion for the ’05 DVD release of The Concert of Bangladesh – a concert of which he was an integral part in in 1971. In attendance at the reunion was Ringo Starr and the late George Harrison’s son, Dhani.