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Billy Preston, “The Fifth Beatle,” Dies at 59

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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.

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About Matthew Milam

  • http://spatulaforum.blogspot.com Nik

    Although I’d always list Brian Epstein or Sir George Martin as the “true” fifth Beatle, Billy was an inestimable talent. Godspeed. Shame his end was so drawnout and painful for the famiy.

  • http://www.nellieapple.net nellie o apple

    May His Soul Rest In Peace and God Bless His Soul. Billy Preston is one of my brilliant musicians ever. My Condolences To The Preston Family.

    The last time I saw him was at Eric Clapton’s concert. Goodbye, Mr. Preston.

  • Joey

    Not to dredge up a jaded past… but why did his kidney’s fail?

    Here’s a snippet of info from AP:
    “Preston had numerous personal troubles in recent years. In 1992, he was given a suspended jail sentence, but ordered incarcerated for nine months at a drug rehabilitation center for his no-contest pleas to cocaine and assault charges. Five years later, he was sentenced to three years in prison for violating probation. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and agreed to testify against other defendants in an alleged scam that netted about $1 million.”

    Okay, he’s using… to the point that it’s altering his behavior. He’s probably taxed his system… liver, kidney’s… narcotics really stress organs people.

    My condolances to the family, who watched this great prodigy turned professional, sink into the oblivion of substance abuse which led to his health failures.

    I am truely sorry for anyone who has to witness a loved one destroy their precious life.

  • http://www.tomeimarketing.com Anthony Tomei

    Darn! Another great one leaves us.
    Billy Preston… FANTASTIC Songwriter!

    We’ll Miss YOU!

    -Anthony Tomei

  • Evan

    God Bless Mr. Preston and his family. Who will ever forget his solo on the various versions of “Get Back” or him getting so excited at the Concert for Bangla Desh where he jumped up from his organ and danced over to George Harrison during “That’s the way God Planned It”. What a talent. He will be missed.

  • Tom

    Billy Preston was a great solo artist in the early to mid 70’s. I remember dancing my ass off to is song “Outa Space” at my 7th grade dance back in “72” Also Will It Go Round In Circles” was a fun up beat dance tune. It was a staple on the AM dial when it was a hit in “74”. He had the biggest afro of an human in existence. I will miss you Billy!!!

  • Eric Olsen

    very glad to see most people choose the remember the best of Preston, a tremendous talent who achieved most of what can be achieved in music. Thanks Matthew

  • http://insidebrain.mu.nu Matthew Milam

    No, thank you Eric.

  • John

    Just last Sunday I had listened to “That’s the way God planned it”. I listen to that once or twice a year, now the timing seems synchronistic. That’s a very enjoyable CD, with Billy’s voice and keyboards and Eric’s guitar.

  • http://www.vitaminz.blogspot.com Zach Baker

    Just recently pulled out the Concert for George DVD from 2002. Preston performed Isn’t it a Pity with a power that was quite moving. If I’m not mistaken, Preston also coined the phrase “love the one you’re with,” with Stephen Stills overheard and made into a classic.
    So sad to see him gone at 59.
    Rest in peace, Mr. Preston.

  • Chuck

    Billy Preston was indeed a great talent. It’s too bad talented artists like him have to die before their time, if that’s what happened, because of substance abuse, which there was, and also artists like Chris Farley, and John Belushi. Maybe that should be talked about.
    Sorry to say I don’t think the way Billy, Chris, and John died was the way God Planned It. I hope you’re with God Billy Preston, and if you are, could you pray a prayer for us?

  • jerry moore

    i remember seeing billy at the winterland years ago and while he was jammin on his organ, moving his head to the music, his afro wig flew off and landed like ten ft. behind him.he just laughed it off. he was a cool dude.

  • Justin O

    Man, a hell of a dude, what an organist man, he ripped some tight shit on that organ. Mr. Preston, you will be missed.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SydDdAmTo0c Deliver

    This link is a video of Billy Preston playing You Are So Beautiful with singers Patti Laballe & Joe Cocker.

  • http://www.worldmusicbuzzyahoo.co.uk Mikle Post

    It’s sad that all the people who were a major part of his life were’nt mentioned.While interveiwing Is’real Benton in london, it became common knowlege that it was his close friend Benton who urged him to seek drug treatment in malibu. To answer one unanswered question re why. We need to keep it real.

  • Anthony Robinson

    Billies playing on the organ touched my heart, with gift was extraodinary. May God bless your family continually