Born On This Day, 1946: Billy Preston

Jim Burroway

September 2nd, 2016

70 YEARS AGO: (d. 2006) As a three-year-old, little Billy began playing the piano while sitting on his mother’s lap. By age ten, the child prodigy was playing the organ for such noted gospel singers as Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland (who, it was later revealed, was also gay — which is a different story for another time). At age eleven, he appeared on Nat King Cole’s national TV program singing Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill, and at age twelve, he started with Cole in the film St. Louis Blues, playing a younger W.C.Handy. In the 1960s, he became a sought-after studio musician, playing organ for Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and the Beatles, whom he had met while performing in Hamburg in 1962.

When Preston joined up with the Fab Four again in 1969, the four weren’t quite so fab. In fact, they were on the verge of breaking up and were struggling to complete Abbey Road and Let It Be. George Harrison brought Preston in, and his gregarious personality and musicianship briefly calmed the tensions in the studio, so much so that John Lennon proposed making Preston an official “Fifth Beatle.” (Paul reportedly countered that it was bad enough with four.) Preston did join the band for its final rooftop concert at Abbey Road studio, and his prominent eclectic piano solo on “Get Back” earned him a credit on the resulting single as “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”

Preston didn’t join the Beatles, but he did join their record label, Apple Corps, which released his 1969 album That’s the Way God Planned It... His 1970 release, Encouraging Words included Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr as guest musicians. After his departure from Apple for A&M, Preston continued his collaboration with George Harrison in The Concert for Bangladesh and toured with Harrison during his 1974 North American tour. Meanwhile, Preston’s start as a solo artist began to shine, with his 1972 instrumental “Outa-Space” winning a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. That was followed by his number one hits “Will It Go Round In Circles” in 1972 and “Nothing from Nothing” in 1974.

While Preston continued released solo albums throughout his career, his spotlight as a solo artist was relatively short-lived. But his collaborations with other musicians remained strong, including an extended stint with The Rolling Stones for several albums and concert tours through the seventies. Keith Richards, in his recent autobiography Life, recalled, “He was gay at a time when nobody could be openly gay, which added difficulties to his life. Billy could be, most of the time, a bundle of fun. But sometimes he would get on the rag. I had to stop him beating up his boyfriend in an elevator once. Billy, hold it right there or I’ll tear your wig off. He had this ludicrous Afro wig. Meanwhile, he looked perfectly good with the Billy Eckstine look underneath.”

Some of Preston’s difficulties undoubtedly were rooted in his background in Gospel music. While his main success came in secular music, he remained in touch with the Black Gospel world, including playing organ for Donny McClurkin’s self-titled debut album in 1996. That was before McClurkin announced in 2002 that he was gay but had “experienced God’s power to change my lifestyle.” Preston’s foot in Gospel only added to the pressure to remain publicly closeted. As a close friend said, “Billy was gay. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve. How could he? He was a black man that came from the church. The church would have destroyed him. [But] he wasn’t ashamed of who he was.” While Preston keenly felt the need to remain closeted, there is a good reason why he may have felt at home in the Gospel world. He once quipped to a friend in Gospel music that the Black church choir was “the original gay-straight alliance.” Here, Preston plays “How Great Thou Art” at Gospel Celebration 1988:

Preston continued collaborating with other musicians through the remainder of his life. When George Harrison died, Preston played for the 2002 commemorative Concert for George in London. He also collaborated with Johnny Cash for 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around and on Ray Charles’s 2004 Genius Loves Company. Preston died in 2006 of complications from malignant hypertension and kidney failure, despite having undergone a kidney transplant in 2002.

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