Billy Preston facts: Singer and musician's career, death and friendship with The Beatles explained

24 November 2021, 21:03

Billy Preston
Billy Preston. Picture: Getty

Billy Preston was one of the most sought-after musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, and had a very successful career for several decades.

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He was famously the only artist to have a credit on a Beatles record after his appearance on the song 'Get Back', and thus he appears heavily in the long-awaited Peter Jackson documentary series Get Back on Disney+.

But who was Billy Preston and what happened to him? Here's all the important facts about the talented star.

  1. Who was Billy Preston?

    Billy Preston in 1995
    Billy Preston in 1995. Picture: Getty

    Billy Preston was an American musician, whose material touched upon R&B, rock, soul, funk, and gospel.

    He worked as a top session keyboardist in the 1960s, backing artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Everly Brothers, Reverend James Cleveland, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.

    He went on to have a successful career as a solo artist with hit singles such as 'That's the Way God Planned It', 'Outa-Space', 'Will It Go Round in Circles', 'Space Race', 'Nothing from Nothing', and the ballad 'With You I'm Born Again'.

    He also co-wrote the song 'You Are So Beautiful', which was a big hit for Joe Cocker.

    In 2021, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame confirmed that Preston would be inducted with the Musical Excellence Award.

  2. How did he meet The Beatles?

    Billy Preston with Ringo Starr and George Harrison in 1990
    Billy Preston with Ringo Starr and George Harrison in 1990. Picture: Getty

    Billy Preston first met the Beatles as a 16-year-old musician in 1962, when still part of Little Richard's touring band, when their manager Brian Epstein organized a Liverpool show.

    Richard Harrington, in an article in The Washington Post, explained their meeting by writing: "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.

    "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."

    Billy was one of several people referred to as the 'Fifth Beatle'. At one point during the Get Back sessions, John Lennon even suggested having him join the band.

    He played organ and electric piano for the Beatles during several of the Get Back sessions. He also joined the band on electric piano for its famous rooftop concert, the group's final public appearance.

    Billy also appeared on the Abbey Road album, contributing organ to the tracks 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)' and 'Something'.

  3. Was Billy Preston married?

    Billy Preston sadly struggled throughout his life to cope with his homosexuality, as well as the effects of the traumatic sexual abuse he suffered as a boy.

    Although his sexual orientation was known to friends and colleagues in the music world, he did not publicly come out as gay until just before he died, largely because he felt that it conflicted with his religious beliefs.

    At one stage, in the early 1970s, Billy Preston was engaged to actress and model Kathy Silva. At the same time he had become close friends with musician Sly Stone.

    Billy is said to have arrived home one day to find Stone in bed with Silva, who later married Stone on stage at Madison Square Garden.

    It is claimed that Silva's affair with Stone led Billy to stop having relationships with women.

  4. When did Billy Preston die and how old was he?

    Billy Preston in 2003
    Billy Preston in 2003. Picture: Getty

    Billy Preston had kidney disease in his later years, which had been brought on by his hypertension. He received a kidney transplant in 2002, but he never quite recovered.

    He had voluntarily entered a drug rehabilitation clinic in Malibu, California, and suffered pericarditis there, leading to respiratory failure that left him in a coma from November 21, 2005.

    Billy Preston died on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    His funeral was held on June 21, 2006. At the funeral, Joe Cocker sang, Little Richard gave a speech, and there were performances from The Temptations singer Ali Woodson and Merry Clayton.

    There were also letters read out, written by Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others.