Tuesday, June 06, 2006


"Fifth Beatle" Billy Preston Dies

by Josh Grossberg
Jun 6, 2006, 3:00 PM PT

Billy Preston, the singer-songwriter famous for his collaborations with Ray Charles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, among others, as well as for the Grammy-winning solo hits "Outta Space" and "Nothing From Nothing," died Tuesday from complications due to chronic kidney failure. He was 59.

Preston's sister, Lettie Preston, told Reuters the legendary entertainer had been in a coma at a Scottsdale, Arizona, hospital since last November after his kidneys failed as the result of a long series of ailments he had battled over the years, including drug addiction.

His health on the decline, he underwent a kidney transplant in 2002, but the organ subsequently failed and he was placed on dialysis. Published reports list the cause of Preston's death as kidney failure brought on by "malignant hypertension."

A virtuoso keyboard player, Preston was the only sideman to ever share label credit with the Beatles and was dubbed the "Fifth Beatle" after contributing soulful piano lines to the Fab Four's landmark White Album and Abbey Road, as well as to such gems as "Get Back" and "Let It Be." Aside from helping to ease the strain developing between the Beatles, he also appeared in the film Let It Be and performed with the moptops during their historic rooftop final concert in London.

The Afro-wearing Preston also worked extensively with the Stones on the albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and It's Only Rock and Roll, playing piano and clarinet on such tracks as "Heartbreaker," "If You Can't Rock Me" and "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?" During subsequent tours, the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band gave him the honor of playing two of his own songs halfway through the shows, with the Stones serving as his band.

Other notable artists with whom he colloborated included Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson Five and Barbra Streisand.

In the 1970s, Preston finally grabbed the spotlight for himself and never looked back. As a solo artist, he penned the Grammy-winning 1973 instrumental "Outta Space," as well as such ditties as "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing." He also wrote Joe Cocker's tearjerker "You Are So Beautiful." Miles Davis even named a song after him.

During the '80s, he stumbled due to a series of personal problems, including a nasty drug and alcohol addiction, which led to him pleading no contest in 1992 to cocaine and assault charges. He was handed a suspended jail term and spent nine months in rehab. Six years later, he found himself in trouble again, and this time pleaded guilty to insurance fraud after trying to bilk insurers out of $1 million by setting fire to his own house.

However, in his later years he bounced back, touring with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood as well as appearing in the movie The Blues Brothers 2000.

Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, remembered Preston in a statement issued Tuesday, calling him a "teen prodigy" on both the organ and piano with an "enviable reputation" as a musician.

"Our thoughts go out to his family and friends as we mourn the loss of a truly talented musician," Portnow said.

Born Sept. 9, 1946 in Houston, Texas, Billy Preston spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles after his parents divorced. By the time he entered his teens, he had become an accomplished piano and organ musician, backing the likes of Little Richard, Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson. He also earned his first feature-film credit, portraying a young W.C. Handy in the 1958 biopic St. Louis Blues.

In January, 1969, he signed with the Beatles' Apple Records, joining them in the studio for the Let It Be film and studio project.

After their split, George Harrison recruited him for his solo album, All Things Must Pass, and he performed at 1972's The Concert For Bangladesh. Paying tribute to John, Paul, George and Ringo, he played a rollicking version of "Get Back" in the Beatles tribute film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Despite his myriad personal battles, Preston remained a major force to the end, playing on Ray Charles final album, the Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company, and contributing some gospel stylings to Neil Diamond's latest disc, 12 Songs and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' just-released Stadium Arcadium.

Funeral arrangements are pending in Los Angeles.

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