07 June 2006

"I Got Happy."


"Billy was a fantastic and gifted musician ... a
superb singer in both recording sessions and
onstage," Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger
said in a statement. "He was great fun to be
with ... and I will miss him a lot."

Fellow Rolling Stone Keith Richards described
Preston as "a genius with all the baggage."

Added Elton John, "He was one of my true
inspirations, one of the greatest keyboard
players of all time and not too shabby a vocalist

Preston began the transformation from sideman
to a star in his own right when he joined forces
with the Beatles in 1969, temporarily helping to
soothe tensions as the band was on the verge of
breaking up.

He performed on both sides of the "Get
Back"/"Don't Let Me Down" single, which was
credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston" --
the first time the band had shared the spotlight
with a sideman. He accompanied them during
their last concert that year, the famous rooftop
gig in London.

In the early 1970s, he topped the charts as a
solo act with the Grammy-winning instrumental
"Outa Space," "Will It Go Round in Circles" and
"Nothing From Nothing." He also wrote Joe
Cocker's 1974 hit "You Are So Beautiful."

. . .

Born William Everett Preston on September 9,
1946, he moved with his family to Los Angeles
when he was 2. He appeared in the 1958 film
"St. Louis Blues," which starred Nat King Cole
as bluesman W.C. Handy. Preston played Handy
as a child. Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson was
also in the film, and he would go on to play
organ on some of her best-known recordings,
including "In the Upper Room."

In 1962, Little Richard hired Preston to join his
backing band for a European tour. He met the
Beatles during their residency at the Star Club
in Hamburg, Germany, and also Sam Cooke,
who signed him to his SAR label. Cooke was
killed two years later, and Preston signed with
Vee Jay records, one-time American home of
the Beatles, through which he released an
instrumental gospel record.

After a stint playing in the house band for the TV
show "Shindig," he joined Ray Charles' band.
Beatles guitarist George Harrison renewed their
friendship and brought him into the tense Apple
Studios in January 1969 where the Fab Four
were barely speaking to each other while
working on the "Let It Be" film and recording

Preston's organ handiwork can also be heard on
such Beatle songs as "Let It Be," "I Want You
(She's So Heavy)" and "Something."

"What set him apart from other virtuosos was,
quite simply, soul," said Ernie Rideout, editor in
chief at Keyboard Magazine. "He could play the
simplest blues lick on a Wurlitzer electric piano,
and it would have as much emotion as a Paul
McCartney vocal ... Everything he played was
the perfect thing, at the perfect time. That was
his art."

Billy Preston gave a tremendous performance only four
years ago at the Concert for George. He nearly stole the
show from the rock royalty who headlined that gloriously
bittersweet tribute -- just as he had decades earlier with
several of the same musicians at the Concert for Bangladesh.

“By the second show, we all kind of relaxed a
little bit. On my number man, I just -- I got
happy. I just jumped up and ran across the
. Phil Spector was in the truck. He said
where did he go, where did he go?”

-- Billy Preston

But he never truly stole the show. Instead, his exuberance
made everyone around him better players, even The Beatles.