Billy Preston (Sept. 2, 1946 — June 6, 2006) was an American soul singer and keyboardist from Houston.
He was born William Everett Preston on September 2, 1946, in Houston and mostly raised in Los Angeles by his mother. A child prodigy, he taught himself organ without any lessons.
At age 10, he played organ on stage during a gospel recital by Mahalia Jackson. In 1957, he appeared on The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show on NBC, where he and Cole sang the Fats Domino hit “Blueberry Hill.” In the 1958 W. C. Handy biopic St. Louis Blues starring Cole, Preston plays the composer’s younger self.
In 1961, Preston played organ on the self-titled gospel album by The Sutton Trio! The following year, he got featured billing on the Savoy Records release This Sunday-In Person by James Cleveland with the Angelic Gospel Choir. He also joined Little Richard’s backing band for a tour of Europe. During a 1962 stop in Hamburg, he met a then-fledgling Beatles.
Preston’s debut album, 16 Yr. Old Soul, appeared in 1963 on Derby Records. The opening track, “Greazee,” was split in half for his first single, “Greazee Part II” (b/w “Greazee Part I”). That same year, he played on the albums Night Beat by Sam Cooke and Outer Limits by Jerry Cole and His Spacemen.
Meanwhile, Preston’s songs got covered on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1963, English instrumental beatsters Sounds Incorporated recorded his “Go” for a Decca a-side. Soon thereafter, Ike & Tina Turner covered Preston’s “Strange” for a 1964 Sonja a-side. Preston’s second album, The Most Exciting Organ Ever, appeared that year on Vee Jay Records. Seven of the 12 songs are Preston originals, including the Memphis-style organ rave-ups “I Am Coming Through” and “The Octopus.”
His next release, Early Hits of 1965, features instrumental covers of hits by The Supremes (“Stop! In the Name of Love”), Shirley Bassey (“Goldfinger”), The Beatles (“Eight Days a Week”), The Moody Blues (“Go Now”), The Temptations (“My Girl”), Petula Clark (“Downtown”), Gerry & the Pacemakers (“Ferry Across the Mersey”), and Jr. Walker & the All Stars (“Shotgun”). That year, he performed on the rock TV program Shindig!
Preston turned to gospel for his 1966 album Hymns Speak From the Organ, released as William Everett Preston on Exodus Records.
His next release, Wildest Organ In Town!, appeared that year on Capitol. It features arrangements by a young Sly Stone, who collaborated with Preston on three numbers (“Advice,” “It’s Got to Happen,” “Free Funk”) intermixed with covers of James Brown (“I Got You (I Feel Good)”), Wilson Pickett (“In the Midnight Hour”), The Beatles (“A Hard Days Night”), and The Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)”).
Preston’s second Capitol release, Club Meetin’, appeared in 1967. It features covers of Willie Dixon (“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”), Bobby Hebb (“Sunny”), the much-covered traditional “Wade In the Water,” a medley of three James Brown hits (“Out Of Sight,” “I Got You,” “Please, Please, Please”), plus four originals, including “Billy’s Groove,” and “Ike’s Theme.”
In 1967, Preston joined the backing band of Ray Charles and the two wrote “Something’s Got to Change,” a Charles b-side on ABC. Both performed on the Quincy Jones-produced soundtrack to the 1967 mystery drama In the Heat of the Night starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.
At a 1969 Charles concert, Preston reconnected with Beatle George Harrison, then on shaky ground with his bandmates. Preston accompanied Harrison back to Abbey Road Studios, where his musical insights and outgoing charm eased the situation. He served as a de facto “Fifth Beatle” during sessions for Let It Be, their last-released album, and Abbey Road, their last-recorded, penultimate release. Preston contributed keyboard parts to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Something,” and “Get Back,” where he plays a lengthy electric piano solo.
Preston signed to Apple for his 1969 release That’s the Way God Planned It, produced by Harrison.
- 16 Yr. Old Soul (1963)
- Hymns Speak From the Organ (1965 • William Everett Preston)
- The Apple of their Eye (1965)
- The Most Exciting Organ Ever (1965)
- Early Hits of 1965 (1965)
- Wildest Organ in Town! (1966)
- Club Meeting (1967)
- That’s the Way God Planned It (1969)
- Encouraging Words (1970)
- I Wrote a Simple Song (1971)
- Everybody Likes Some Kind of Music (1973)
- The Kids & Me (1974)
- Live European Tour 1973 (1974)
- It’s My Pleasure (1975)
- Billy Preston (1976)
- A Whole New Thing (1977)
- Behold (1978)
- Late at Night (1979)
- Fast Break (OST, 1979 • Billy Preston & Syreeta)
- Music Is My Life (1980)
- Universal Love (1980)
- The Way I Am (1981)
- Pressin’ On (1982)
- On the Air (1984)
- Ministry of Music (1986)
- You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down (1986)
- Billy’s Back (1995)
- I Believe to My Soul (2005 • Ann Peebles, Billy Preston, Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas & Allen Toussaint)
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