When he was three, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Preston began playing piano while sitting on his mother Robbie’s lap. Noted as a child prodigy, Preston was entirely self-taught and never had a music lesson. By the age of ten, Preston was playing organ onstage backing several gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andraé Crouch. At age eleven, Preston appeared on Nat King Cole’s national TV show singing the Fats Domino hit, “Blueberry Hill” with Cole. Also at eleven, he appeared in the W.C. Handy biopic starring Nat King Cole: St. Louis Blues (1958), playing W.C. Handy at a younger age.
In 1962, Preston joined Little Richard’s band as an organist, and it was while performing in Hamburg that Preston met the Beatles. In 1963, he played the organ on Sam Cooke’s Night Beat album and released his own debut album, 16 Yr Old Soul, for Cooke’s SAR Records label. In 1965, he released the album The Most Exciting Organ Ever and performed on the rock and roll show Shindig! In 1967, he joined Ray Charles’ band. Following this exposure, several musicians began asking Preston to contribute to their sessions.
In addition to his successful, Grammy-winning career as a solo artist, Billy collaborated with some of the greatest names in the music industry, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Eric Burdon, Ray Charles, George Harrison, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, King Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger, Richie Sambora, Red Hot Chili Peppers and many others.
He played the Fender Rhodes electric piano and the Hammond organ on the Beatles’ Get Back sessions in 1969.
During the 1960s, Preston’s prowess with the piano was well known as he was one of the top session musicians of his day. He was adept at such wide-ranging music as gospel, R & B, soul, funk and rock, and backed such stellar acts as Little Richard, Sam Cooke and even the Beatles.
Having first met the Fab Four while touring with Little Richard’s band in the early ‘60s, Preston would hook up with them years later when they were working on their 1970 release “Let It Be.” The album was to be a revisiting of the band’s raw, live-in-the-studio sound as opposed to recent efforts, like the elaborate orchestration of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or the surreal psychedelia of “Magical Mystery Tour.”
By 1969 when the Beatles went into the studio to record “Let It Be,” disagreements and rising tensions among the members were pushing them to the brink of breaking up. Guitarist George Harrison brought in Preston not only to play on the album but to help relieve some of the turmoil surrounding the band.
Preston played electric piano and Hammond organ on several of the tracks, but his distinctive, energetic work on the up-tempo “Get Back” helps make it one of the album’s brightest spots. Reaching number one around the world, the single even notched the young African-American musician a co-credit since it was billed as “The Beatles with Billy Preston,” making it the revered band’s only single that credited another artist.
John Lennon felt the American keyboardist was such a good fit that at one point during the sessions he proposed making him a full-fledged member of the band. This idea was quickly shot down by Paul McCartney, stating that things were difficult enough to agree upon with only four members. The group did, however, bring Preston along to perform with them at their famous rooftop concert above the Apple Studio headquarters while they were filming the making of the album. That impromptu concert on Jan. 30, 1969, turned out to be the final public performance of arguably the greatest band ever — and Preston was a part of it.
In 1971, Preston left Apple and signed with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records. The previous year, he contributed to another hit single when Stephen Stills asked to use Preston’s phrase “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”, a song on Stills’ self-titled debut solo album.
Following the release of ‘I Wrote a Simple Song’ on A&M, Preston’s solo career peaked at this time, beginning with 1972’s “Outa-Space”, an instrumental track that further popularized the sound of the clavinet in funk music. The song reached number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and topped Billboard’s R&B chart, before going on to win the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. “Outa-Space” sold over 1 million copies in America, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA in June 1972.
Over the next two years, Preston followed up with the US chart-topping singles “Will It Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing”, and the number 4 hit “Space Race”. Each of the three singles sold in excess of 1 million copies. American Bandstand host and executive producer Dick Clark enjoyed “Space Race” so much that he used the instrumental for the mid-show break for virtually the remainder of its run.
Preston played keyboards (including piano, organ, clavinet and various synthesizers) for the Rolling Stones, sometimes alongside pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart, on their albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St, Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll and Black and Blue.
As the band’s primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977, he also performed as a support act with his own band (including Mick Taylor on guitar) on their 1973 European Tour. A Munich performance was documented in the live album Live European Tour 1973.
In 1974, along with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, he composed one of Joe Cocker’s biggest hits, “You Are So Beautiful”.
On October 11, 1975, he was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live’s series premiere episode (along with Janis Ian). Preston’s 1973 song “Do You Love Me” was the basis for the Rolling Stones’ track “Melody”, released on Black and Blue in 1976. Although two of his songs (“Nothing from Nothing” and “Outa-Space”) were included in the band’s 1976 live sets, the Stones and Preston parted company in 1977, mainly due to a disagreement over money. He continued to play on solo records by Stones members and made appearances on the band’s 1981 Tattoo You and 1997 Bridges to Babylon albums.
Preston’s solo career began to decline after 1976. After five years with A&M, he signed with Motown Records. In 1980, he duetted with Syreeta Wright on the ballad “With You I’m Born Again”, which reached number 4 on the charts in the US.
In 1978, he appeared as Sgt. Pepper in Robert Stigwood’s film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was based on the Beatles’ album of the same name, and sang “Get Back” as the penultimate song.
In 1980, he duetted with Syreeta Wright on the ballad “With You I’m Born Again”, which reached number 4 on the charts in the US. Failing thereafter to match its success, Preston left Motown in 1984 and focused for a while on session work. He served as musical director for Nightlife, a late-night talk show hosted by David Brenner that lasted one season from 1986 – 1987. After this his life was spiraling into addiction for a handful of years.
In 1991, Preston was arrested and convicted for insurance fraud after setting fire to his own house in Los Angeles, and he was treated for alcohol and cocaine addictions. In the same year, he was also arrested for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Mexican boy, after picking him up at a gathering point for day laborers. After submitting to a drug test, he tested positive for cocaine. That year, he entered no-contest pleas to the cocaine and sexual assault charges. He was sentenced to nine months at a drug rehabilitation center and three months of house arrest.
Preston overcame his problems in the early 1990s, toured with Eric Clapton, recorded with Gary Walker, one of the vocalists in his Los Angeles-based band, and worked with a wide range of other artists. He also toured with Ringo Starr and appeared on the 1990 live album Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. He was invited to become a member of The Band in 1991, after the death of piano player Stan Szelest. He performed on tour with the group, but the sentencing from his cocaine and sexual assault charges ended the collaboration.
In an interview for a 2010 BBC4 radio documentary on his life and career, Preston’s manager Joyce Moore revealed that after she began handling his affairs, Preston opened up to her about the lifelong trauma he had suffered as the result of being sexually abused as a boy. Preston told Moore that at about the age of nine, after he and his mother moved to Los Angeles from Houston to perform in a touring production of Amos ‘n’ Andy, he was repeatedly abused by the touring company’s pianist. When Preston told his mother about the abuse, she did not believe him, and failed to protect him. The abuse subsequently went on for the entire summer, and Preston stated that he was also later abused by a local pastor.
Another traumatic incident, which reportedly affected Preston deeply, occurred in the early 1970s, while he was engaged to actress/model Kathy Silva. At this time Preston had become close friends with musician Sly Stone, and made many contributions to Stone’s recordings of the period (including the landmark album There’s a Riot Goin’ On). According to Moore, Preston was devastated when he came home one day to find Stone in bed with Silva (who later famously married Stone on stage at Madison Square Garden). According to Moore, Silva’s affair with Stone was the trigger that led Preston to stop having relationships with women – it was after this incident that he began abusing cocaine and having sex with men, and Moore has stated that she saw his drug abuse as his a way of coping with the internal conflicts he felt about his sexual urges.
Preston overcame his problems in the early 1990s, toured with Eric Clapton, recorded with Gary Walker, one of the vocalists in his Los Angeles-based band, and worked with a wide range of other artists. In 1997, Billy Preston recorded the album You and I, in Italy, with Italian band Novecento. The album was produced by Vaughn De Spenza and Novecento members Lino and Pino Nicolosi.
In 1998, Preston played organ during the choir numbers on the UPN comedy show Good News. The same year he sang and played synthesizer in the film Blues Brothers 2000, as part of the super group, The Louisiana Gator Boys.
While touring and fighting his own health problems, Preston received the news that on November 29, 2001, George Harrison had died (having long suffered from throat cancer). Preston, among many of Harrison’s longtime friends, performed in the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Preston’s performance of “My Sweet Lord” received critical acclaim. Additionally, Preston sang “Isn’t It a Pity”, provided backing vocals on most of the other songs, and played the Hammond organ for the show. Ringo Starr called him one of the greatest Hammond players of all time (in the theatrical version of the concert).
In 2002, Preston appeared on the Johnny Cash album American IV: The Man Comes Around, playing piano on “Personal Jesus” and “Tear-Stained Letter”.
In 2004, Preston toured with the Funk Brothers and Steve Winwood in Europe, and then with his friend Eric Clapton in Europe and North America. After he finished touring with Clapton, Preston went to France, where he was featured in one episode of the Legends Rock TV Show. His performance included a duet with Sam Moore singing “You Are So Beautiful”; this was Preston’s last filmed concert.
In 2004, Preston performed as a jazz organist on Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company, an album of duets, on the song “Here We Go Again” with Charles and Norah Jones.
In March 2005, Preston appeared on the American Idol fourth season finale. Playing piano, he performed “With You I’m Born Again” with Vonzell Solomon (who finished the contest in third place). The same year, he recorded “Go Where No One’s Gone Before”, the main title song for the anime series L/R: Licensed by Royalty.
Preston played clavinet on the song “Warlocks” for the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Stadium Arcadium (2006). Although very ill by this point, he jumped out of his bed after hearing a tape of the song given to him by the band, recorded his part, and went back to bed.
Preston’s final recorded contributions were the gospel-tinged organ on the Neil Diamond album 12 Songs (2005), and his keyboard work on The Road to Escondido (2006) by Eric Clapton and JJ Cale.
In late 2005, Preston made his last public performance, in Los Angeles, to support the re-release of the 1972 movie The Concert for Bangladesh. Preston played a three song set of “Give Me Love”, “My Sweet Lord”, and “Isn’t It a Pity”, with Dhani Harrison and Ringo Starr joining on guitar and drums respectively for the last song.
He made his last public appearance in late 2005 at the Los Angeles press junket for the re-release of the Concert for Bangladesh movie. He was in good spirits and talked to many in the press. Afterwards he played a three song set of “Give Me Love”, “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity”, featuring Dhani Harrison on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums for the final song only.
Although he received a kidney transplant in 2002, his health continued to deteriorate. He was 59 when he died on June 6, 2006 of complications of malignant hypertension that resulted in kidney failure and other complications. He had been in a coma since November 21, 2005.