Keyboardist Billy Preston could play it all—gospel and rock, classical and punk, show tunes, country, blues and funk—and he did just that, either on his own or alongside some of the biggest names in music. During his storied career, which was cut short when he died June 6, 2006 at age 59, Preston recorded with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. He earned the moniker “the Fifth Beatle” because he is the only musician to share label credit with the Beatles—on 1969’s “Get Back.”
To mark what would have been Preston’s 68th birthday Sept. 2, Joyce Moore, Preston’s longtime manager and close friend, shares her memories and thoughts on this multitalented man:
Preston, a child prodigy who performed with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson when he was 10, began playing the piano as a toddler with help from his mother and sister:
“They would sit him on their laps so his little fingers would touch the keyboards. He’d put his hands on top of theirs and from there he did it himself,” Moore said. “But nobody taught Billy his gift. His gift was in him. … He played by ear and instinct. He eventually learned to read music, but basically, he was not a music reader.”
Preston could play any musical style, moving effortlessly among genres, Moore said. She watched him at work, and recalled the time producer Rick Rubin sent Preston five tracks that needed something extra:
“The only way to describe him was he was a musical chameleon. It didn’t matter what genre or what direction an artist or producer wanted him to put his hands on keyboards and play. … The five songs Rick sent, three were the Red Hot Chili Peppers and two were Neil Diamond. Billy had absolutely no instructions. An engineer person didn’t come. Billy and Rick didn’t talk about what Rick wanted. Billy was put into the studio and told, ‘Just play whatever.’ Literally. He played them all in one session, five songs in 25 minutes.”
As a solo artist, Preston found success as a singer with songs including “Nothing From Nothing,” which he wrote, and “With You I’m Born Again,” a duet with the singer-songwriter Syreeta Wright. His 1971 album, I Wrote a Simple Song, includes “Outa-Space,” which won a Grammy for best pop instrumental performance. His version of “You Are So Beautiful,” which he co-wrote, was released on his 1974 album The Kids & Me, a year before Joe Cocker’s version became a hit.
“Billy was a musical genius who somehow has never gotten the credit for being a great solo artist and having a successful solo career,” Moore said. “He’s not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not even as a side man. Explain that to me. Look at his discography.”
But Preston did perform at the Hall and recorded an oral history for the museum’s collection.
“He was grateful and appreciative for that,” Moore said, “but he’s not inducted. I know that was very hurtful to him.”
Preston remains a unique talent.
“It’s almost impossible (for) anybody to remind me of Billy, because he was not only a gifted musician, but he could sing. He was a performer and he knew how to work a stage,” Moore said, adding that Preston was a “unique package. There might be a performer who could work the stage? Sure. A performer who is a competent musician? Yeah. But is there anyone with Billy’s level of talent? No.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”