Billy Preston (9 September 1946 - 6 June 2006) was an American soul and rock singer-songwriter, famously known as a child prodigy pianist before releasing several rnb hits (including #1 smashes "Will It Go 'Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing") and working with classic artists such as Aretha Franklin and The Beatles. He notably performed with Mahalia Jackson at the age of 16 and appeared as a young W.C. Handy in a 1958 biopic. His first solo record was a gospel album called '16 Year Old Soul'.
Preston first came to widespread attention of a U.S. mainstream audience as the organist (and sometimes vocalist) in the house band on the television show 'Shindig,' popular during 1964-66. On tour backing stars Little Richard and Sam Cooke, he met the Beatles (early in their career) in Hamburg, Germany in 1962. He was later invited by George Harrison to join The Beatles in the studio for the filming/recording of 'Let It Be' (1970). Preston's most memorable performance with the Beatles is on the track "Get Back".
The apparent reason for the collaboration was that the project was being done live— without overdubs— and the Beatles wanted a second keyboardist. Preston's soulful style was to compliment the rhythm and blues approach the Beatles had for this album. His was a genre they'd grown up listening to and were reaching back to as well as paying tribute to.
Another apparent reason for Preston's involvement was to buffer the growing tensions between the members of the band (that had started around the time of filming). Everyone set aside their differences to make Preston feel welcome at the sessions. Members of the band have later commented on their joy with working with Preston, whom they respected as a talented musician.
While Preston was never considered for permanent membership in the Beatles (despite stories to the contrary), he did continue working with them through to the end of the 60s: releasing two solo albums on Apple Records (the Beatles' label), collaborating with George Harrison on 'All Things Must Pass', and joining in on the Concert for Bangladesh— one of the first significant benefit concerts of its kind (at Madison Square Garden in 1972). Preston also later made an appearance in the infamous Beatles tribute film 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' (1978), as the title character— Sgt. Pepper. He's sometimes been referred to as a 'Fifth Beatle'.
In addition to work with said group, Preston also played and toured with The Rolling Stones, playing on significant albums such as 'Sticky Fingers' and 'Exile on Main St.' In the 70s, Preston also worked with Bob Dylan, playing as an accompanist on ' Blood on the Tracks', and Aretha Franklin, on her record 'Young, Gifted and Black'. As the years went on, Preston collaborated with numerous other artists including Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis, also notable touring with Sly and the Family Stone for a time. He also played organ with the Ray Charles big band on tour in the late 60s.
In terms of his solo career, Preston's hit tracks "Will It Go 'Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing" both reached all the way to number one in the U.S. and still remain staples of oldies stations. He won a Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance for "Outa Space" in 1971, and he received an invitation to the White House no less in 1974. Though perhaps overshadowed by his collaborative work, he devolved a strong and devoted fan-base as album after album made it into the Billboard top 200 album chart.
Preston was also the music director and band leader for the Garry Shandling show in the 80s, returning to the TV work that had given him his start. Yet, in the 80s and 90s, Preston sadly suffered substance abuse and financial issues. He spent three years in prison in 1997 for a drugs possession charge handed out earlier that year (cocaine possession and assault).
A U.S. musical legend, Preston passed away at the age of 59 in a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a result of "malignant hypertension that resulted in kidney failure and other complications".