Billy Preston, the ‘fifth Beatle’

On June 6, 2006, the world lost a musical Genius when Keyboard wizard Billy Preston died from kidney failure at 59 years of age.

Preston was a musician renowned throughout the world and has the accolade of being the only musician apart from the band members to be credited on a Beatles album.

The fifth Beatle

Billy was responsible for the ‘groovy’ electric piano and hammond organ parts on the Let it Be album recorded by the ‘Fab Four’ in 1969. But more than that, Billy’s gentle spirit and warm heart were largely responsible for healing the rift that had almost split the band a whole year before their eventual demise. If not for Billy, the acclaimed Beatles albums ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’ would not have been recorded.

It was January 1969. The double ‘White Album’ had been released just 11 weeks earlier. But the White Album recording sessions had been fraught with ill feeling and both George Harrison and Ringo Starr temporarily left the band in the weeks that followed. It was Paul McCartney who had the idea of reuniting the band with some live work, the kind of work that had brought the band worldwide fame and acclaim in the early and mid 60’s. There was now much bickering at rehearsals culminating in Harrison’s demand that he would only continue to play if he could bring along a friend, Billy Preston.

Billy and George first met in Hamburg in 1962. At that time, Billy was playing keyboards for Little Richard, and the Beatles were playing a local residency in a beer cellar. The 18-year old George Harrison quickly bonded with the 15-year-old Billy Preston, and they became life-long friends.

A great plan

George’s plan of bringing in an outsider to help calm the situation worked well. Billy recalled,

It was a struggle for the Beatles. They were kind of despondent. They had lost the joy of doing it all.

But it worked. Culminating in the Beatles final live performance on the rooftop of Abbey Road Studios on 30th January, Billy’s ‘healing’ presence helped the band to complete two albums and remain together as a band for another year. Billy’s solo on ‘Get Back’ is classic.

Billy had a string of his singles in the US, including four number ones. He also has scores of hit albums, both gospel and secular. Although less successful in the UK, he was well known as a friend of The Beatles and had a number 11 hit on their Apple label in 1969 with the gospel song, ‘That’s the Way God Planned it’.

But life wasn’t all plain sailing for ‘born again’ Billy. Born shortly after the end of World War Two, Billy was a child prodigy.  At just 11 years old he appeared on Jazz singer Nat King Cole’s TV show. Before reaching his teens he played organ for gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andrae Crouch. At just 15 years old he joined Little Richard’s band and went on tour, which is how he first met George Harrison.

Battling with temptation

Then the troubles began. Being a Christian did not immunise Preston from the temptations and challenges of life. During the 1960’s and 70’s, whilst continuing to be a worshipper of Christ, Billy succumbed to the temptations of the prolific supply of drugs and sex on offer in the world of ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’.

He tried to sort it out, but the problems continued. In 1991, Preston was arrested and convicted for insurance fraud after setting fire to his own house in Los Angeles, He was treated for drug and alcohol addiction, and arrested for sexual assault. The religious ‘Pharisees’ have cast enough stones at him to build a house, but this affable musical genius was simply struggling with temptations common to mankind and failing on many occasions, just like everybody else, including the stone throwers.

Billy’s struggles only heighten our desperate need of a Saviour! God came down to earth as a man. He came in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived, taught, healed and died for mankind. Jesus died for our selfishness, weakness and crimes against God and man (sin) so that we would not have to. As Jesus is the embodiment of God’s compassion, so Billy Preston is the embodiment of precisely why Jesus had to come to earth.

Billy the believer

Preston was a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ. The people who knew him well said that there was no doubt about that. His biggest UK hit was ‘That’s the Way God Planned it’ and he was never shy about sharing his faith. But like so many of the great characters in the Bible, Billy was very fallible. Moses committed murder, King David committed adultery, King Solomon was probably history’s worst serial polygamist and adulterer with 700 wives and a further 300 live-in mistresses. They make Billy look like a novice!

Whatever happened and however many times he failed, Billy always fell back on his faith. He always turned back to Jesus for help. Little Richard was also a believer with many faults and failings, which is probably the very reason they identified so well with each other both musically and philosophically. Billy, the archetypal prodigal son, was raised a Christian and refused to deny his roots. He stuck firmly to his beliefs that Jesus Christ is the Saviour that mankind desperately needs, and he proclaimed his faith without apology.

Was Billy Preston a man with many faults and failings? Yes, definitely. Was he sorry and repentant for the hurt his ‘sin’ caused to others as well as to God? Yes, definitely. Is Billy Preston a good example of a true Christian? Well, contrary to cynical portrayal by opponents, a true Christian is not someone who is absolutely perfect and looks down upon others. A true Christian is someone who recognises that he/she has many faults and failings. A true Christian recognises that he/she does not deserve to go to heaven. A true Christian realises that it is only through the love and forgiveness given by Jesus Christ that anyone can enter heaven. Yes, Billy Preston was a true Christian.

Story by Ralph Burden


Above Photo:  Playing piano for the Rolling Stones


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