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BILLY PRESTON:
THE MAN WHO SAVED
THE BEATLES


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely seen, or heard about The Beatles: Get Back, the acclaimed documentary on the Fab Four’s fractious 
waning days directed by Peter Jackson.

The film, which debuted over Thanksgiving weekend 2021 (shown in three parts on Disney+), is a six-hour smorgasbord of archival footage of the lads filmed and recorded in January of 1969, with the 
stated goal of chronicling the band’s accepted challenge of writing and recording an album of all-new songs to culminate in a live performance.

Though Get Back’s source material stems from footage director Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot for 1970’s downcast Let It Be movie (which hit screens just as The Beatles’ breakup was announced), Jackson discovered reams of unused film that surprisingly portrays the group not merely as the dour, disillusioned misanthropes of the Lindsay-Hogg feature; rather, Jackson reframes The Beatles as loose, wisecracking, irreverent, soulful musicians rediscovering their love of ’50s rock ’n’ roll and R&B.

A deeper dive into the cause of this collective joy reveals a catalyzing figure: Billy Preston, the Houston-born, Los Angeles-raised keyboard genius whose surprise appearance—following George Harrison’s walking out on the band—showcases both his hipster cool and welcome ebullience. His undeniable charm, coupled with his gospel-drenched, note-perfect artistry on the keys, thoroughly galvanized the group and, if only temporarily, staved off its collapse.

Preston’s much-needed gift of sunshine in The Beatles’ winter of discontent nonetheless concealed a complex, troubled man.

Born in Houston in 1946, Preston settled in L.A. with his mother a decade later to play in a touring production of Amos ‘n’ Andy (begun in 1928 as a radio sitcom about Black characters). During the show’s run, the house pianist sexually abused him. When Billy disclosed the abuse to his mother, she accused him of lying. Further compounding his torment, Preston was later molested by a local pastor. These experiences inflicted psychic trauma that lingered for the rest of his life.

Entirely self-taught on piano and organ, the prodigy soon caught the ear of gospel pioneer W.C. Handy and gospel’s reigning queen, Mahalia Jackson. Preston accompanied both legends before hitting puberty. Soon, young Billy could be seen on television alongside jazz great Nat King Cole as the pair played and sang the Fats Domino classic “Blueberry Hill” together.

A few years later, in 1962, when Preston was all of 16, he joined rock ’n’ roll pioneer Little Richard as an organist, playing for the legend on a European tour. It was during their appearance in Hamburg, Germany, that both Preston and Richard met The Beatles, who were still months away from their astonishing, world-changing recording career. Richard and Preston soon befriended the young quartet from Liverpool, who were getting their performance chops together with a grueling but character-building residency at Hamburg’s raucous Star Club.

In 1963, Preston joined soul singer extraordinaire Sam Cooke, performing on his classic Night Beat album. Cooke signed Preston to his SAR label as a solo artist, and the latter was soon performing regularly on the rock ’n’ roll TV show Shindig. In 1967, he joined Ray Charles’ orchestra.

It’s roughly here that The Beatles re-enter the picture. By early 1968, the band had accumulated several lifetimes’ worth of experience, having achieved global dominance as a result of their wildly successful recordings and films. The band had decided to pull the plug on the world tours that had sapped them of their creative energy, which they soon redirected into monumental psychedelic works like the double-A-sided single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” and the instant classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Later—reeling from the death of their manager and guiding light, Brian Epstein—The Beatles and their entourage had gone to Rishikesh, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Returning to England to launch their new Apple label and related business enterprises, The Beatles soon released their best-selling song to date, the stand-alone single “Hey Jude,” recorded as they worked on their double-album magnum opus, The Beatles, commonly known as The White Album. Following its release in November 1968, George Harrison was invited by Bob Dylan to spend Thanksgiving with him (and his celebrated cohorts The Band) at his home in the bucolic hamlet of Woodstock, N.Y.

Dylan and Harrison hung out, played together and co-wrote the shimmering devotional “I’d Have You Anytime,” later to become the opening track on George’s late-1970 triple-LP masterpiece, All Things Must Pass.

Joining the other Beatles to commence work on the album/concert project at London’s Twickenham Studios, Harrison began 1969 still smarting from the conflict-laden White Album recording sessions. He’d go from winning admiration and creative support from no less than Bob Dylan to being relegated yet again to low-rung status on the Beatles totem pole.

During the first week of January, Harrison encountered a creatively spent, heroin-addicted John Lennon and an artistically burning, wildly prolific Paul McCartney, who had scores of songs pouring out of him seemingly at will. Harrison immediately butted heads with McCartney over what he perceived to be Paul’s domineering ways. Increasingly withdrawn, refusing to cooperate with McCartney and Lindsay-Hogg’s grand scheme of staging a concert and visibly frustrated by the group dynamic, Harrison left The Beatles a week into recording. Following a series of off-camera meetings, he returned to the band, but the group was now behind schedule and under serious pressure to deliver.

Enter Billy Preston. Harrison had just seen him accompany Charles in London and invited his old Hamburg acquaintance to the next Beatles session, at Apple Corps HQ. So taken was Harrison by Preston’s keyboard work that he declared to his bandmates, “He’s better than Ray Charles, really.” Charles himself would attest, “Since I heard Billy play, I don’t play the organ anymore—I leave it to him.”

Thanks to the visual treasure trove that is Jackson’s Get Back, viewers can now feast their eyes on the moment the dapperly attired, ever-smiling Preston walked into the studio, ostensibly just to watch the proceedings. But, unbeknownst to him, the band was already thinking of adding a guest keyboardist to enhance their live-in-the-studio/minimal-overdubs concept. John Lennon tells Preston, “If you’d like to do that, you’re welcome to, and then you’d be on the album.”

Harrison would later affirm just how welcome Preston’s presence was: “He got on the electric piano, and straight away there was 100% improvement in the vibe in the room… Having this fifth person was just enough to cut the ice that we’d created among ourselves.”

One of the film’s highlights comes when The Beatles—with Preston on electric piano—launch into “I’ve Got a Feeling”; Preston’s note-perfect, gently funky accompaniment is greeted with wide-eyed, open-mouthed delight from McCartney. One can sense the room practically levitate with renewed confidence and joy.

Thereafter, whenever the band gets stuck for ideas and turns to revisiting old ’50s rock ’n’ roll chestnuts for inspiration, Preston gamely follows along on organ or electric piano. So integral was his keyboard work to the rest of the recording sessions—as well as to the concert atop the roof of Apple Studios—that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the songs recorded for the original concert film, including “Let It Be, “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” without his signature keyboard parts. In fact, The Beatles would release the latter two songs as “The Beatles With Billy Preston,” the only time a Beatles single would be so credited.

Following the Let It Be album, Preston would grace the band’s swan song and best-selling work, the classic Abbey Road LP, adding his magic to Harrison’s evergreen “Something” and Lennon’s surging “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

But even Preston’s positivity could not fully salvage the fraying edges of a band already in disarray and turmoil, and by 1970, The Beatles were officially no more.

In the 1970s, Preston would record with three-quarters of the solo Beatles and The Rolling Stones and enjoy a hit-laden career on his own boasting songs like the #1s “Will It Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing” and the Grammy-winning #2 “Out-a Space.” He’d also have a Top 5 hit with Joe Cocker’s version of the ballad Preston cowrote, “You Are So Beautiful.”

But once the hits dried up, Preston struggled, succumbing to substance abuse. In 1991, he was charged with the sexual assault of a 16-year-old boy and in 1998, convicted of insurance fraud. Preston died in 2006, just shy of his 60th birthday, the result of hypertension and kidney disease. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.

In the wake of Peter Jackson’s celebrated documentary, many Beatles fans—including yours truly—have wondered if the band might have stuck it out a few more years had they taken Lennon up on his suggestion that they invite Preston to become a full-time member. It’s a never-ending game of “what if,” to be sure.

Joyce Moore, who enjoyed a decades-long friendship with Preston, served as his manager for a time and was appointed by him as the “shepherd” of his musical legacy—she now heads Preston Music Group, Inc.—describes a mixture of “ecstasy and abject pain” upon seeing Preston’s contribution restored to the narrative of The Beatles’ work. The pain, of course, is that “Billy isn’t alive and didn’t get a chance to feel and see what a difference he made and how much he was loved by all The Beatles and their management team.” She adds that it required the approval of Paul, Ringo, Olivia Harrison, Yoko Ono, Jackson, producers Jeff Jones and Jonathan Clyde and others to include that footage. “How much better does it get than to hear John Lennon look at Billy and say, ‘Well, you’re the fifth Beatle?’ I am so grateful, so honored and so humbled by the outright demonstration of love from these people, who unabashedly adored Billy Preston and wanted the world to know just how important he was—to those who are living and those who have passed.”

But what seems amply evident is that Billy Preston’s uplifting presence and musical mastery very possibly extended the life of the world’s most popular and influential band. To quote one of Paul McCartney’s solo hits, “And what’s wrong with that?”

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