Sorry, Pete Best. Sorry, Stu Sutcliffe. Billy Preston is the real Fifth Beatle. Ever wonder who played the organ on the Beatles song “Let it Be”? Or piano on “Get Back”? Yep, it’s my Man, Billy Preston. He first met the Beatles in their Hamburg days, and he has several credits on the Let it Be album, not to mention Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper. Billy was there for the final live performance of the Beatles in 1969, playing “Let it Be” on the rooftop of the Apple building. And when you hear his gospel-flavored rendition of “Let it Be,” the song feels brand new.
John Lennon once suggested that Preston join the Beatles. After all, they lacked a keyboard player, and Billy had the R&B chops (having worked as a session man for Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke).
Once you look further into Preston’s career, he’s full of surprises. For example, he co-wrote (with Dennis Wilson) the Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful.” Stephen Stills got the line “love the one you’re with” from none other than Billy. At age 11, he played Blueberry Hill to accompany Nat King Cole.
And, of surpassing interest (to Linnet anyway) is the fact that Billy’s first album was entitled The Most Exciting Organ Ever. No, I’m not making this up. The first three songs on this fascinating record are “If I Had a Hammer,” “Low Down,” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’.”
I first became aware of Billy as a teenager, when I used several weeks’ allowance to purchase the boxed set of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, which had Billy’s moving gospel song “That’s the Way God Planned It” on Side Two of the first disc. (His album of the same name is nothing short of amazing. Consider: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, George Harrison, and Ginger Baker all make appearances.)
Later, I discovered his funk and soul recordings. I never get tired of “Nothin’ from Nothin’.” This video appears to be a lip synched version of the hit, made for TV, but it shows Billy in 1974 at the peak of his youthful splendor, with his huge trademark afro, lots of bling around his neck, and that joyous smile that makes you want to smile back and inquire after the health of his organ. Here’s a live version of “Will It Go Round in Circles” from 1973. And every so often, I feel an intense need to get reacquainted with Billy’s incredible performance of “Outta Space.”
Here is Beautiful Man Billy Preston in his own words: Music is my life and every day I live it, and it’s a good life to everything I want to say through music it gets to you. I may not be the best around but I’m surely not the worst. I learned to play and sing since the age of three, you don’t know how glad I am God laid his hands on me.