How American keyboardist Billy Preston became known as the 'fifth' Beatle
Preston, who played on The Beatles' Let It Be, is the only musician to get credit on a Beatles' label
Originally published Nov. 27, 2021.
The Beatles didn't often share the spotlight with other artists, but on the legendary single Get Back, a fifth name stands out among the Fab Four: Billy Preston.
The late American keyboardist, who worked with the band on the seminal album Let It Be, is the only musician given credit on a Beatles' label.
"There were a bunch of parts sitting around — there was George, there was John, there was Paul and there was Ringo — and then all of a sudden, Billy comes in the room and he sprinkled the glue and the glitter, and it all just felt good," said Joyce Moore, Preston's long-time friend and former manager.
Preston's time with the band is featured in the new Peter Jackson documentary, The Beatles: Get Back. It chronicles the making of the Let It Be album, drawing from material recorded for the 1970 documentary about the album.
He was invited to join the band as they rehearsed the album by George Harrison — who, himself, had temporarily walked away from the group.
"God works in funny ways, and timing is everything. And as it happens, [the] timing was that they needed a keyboard player, and they were trying to figure out who they could get," she said.
Touring with Little Richard
Before becoming known to some as the fifth Beatle, Preston was a virtuosic young child, according to Moore.
At three, he was playing piano with both hands, she says. By nine, he was performing in and helping direct the choir at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Around that time, a casting director for the film St. Louis Blues, about blues composer and musician W.C. Handy, discovered the young musician.
"Here's this little punk child in his choir robe just showing out — not being braggadocious or anything, but just being Billy," said Moore. He was soon cast to play Handy as a child.
His shot at stardom would come years later, however. At 16, Preston was invited by soul and funk singer Little Richard to accompany him on his tour in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 1960s.
The Beatles were Little Richard's opening act for his run at Hamburg's Star-Club, helping to launch the band's career.
While Richard wouldn't let Preston jam with the four Brits, the musicians were close in age and formed a close friendship backstage — one forged through food, says Moore.
"As the opening act, [The Beatles] weren't getting fed," she recalled. "And when Billy ... realized he could order as much food as he wanted out of the kitchen, he would order four or five steaks every night and a bunch of baked potatoes and vegetables, desserts, you name it."
"You know what they say: the best way to a man's heart is through his stomach," she said. "Well, he won them all over."
Played for musicians from Sam Cooke to The Rolling Stones
Preston reunited with The Beatles in 1969, just as the four were rehearsing Let It Be. The keyboard player was in London, performing with Ray Charles and Harrison met him backstage. The Beatles invited him to stop by the band's rehearsal space at Apple Records.
"It had nothing to do with music. It was about, 'Hey, come see the guys. They'll be so happy to see you,'" said Moore.
But as fate would have it, the band needed someone on the keyboard — and Preston fit the bill. He recorded with the band on the roof of Apple Records later that year.
"It just worked," she said. "Four became five."
Throughout his career, Preston worked with artists from Sam Cooke to The Rolling Stones. His solo records earned him critical acclaim, including a Grammy for his 1971 hit Outa-Space.
Preston died in 2006 following a kidney-related illness that left him in a coma for months.
Seeing his work immortalized in The Beatles: Get Back, says Moore, is a testament to his impact on music and the band that invited him in.
"For me, there's a piece of my heart that breaks because Billy isn't here to enjoy it, to savour it, to really realize his role and his significance and his import to those guys, and the love and respect they had for him."
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Sameer Chhabra.