When a child shows a talent beyond their years, some call them a prodigy, but many slip into obscurity. When Billy Preston performed Fats Domino‘s hit ‘Blueberry Hill’ on TV with Nat ‘King’ Cole, while just 11 years old, anyone could see the kid was a born entertainer, but he went on to spend his life showing an astonishing array of talents. Billy proved he was no ‘flash in the pan’ when he played a major part in of some of the biggest acts of the century, recording chart topping solo singles and hit albums, as well as adding his funky keyboards and soulful vocals to other people’s worldwide hits.
An 11-year-old Billy and Nat King Cole on TV;
Vee-Jay Records were quick to sign Billy as a solo artist and a session musician, and more instrumental albums showed him to be an organist with a huge range and a delicate sensitivity. Working with Sly Stone and Ray Charles, Billy was in great demand as a side-man, and he answered the call from London to play on the Beatles final albums, ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Let it Be’. Billy signed for The Beatles’ Apple label and had a hit single and album with ‘That’s the Way God Planned It’. He worked extensively with George Harrison after The Fab Four disbanded, including his solo albums and tours, and the Concert for Bangla Desh. In 1972, the funky ‘Outa-Space’ gave Billy a No.2 single and earned him a Grammy, with the follow-up ‘Space Race’ hitting No.4, and finally he had two No.1 singles with ‘Will It Go Round in Circles’ and ‘Nothing to Nothing’, both co-written with Bruce Fisher.
Billy performs ‘Outa Space’ with the Stones.
Billy made a huge contribution to The Rolling Stones work in the mid-70s, touring the world and playing on five monster albums. As a solo artist with Motown, Billy’s career stumbled, although he did have a Top Ten duet with Syreeta, and the late 70s and 80s saw him losing the battle with alcohol and cocaine addiction. A collaboration with Eric Clapton, who had overcome his own demons, got Billy back on his feet again. Touring with Clapton and Ringo Starr, playing The White House, a new solo album and a rôle in the Blues Brothers second film saw Billy doing well, but he was also suffering health problems.