Saturday, June 28, 2008

Billy Preston: He Played with Everyone from Ray Charles to Beatles and the Stones

Seeing Billy Preston on last night’s replay of the first Saturday Night Live show reminded me of what an amazing talent he was. Preston, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 59, had a number of hits in the 1970s as a solo artist (including “Nothing from Nothing,” which he performed on SNL) but he is best known as a versatile keyboard player who collaborated with a who’s who of star musicians.

Billy Preston started performing as a child, playing with gospel and soul legends including Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, and Little Richard, among others.

He is the only musician to have played with both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and was often called the “fifth Beatle.” In fact, when the Beatles were nearing their end there was discussion of making Preston an official member of the band. That didn’t happen, but their single "Get Back" was credited to "the Beatles with Billy Preston" – said to be the only time that the band allowed a side player to be so credited. And Preston also was playing with the band their final public performance, the famous rooftop gig they played in London.[

Despite being hospitalized with kidney disease in his later years, Billy Preston continued to record and tour with various musicians. I was lucky enough to see him playing at part of Eric Clapton’s band a couple of years before he died, in a concert at Madison Square Garden. I was surprised to see him playing, since the show was not that long after he had been hospitalized.

It was good to see Billy Preston in his prime on SNL, but it was also sad to think of how many great talents from that show died too young: Billy Preston, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and of course George Carlin.

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