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Billy Preston, 59; Dazzling, Troubled Keyboardist Known as the ‘Fifth Beatle’

Times Staff Writer

Billy Preston, a soul singer and keyboardist who scored such hits as “Nothing From Nothing” and “Outa-Space” in the 1970s but was best known for sitting in on historic recording sessions with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, died Tuesday in Arizona. He was 59.

The charismatic Preston had suffered for years from kidney-related ailments and slipped into a coma in November, according to Joyce Moore, his manager. On Saturday, his condition worsened and he was taken to a hospital in Scottsdale, she told the Associated Press.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 10, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Preston obituary: The obituary of Billy Preston in Wednesday’s California section identified the keyboardist’s “Outa-Space” as a 1973 instrumental. In fact, the song was released in 1972 and won a Grammy in 1973.

“He had a very, very beautiful last few hours and a really beautiful passing,” Moore told the wire service.

Preston’s renal problems were the result of his longtime drug use, which also led to some dark chapters in the 1990s, when he entered court-ordered rehabilitation and was jailed for a variety of offenses.

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Those grim days stand in stark contrast to the image of Preston that holds in the public mind: With his amiable personality, toothy grin and towering Afro, Preston became a well-known character in the 1960s and ‘70s rock scene and a coveted player in the studio and onstage.

“Billy was a fantastic and gifted musician ... a superb singer in both recording sessions and onstage,” Stones singer Mick Jagger said Tuesday in a statement. “He was great fun to be with ... and I will miss him a lot.”

Elton John also praised Preston as a master of the organ and piano: “He was one of my true inspirations, one of the greatest keyboard players of all time and not too shabby a vocalist, either.”

Preston had a stunning career odyssey that again and again put him in the same room with music history. He was there during the “Let It Be” session with the Beatles and not only made memorable keyboard contributions to “Get Back,” but joined them in a London rooftop concert that would turn out to be the iconic band’s final live performance.

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“Musically, my favorite moment was on the roof for ‘Let It Be,’ ” Preston told the Chicago Sun-Times in a 2004 interview.

Preston was also in studio sessions for Sly & the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” Franklin’s “Young, Gifted and Black” and the Stones epic “Exile on Main Street.” Preston even showed up in a notable track listing in which he didn’t perform: Miles Davis named a song in his honor on his 1975 double album “Get Up With It.”

Born in Houston on Sept. 9, 1946, and raised in Los Angeles, William Everett Preston had his hands on a keyboard from the age of 3 and by 10 was playing for gospel icon Mahalia Jackson. In 1958, he portrayed a young W.C. Handy in the film “St. Louis Blues,” which told Handy’s life story and put Preston on the same set as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey.

Preston become accustomed to collaborating with the biggest names in popular music. In the early 1960s, he toured with Ray Charles and Little Richard and, while at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, met a young British act called the Beatles. At the end of the decade, it would be his work with the Fab Four that made for Preston’s most memorable career moment.

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George Harrison, the band’s lead guitarist, invited Preston to sit in during the making of “Let It Be,” the album and sour documentary film that found the group splintering badly. Harrison would later say that Preston’s presence was one of the few sources of positive energy during that time and that by merely being in the room he probably prevented the Beatles from walking out on one another.

The label on the single of “Get Back” reads “The Beatles With Billy Preston,” marking the only time anyone besides the four members was given a credit on a Beatles single. That’s one of the reasons some observers called Preston the “fifth Beatle.”

“I was playing a Fender Rhodes on ‘Get Back,’ ” Preston recalled in a 2000 interview with the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. “They just told me, ‘Take a solo!’ I wasn’t expecting to do a solo. When we were rehearsing, I wasn’t playing a solo.

“To my surprise, when the record came out, they put my name on the record. So that was a real blessing.”

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He also played organ on the song “Let It Be,” and played keyboards on two tracks from “Abbey Road,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Something.”

Preston played with Ringo Starr and John Lennon on several of their solo projects, but Preston and Harrison remained especially close. The keyboardist joined the former Beatle at the sessions for his hugely successful solo debut, “All Things Must Pass,” and again at the Harrison-led all-star “Concert for Bangladesh.” When the 1971 live recording was named album of the year, Preston collected a Grammy for his contribution. He nearly stole the show with his energized performance of his gospel song “That’s the Way God Planned It,” in which he leaped off his bench and danced across the stage in front of such rock icons as Harrison, Eric Clapton and Leon Russell.

In the 1970s, Preston became a familiar presence in the circle of a different British outfit: He played on five Rolling Stones albums and toured with the band repeatedly as sideman and, in 1973, as an opening act.

As the decade wore on, though, Preston and the Stones parted ways after a tiff involving song credit and money. Years later, though, Preston again teamed up with Jagger and company when he sat in on sessions for the 1997 “Bridges to Babylon” album.

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Stones guitarist Keith Richards on Tuesday called Preston “a genius with all the baggage” and as a farewell message offered: “Too soon, so great! Miss you.”

The 1970s also saw Preston step into his own spotlight. He won a Grammy for the 1973 instrumental “Outa-Space,” and scored other hits with “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles” and “With You I’m Born Again,” a duet with Syreeta Wright. Preston also helped write a monster hit for Joe Cocker, “You Are So Beautiful.”

The final entries in Preston’s long and remarkable resume: Last year, he left his bed to record a clavinet sequence for a Red Hot Chili Peppers song called “Warlock,” which appears on that Los Angeles band’s new album, “Stadium Arcadium,” which reached No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts last month. He also lent a gospel organ sound to Neil Diamond’s most recent album, “12 Songs.”

Preston dropped in on television history as the musical guest on the first episode of “Saturday Night Live,” which aired Oct. 11, 1975, and also featured George Carlin and Andy Kaufman. On that show, Preston performed “Nothing From Nothing,” the No. 1 1974 hit that became his signature solo song. Thirty years later, Preston was a guest on another bookend show in a notable franchise: He was on the finale episode of “American Idol” last year.

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He also appeared in the films “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Blues Brothers 2000.”

In addition to his problems with drugs and his health, Preston ran afoul of the law in a 1998 insurance fraud case.

Prison “was a great lesson, an awakening. I needed to reflect, to get rid of some of the dead weight around me,” he later said. “You take the bitter with the sweet, and I have to say it was my faith that kept me going. I had nothing else to fall back on.”

Information about survivors was incomplete Tuesday.

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