By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Billy Preston was one of the music business's true MVPs, someone who had his own substantial hits but whose real gift was making other stars sound better. After all, there's no musician who can claim to have been coveted by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in their prime, or to have been touted as Ray Charles's successor by Charles himself.
Go to Preston's entry in All Music Guide, click on "credits" and prepare to be amazed. He was Everysideman, part Zelig, part Forrest Gump, but never anywhere accidentally or incidentally. Preston was always invited to be in the right place at the right time.
Preston, who died Tuesday at 59 in Los Angeles after a long, kidney-related illness that had left him in a coma since November, was a virtuoso on the Hammond B-3 organ. Two albums recorded before he was 20 were aptly titled "The Wildest Organ in Town" and "Most Exciting Organ Ever." His ecstatic, loose-limbed jubilation was acquired at Los Angeles's Victory Baptist Church, where his mother was the organist. The precocious Preston often backed visiting gospel royalty; Mahalia Jackson was so impressed she drafted him at age 10. Church never left Preston -- he called his '70s band the God Squad -- and an exuberant gospel underpinning remained constant in his music.
In the '60s and '70s in particular, Preston had a memorable look: mushroom-cloud-size Afro, ingratiating gap-toothed smile, funky fashions that seemed more dreamed-up than designed. And he had a matching personality that invited you in. The countless artists who sought him out probably did so as much for his engaging character as his dazzling virtuosity on organ and piano.
Take the Beatles, for instance. That relationship went back to 1962, when a 15-year-old Preston was hired for Little Richard's backing band on a European tour that was supposed to be about gospel but that Little Richard decided to make about rock-and-roll. Preston first met the Beatles during their fabled residency at the Star Club in Hamburg; a year later, they'd both made their album debuts with "Sixteen Year Old Soul" and "Please Please Me," respectively.
They'd hook up again in 1969, as the Beatles were about to break up while recording their final album, "Let It Be." George Harrison, always Preston's best Beatles buddy, had quit and walked out of the studio and gone to a Ray Charles concert in London, where Preston was playing organ. Harrison brought Preston back to the studio, where his keen musicianship and gregarious personality temporarily calmed the tension.
In bootlegged "Let It Be" session tapes, one can hear several heated arguments between John Lennon and Paul McCartney about making Preston a group member (Lennon was all for it). That would have made Preston officially "the fifth Beatle," a title he was not loath to exploit over the next three decades. Perhaps as consolation, "Get Back," the only Beatles single to enter the British charts at No.1, was credited to "the Beatles with Billy Preston" -- the first and only time the band shared the spotlight with a sideman. Preston also accompanied the Beatles during their famous rooftop gig in London, the Beatles' last public performance.
The Harrison connection would remain strong as the Beatles signed Preston to Apple Records and co-produced Preston's two albums for the label, "That's the Way God Planned It" and "Encouraging Words." On the first album's title track, one got a sense of the respect Preston engendered: Harrison and Eric Clapton played guitar, Keith Richards was on bass, Ginger Baker on drums. "That's the Way God Planned It" was pure gospel, nowhere more evident than in Preston's incredible performance of the song at Harrison's 1973 "Concert for Bangladesh," from soulful pleading and churchy organ fills to a Holy Spirit-infused dance at song's end.
Preston contributed to many Beatle solo albums, and toured with Harrison and Ringo Starr. In the '70s, he was also a key player with the Rolling Stones on the road and on such classic albums as "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street." A sign of their respect: During their mid-'70s world tour, the Stones allowed Preston to play a few of his own songs during their set. By then, he'd finally had some hits of his own, topping the R&B charts with the instrumentals "Outa-Space" and "Space Race" and the pop charts with "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing." Preston also co-wrote Joe Cocker's 1974 hit "You Are So Beautiful," which became a wedding, anniversary and Valentine's Day standard.
Cocker sang "You Are So Beautiful" to George and Barbara Bush at 1989's Inaugural Concert for Young Americans, brilliantly backed by Preston. Lee Atwater, the late Republican National Committee chairman as well as a blues and R&B fanatic, had hired Preston to lead an all-star band in an old-fashioned soul revue. The band opened the show with a rousing rendition of "Sweet Soul Music," and Preston later did an incredible duet with Carla Thomas on "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby."
He would come through Washington in later years as a member of Starr's All-Starr Band. Had those whose work over the decades shone brighter because of his contributions formed Billy Preston's All-Star Band, they probably would have filled the Convention Center. Not the stage -- the center itself.