Billy Preston

June 11, 2024  By Jukebox 

Is Billy Preston the Unsung Hero of Rock Music?

Need a break from the daily grind? At Jukebox Saturday Night, we’ll take you on an adventure around the web, tracing the hidden gems from the glorious era of rock ‘n’ roll. Unforgettable artists like Billy Preston produced soulful seventies jukebox melodies that defined an entire generation.

Are you a Billy Preston aficionado or want to discover why he’s hailed as an unsung hero in music? Stick around if you’re as excited as we are to dive into the gripping tale of an enduring rock music legend.


Billy Preston: More than a name

Personal life and background

Born on the 2nd of September, 1946, Billy Preston is an icon whose personal life was as vivid as his music. Raised in Houston, Texas, Preston’s journey sparked amidst the choir of his mother’s church, where he was an organ prodigy by the tender age of ten.

But it was in Los Angeles where he truly matured, blossoming under the tutelage of famed gospel artist James Cleveland. As you delve deeper into his life, it’s clear that his yearning passion for music was carved and nurtured in these early years.

By the age of twelve, he shared the silver screen with a fresh-faced artist named Nat King Cole. His life was filled with such amazing intersections of opportunity and talent.

Iconic compositions

One of the songs that Preston is best known for is ‘You Are So Beautiful’, a sweet ballad that was inspired by his mother. It continues to be used in films, advertisements, and TV shows today.

The song was first released on his ninth studio album. Joe Cocker released a slower version of the song that topped the US charts. It’s said that Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys assisted Preston with completing the song – a taste of his many collaborations with great artists during his life.


Noteworthy collaborations

The ‘Fifth Beatle’

Billy Preston, the architect of soul-rock fusion, was an instrumental genius who introduced the Rhodes piano, Clavinet, or Hammond organ in the arena of rock music.

The prime testimony of his influence was his unprecedented feat as the only non-Beatle to earn a songwriting credit on a Beatles song. (Not only was Preston the first to be credited on a Beatles song, he was also the first-ever musical guest of the now long-running ‘Saturday Night Live’.)

His handprint on the band’s swansong album ’Let it be’, specifically the track ‘Get back’, demonstrates the value of his contribution. He also lent his instrumental talents for the songs ‘Something’, ‘She’s so heavy’, and ‘Dig a pony’, among others, leading some to refer to him fondly as the ‘fifth Beatle’.


A lifetime of collaboration

Billy Preston was a frequent collaborator of the Beatles, even after their disbandment. Preston’s album ‘That’s the way God planned it’ was produced by George Harrison. He did some stunning piano work for John Lennon’s solo track ‘God’. He also appeared on Harrison’s solo songs and toured with drummer Ringo Starr and his subsequent live album.

These contributions were not restricted to his work with the Beatles. He collaborated with the Rolling Stones, infusing originality into their music with his signature organ sound. In 1979, he sang with Syreeta Wright on the song ‘With you I’m born again’, which was #4 on the US charts. Later on, he collaborated with the likes of Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, and Patti LaBelle.

Later on, even as he battled numerous health issues, his collaborative spirit never waned. He played the clavinet for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song ‘Warlocks’; it’s said that he jumped out of bed, fighting sickness, to record his part.

Preston’s unique musical style

Apart from his virtuoso keyboard skills, his unique approach to music was a finely tuned combination of raw energy, soul, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll, which set him apart from his peers. 

His song ‘Nothing from nothing’ showcases his fusion of different genres. It’s rock, it’s soul, it’s funk – a vibrant blend that resists categorisation. He was also capable of creating uplifting and positive messages, like in the track ‘Will it go round in circles’. Preston had an incredible knack for blending complex emotional themes with infectiously cheery melodies.

Preston’s distinct musical style, coupled with his notable collaborations, truly shaped him as one of the most inspirational and influential unsung heroes in rock music. Billy, without a shimmer of doubt, positioned himself as a pioneer, an influencer with a style that is replicated but never duplicated. 


Billy Preston’s legacy

Health challenges

In his later years, Preston struggled with kidney diseases, hypertension, and health issues pertaining to drug and alcohol use. He died in June 2006, and at his funeral, his collaborators paid tribute to him with songs and letters. 

Posthumous recognition

Posthumously, Billy Preston has received deserved recognition for his noteworthy contributions to rock music. Further cementing his legacy, in 2021, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a Musical Excellence honoree. This monumental acknowledgement of Preston’s talent and influence brought his name out of the shadows, illuminating his importance in the music industry and rock music history.

Influence on modern music

Inarguably, Billy Preston has left a remarkable influence on modern music. It’s evident not only in rock ‘n’ roll, but also in the realms of gospel, R&B, soul, and funk. Notable musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Miles Davis have all acknowledged Preston’s indelible impact. Davis even has a track named ‘Billy Preston’ in his honour.

Billy Preston’s impact cannot be overstated. His unique blend of rock-n-roll, gospel, and soulful rhythms continues to inspire and shape artists and music today.

Jukebox Saturday Night is a musical journey down memory lane, celebrating the golden age of rock and pop by playing rare and unreleased music video clips from as early as the 1950s to the 1980s, fostering a community where nostalgia meets passion for timeless tunes.

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