Billy Preston: The Story of the (Almost) Fifth Beatle

Billy Preston’s pop successes “Will It Go Round In Circles,” “Nothing From Nothing,” and “Outa-Space” cemented his place on the charts, but he was much more than that. Preston played with the Beatles (who pondered inviting him to join the group), the Rolling Stones (with whom he recorded and toured), Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand, Sly, and the Family Stone, among others.

Billy Preston and the Rolling Stones / Billy Preston / Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band / Billy Preston.
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Billy’s gentle attitude and loving heart was instrumental in mending the schism that had nearly broken the band a year before their demise. The critically acclaimed Beatles albums “Let it Be” and “Abbey Road” would not have been recorded if it weren’t for Billy. This article will provide you with several stories and information regarding the fifth Beatle’s life that you may have been curious about.

He was a Child Prodigy

Preston proved himself to be a child prodigy when it came to playing the piano after moving to Los Angeles with his mother when he was a young boy. He was routinely backing up gospel singers by the age of ten, and he made his first appearance on television as a supporting musician.

A young Billy Preston.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Preston quickly became a sought-after live performer, and at the age of 16, he began touring the world as an organist with Little Richard’s backing band. Preston met the people who would shape the rest of his life during his time with Little Richard.

About the Fifth Beatle

Many artists and industry professionals worked closely enough with the Beatles to be considered the “fifth” member of the group. There were many people vying for the title of the fifth Beatle, from DJs to the group’s manager and producers.

Billy Preston performs on stage.
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But, if for no other reason than the fact that the band was considering adding him to the official lineup in their final years, Billy Preston should be considered. Preston reconnected with the Beatles during “Get Back” recording after George Harrison invited him to the studio.

Another Step of Opportunity

After adding organ and electric piano to tracks on Abbey Road and Let It Be, John Lennon recommended that Preston join the group as an official member. Still, Paul McCartney squashed the idea because they had enough difficulties agreeing on something.

The Beatles pose for a portrait.
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Preston is recognized as a co-writer on “Get Back,” and he played with the group on their final performance, from the roof of the Apple office building, despite not being an official member. Billy Preston is a true artist who excels at what he does.

Reaching the Limitless Sky

Preston went on to do a variety of other musical projects after the Beatles broke up, which further added to his fame. Before joining A&M, he released a solo album on Apple Records and worked on George Harrison’s seminal album “All Things Must Pass.”

Billy Preston and the Rolling Stones together in their hotel after a concert.
Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1972 for his groovy piece “Outa-Space,” while touring with the Rolling Stones and working on their records at the same time. In the 1970s, there wasn’t a huge rock ‘n roll tune that he didn’t touch.

A Well-Known Character

Those gloomy 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 a coveted player in the studio and onstage.

Billy Preston plays the piano in the recording studio.
Photo by Jim McCrary/Redferns/Getty Images

Billy was a fantastic and gifted musician and a fantastic singer in both the studio and onstage. He was a lot of fun to be around, and he will be sorely missed, being one of the best keyboardists of all time, as well as a capable vocalist.

Record of Being the First Musical Guest on SNL

Billy Preston has a flood of hit singles of his own. Preston had solo singles with “Will It Go Round in Circles,” which reached number one on the Hot 100 charts, and “Nothing from Nothing,” which reached number one on the Hot 100 charts.

A still from Billy Preston during his performance on SNL.
Source: YouTube

He also composed one of Joe Cocker’s biggest singles, “You Are So Beautiful.” He was an unstoppable musical force, making him the ideal first musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Preston appeared on the show in between his busy schedule as a touring sideman, performing “Nothing from Nothing.”

The First Member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band

Billy Preston was always close to the Beatles, and he joined Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 1989. Preston was the first person Starr contacted when putting together the group, according to the LA Times.

Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band pose for the press.
Photo by Ron Galella/Getty Images

Preston was looking for a new record label at the time, but he wasn’t getting any bites. Preston’s version of the band boasted an absurd amount of talent. Preston jammed with Dr. John, Clarence Clemons, and Joe Walsh in addition to Ringo.

Life Behind Bars

Preston ran afoul of the law in an insurance fraud case, in addition to his drug and health issues. Preston’s kidney difficulties were caused by his long-term drug usage, which led to dark episodes in his life in the 1990s when he was sentenced to court-ordered rehabilitation and spent time in jail for several infractions.

A portrait of Billy Preston.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

“Prison was a fantastic awakening, a great lesson,” he says. He subsequently explained, “I wanted to reflect to get rid of some of the dead weight surrounding me.” You have to take the good with the bad, and I have to say that my faith kept me going. I didn’t have any other options.”

Bad Times During the 90s

Preston’s life wasn’t always easy. After serving time for drug charges in 1992, the brilliant pianist struggled throughout the 1990s. Five years later, he was returned to prison for violating his probation and pleading guilty to insurance fraud for his role in a conspiracy to set fire to his own Los Angeles home.

A portrait of Billy Preston.
Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage/Getty Images

He went on to work with old pals like Eric Clapton and Ray Charles after his release from prison, and he even collaborated with the enormously popular rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers on their album Stadium Arcadium.

He Passed Away at the Age of 59

Preston was diagnosed with renal disease in the early 2000s, and after attending rehab in Malibu in 2005, he developed respiratory failure and passed out on November 21, 2005. He died in Scottsdale, Arizona, in June of 2006, at the age of 59.

Billy Preston attends an event.
Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage/Getty Images

Preston, who is now regarded as one of the most significant behind-the-scenes musicians of the twentieth century, claimed that he never set out to become a legend. He simply did it because it felt good: the accomplishment was merely being able to do it and attempting to do the best you can.

The Band Got their Name by Combining ‘Beetles’ and ‘Beat’

During this time, the band’s name was in flux, and they went under the alias Johnny and the Moon Dogs and The Silver Beetles and The Silver Beats. Stuart Sutcliffe, an art school student and a friend of Lennon’s, was invited into the band to play bass.

An early portrait of the Beatles.
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Sutcliffe and Lennon are widely credited with coining the term “Beatles,” however, there are many different versions of the story. The Beatles were born from insects and beats, and their name became synonymous with modern music.

The Beatle’s First Single

Epstein saw the band’s potential, not just in their city but also throughout the world, especially now that the core four members had come together. He spruced up their image and went to work promoting them full-time. “Please, Please Me,” the band’s debut UK hit, was recorded in November and released in January 1963.

The Beatles are holding their silver LP and EP discs.
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It was the band’s first of 11 studio albums to reach No. 1 in the United Kingdom, a streak that would last until 1970. Epstein would eventually travel to the United States and book the band for a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Impact of the Beatles

The Beatles aided or inspired many cultural movements in the 1960s. Their ascent to national prominence in the United Kingdom signaled the youth-driven changes in postwar society, particularly social mobility, commercial influence, and informality.

John Lennon holds a rose during a peace demonstration.
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They were instrumental in transitioning American artists’ global dominance of rock and roll to British acts (dubbed the British Invasion in the United States). They motivated many young people to seek music professions. From 1964 until 1970, the group had a top-selling single in the United States every six weeks and a top-selling album every three weeks.

An Artistic Presentation

For pop musicians, the Beatles brought new means of artistic presentation. They were the first band to be fully marketed on television, and they proceeded to find innovative methods to use the medium to disseminate their music. They invented the global tour and stadium concerts as live performers, as sports stadiums became the principal venues for rock tours.

The Beatles rehearse at the CBS television studios.
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The Beatles “had a pivotal part in altering how popular recordings were manufactured, how popular songs were listened to, and the role that popular music would play in people’s lives,” according to Rolling Stone.”

The Band’s Sociocultural Impact

The Beatles gave female teenagers one of the first possibilities to demonstrate spending power and publicly express sexual desire, beginning in 1963, while their image signaled contempt for adults’ opinions and parents’ morality notions.

Local hippies follow George Harrison as he strums a borrowed guitar.
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“British young people experimented with music, art, politics, sexual morality, fashion, and the like, and the rest of the Western world watched, absorbed the changes, and participated in the process,” writes of the Beatles’ rise and impact on 1960s youth.

They were Musically Daring

The Beatles have stayed relevant for nearly six decades because they were musically brave, willing to adapt their sound as they lived through the psychedelic, turbulent 1960s.

The Beatles album cover for ‘’Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’’
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But it took the band a long time to become that daring, with most of their most experimental tunes appearing between 1966 and 1970. It was still the middle of 1965 when “Yesterday” was written, the band still wore mop tops, and changing their pop-rock formula seemed a little ridiculous.

What George Martin Did

George Martin was a classically educated musician with a long career in the music industry. His understanding of string arrangements, studio techniques, and music in general aided them in quickly progressing from Love Me Do to Sgt Peppers.

George Martin poses with a poster of the Beatles.
Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

He was the one who had to translate their musical ideas into something that could be recorded on tape in the studio, and it was only because of his excellent knowledge and expertise that they were able to be so experimental. Most other producers would not have been able to create such trust and a relationship with the group.

As an Arranger

Martin’s formal musical expertise helped bridge the gap between the Beatles’ raw talent and the sound that set them apart from other bands and ultimately propelled them to fame. Martin wrote or performed the majority of the Beatles’ orchestral arrangements and orchestration and many of the early records’ keyboard parts.

George Martin and John Lennon in the recording studio.
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Despite McCartney’s initial resistance, Martin suggested that “Yesterday” be accompanied by a string quartet. Martin performed the tune in the style of Bach to demonstrate the many voicings accessible to McCartney.

The Beatles Anthology

In 1994 and 1995, Martin conducted post-production of The Beatles Anthology, again collaborating with Geoff Emerick. Martin chose to mix the tracks for the project on an antique 8-track analog mixing equipment – which EMI discovered an engineer still had – rather than a new digital console.

The Beatles’ movie cover.
Source: Tumblr

Martin stepped aside when it came to producing the two new singles that reunited McCartney, Harrison, and Starr, who wanted to overdub two old Lennon tracks. Martin had lost his hearing and entrusted the project to the Electric Light Orchestra’s writer/producer Jeff Lynne.

The Beatles performing on ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1966

From 1960 through 1962, the Beatles performed in Hamburg on and off, with trips back to Liverpool in between. Brian Epstein first saw the band perform at the Cavern Club, which is in his hometown.

The Beatles are performing on television.
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Epstein became intrigued after hearing about them at his family’s record store and in Mersey Beat magazine. He returned to see them play a couple more times before approaching the band about managing them on December 10, 1961, and a five-year contract was struck in January 1962.

The Man Who Discovered the Beatles

Brian Epstein had a vision: to make The Beatles, a scruffy local musical group, into the world’s most famous band, bigger than Elvis Presley. And he made that vision a reality. Epstein is so important to the history of one of rock’s greatest bands that Paul McCartney famously said, “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.”

The Beatles and Brian Epstein.
Photo by Cummings Archives/Redferns/Getty Images

Throughout the tour and studio sessions, Epstein kept the band focused. “What distinguished him from other managerial types of the time was that he was never in it for the money. He wasn’t in it to earn money off The Beatles’ backs and hard work,” says the author.

Their Final Commercial Concert

The Beatles’ final commercial concert, staged in August 1966 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, marked the end of four years of practically nonstop touring and the start of a time of studio recording.

The Beatles walk into the infield of Candlestick Park.
Photo by Robert Stinnett/Oakland Tribune/Digital First Media Group/Getty Images

Many assumed Epstein’s relevance to the band would decrease once the continual organizational effort was removed. On August 27, 1967, Epstein died unexpectedly from an overdose of sleeping sedatives mixed with alcohol, putting an end to that theory. He was 32 years old at the time. Although it was officially considered an accident, there were whispers that it was a suicide.

Neil Aspinall, Schoolmate, and Road Manager

Aspinall was a schoolmate of Paul McCartney and George Harrison in Liverpool before becoming their roadie. Aspinall began his career with the Beatles as their road manager, which included driving his old Commer van to and from gigs at all hours of the day and night.

Neil Aspinall poses with the band.
Photo by Pace/Getty Images

From transporting the Beatles to shows and carrying their gear on stage, Aspinall rose through the ranks of the Beatles management, eventually becoming the group’s personal assistant and, ultimately, the CEO of Apple Corps until 2007. He died of cancer in 2008, at the age of 66.

Stuart Sutcliffe, Original Bassist

The ordinary black-and-white image of a young man in the far-left corner, third from the top, may be found on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover if you look closely. Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s founding bassist, is pictured above.

A portrait of Stuart Sutcliffe.
Photo by Collect/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Sutcliffe was there when the Beatles were a five-piece band, performing night after night in Hamburg, Germany, during their formative years. But, towards the conclusion of their tour in 1961, he quit the band to finish his studies and be with his fiancée, Astrid Kirchherr. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage the following year. He was 21 years old at the time.

Pete Best, original drummer

Is Pete Best still resentful about his dismissal from probably the world’s most famous band? We can only speculate. However, according to Epstein, the drummer stayed with the Beatles for another two years before being replaced by Ringo Starr in 1962.

The Beatles portrait with Pete Best as a band member.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Best, unlike many other “fifth Beatle” claimants, Pete is still active at the age of 74, working as a civil servant and even traveling with his own band, the “Pete Best Band.” His replacement perhaps gave him a hedge in his personal pursuit.

Murray the K, Disc Jockey

You’ve got to hand it to Murray Kaufman, or Murray the K, the disc jockey. If no one else will name you the “fifth Beatle,” you might as well do it yourself. The Beatles were a big fan of the famed New York radio presenter.

A portrait of Murray Kaufman.
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In 1964, he declared himself the “fifth Beatle” after promoting them on their first U.S. tour. Both sides benefited from the self-promotion, with the Beatles enthusiastically adopting the moniker “fifth Beatle” during their tour.

Klaus Voormann’s Influence on the band

After Sutcliffe quit the band to return to art school in Hamburg, they needed a bassist to step in while they concluded their Hamburg shows. Klaus Voormann, a local German, was recruited. Voorman was a beatnik who influenced the band’s approach. He relocated to Liverpool and briefly lived with Harrison and Starr.

A picture of Klaus Voormann.
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He stayed friends with the band and received a Grammy for designing the cover art for the album Revolver. Following the band’s disbandment, he appeared on solo recordings by John, George, and Ringo.

Meet Your Host, Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez is a multi-award-winning novelist who has written or contributed to more than a dozen novels. He’s written five books about The Beatles so far, including the most recent Solo in the 1970s and the critically praised Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘N’ Roll, both published in 2012.

A portrait of Robert Rodriguez.
Photo by Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Getty Images

He’s also written for Beatlefan magazine and has been a frequent radio and television interviewee regarding the band. Robert is the author of Hal Leonard’s FAQ book series, which is the world’s largest print music publisher. He’s also published several books about pop culture from the 1950s and 1960s.

The Beatles and Mohammed Ali

There’s little doubt that The Beatles, Muhammad Ali, and others were all capable of producing big hits in their own right. But it wasn’t until February 18, 1964, in Miami Beach’s 5th Street Gym, that their paths crossed.

The Beatles in the ring with Mohammed Ali.
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New British rockers George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr were in the United States for a live performance on the Ed Sullivan Show when they encountered Cassius Clay, a completely unknown 22-year-old underdog fighter. The warrior, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, was in Miami at the time.

The 250 Million Record Sales

Despite their friendly relationship, Lipsyte revealed that after sneaking in a workout at the gym, Ali retired to the dressing area for a massage and approached the writer with a direct inquiry.

Muhammad Ali poses with the Beatles.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

According to Lipsyte, Ali asked him just who exactly “those little sissies” were. Even if he didn’t know who they were, Ali helped The Beatles, who went on to sell more than 250 million records worldwide, begin to recognize that their star was also rapidly rising.

Yoko Ono’s Influence on the Band Split

No one in Beatles legend is more divided or controversial than Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s partner, and eventual bride, who appeared on the scene just as the band was undergoing its most difficult times. It was a period of tremendous loss, psychological turmoil, and violent internal feuding over leadership and business that would eventually lead to the band’s breakup.

A portrait of Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images

Regardless of the public record in the decades since the Beatles split up, many fans continue to blame Ono. McCartney directly addressed the notion, telling British interviewer David Frost that Ono “definitely didn’t break the group up, the group was breaking up.”

The Kooky Symbolism on the Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ Album Cover

When the band’s Abbey Road record cover was later published in September 1969, rumors about McCartney’s death was at an all-time high. For many, the cover may just depict the Beatles walking along Abbey Road in London, but for certain Beatlemaniacs, the artwork was a bizarre dissertation in morbid symbolism.

The Beatles walk on Abbey Road
Photo by Krafft Angerer/Getty Images

Was it a huge conspiracy or a well-thought-out marketing ploy? In no particular sequence of truthiness, below are various symbols that have been pointed out over the years: McCartney’s feet are completely bare. The registration plate, the police vehicle, the broken Beatles sign, the girl in the blue dress, and connect the dots.

Eric Clapton to Replace George Harrison in the Beatles

The guitarist initially met the Beatles when performing with the Yardbirds as a support act for one of their headline gigs in 1964. As a result, the Beatles developed a deep bond that spanned both their professional and personal lives.

A portrait of George Harrison and Patti Boyd / A picture of Eric Clapton and Patti Boyd.
Photo by Keystone-France, Gamma-Keystone, Getty Images / Evening Standard, Getty Images

Clapton not only worked with the band, but he also worked with each of the four members on their own individual projects. Furthermore, he became great friends with Harrison, and the two even had the same ex-wife, Pattie Boyd. Clapton, who came close to becoming a Beatle himself, was held in high regard by all of them.

Jackson Paid $47.5 million to Own the Beatles’ Catalog

By the mid-1980s, the Beatles library had passed into the hands of ATV, a corporation led by Australian millionaire Robert Holmes, and Jackson had asked entertainment lawyer and manager John Branca to purchase the collection on his own.

Paul McCarney poses with his wife Linda and Michael Jackson.
Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Negotiations dragged on for a year, with Jackson and Holmes a Court edging closer and further away from a settlement, with Holmes a Court’s lawyers concerned initially that Jackson was bidding for his friend McCartney. Even though this was not the case, the negotiations proceeded until Jackson boosted his offer to $47.5 million, and the purchase was consummated on August 10, 1985.