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16-year-old soul, forty-five years later

Most of us first met this latest in a long line of Fifth Beatles on or soon after April 11, 1969 with the release of a self-described little “song to roller-coast by” called “Get Back.” Never before, you see, had the Fab Four shared sacred label credit with anyone other than themselves. But there it was, printed right atop that bright green revolving Granny Smith: “The Beatles… with Billy Preston.”

However, much prior to his musical roller-coasting, William Everett Preston already enjoyed a proud and prodigious career, launched from his mother’s lap where, at age three, he began playing the family piano. Soon he was performing with James Cleveland, Andraé Crouch and Mahalia Jackson, and in 1958 portrayed W.C. Handy (alongside Nat “King” Cole) in the film St. Louis Blues. Barely into his teens, Billy was on the road with Little Richard (first running into the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany) and Ray Charles when he was hired in 1963 to perform on the Sam Cooke album Night Beat. His organ work throughout those sessions – on the version of “Little Red Rooster” therein especially – lead to his immediately being signed, on the spot, to Cooke’s fledgling SAR label.