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Listen: 'Get Back' proves the Fifth Beatle was Texan, Billy Preston

Billy Preston in 1971.
Heinrich Klaffs, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Billy Preston in 1971.

The keyboardist featured in the new docuseries was born in Houston. He went on to make music history in other ways.

From Texas Standard:

The term “the Fifth Beatle” has been thrown around a lot over the past decades – often in a generic way, referring to a musician or band's manger or producer. But those who’ve seen the docuseries “The Beatles: Get Back” by famed director Peter Jackson will see that Houston-born Billy Preston was the true Fifth Beatle the band needed while recording its final album.

“Billy saves the day,” KUTX Music Director Rick McNulty told Texas Standard. “I mean, quite honestly, without Billy Preston, I don't know what ‘Get Back’ would have amounted to – probably some half-baked ideas.”

But Billy Preston was a lot more than that. Listen to the audio player above or read the transcript below for more on Preston’s life before and after this time with the Beatles.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: We don't get to learn a ton about Preston; he just suddenly appears there in the video. Could you tell us a little bit about his earliest years?

Rick McNulty: Yeah. His mom realized he was a child prodigy, and she immediately got him lessons and took him on auditions and he quickly moved up the ladder of showbiz.

I guess it helped that he moved from Houston to Los Angeles when he was just a kid, after his parents' divorce. He went on and was playing gospel for some pretty big names in the music business. 

That's right – Mahalia Jackson for one; he accompanied her. Also, James Cleveland, the reverend who produced Aretha's [Franklin] “Amazing Grace” album.

The story I've heard is that he was playing with no less than Ray Charles at a performance in London when George Harrison spotted him on stage. [Harrison] went back, talked with him a little bit and said, "Hey, why don't you come down to Twickenham Studios where we're working on this 'Get Back' project?"

Yeah, George did that. And George recognized Billy because they had met in Hamburg in 1962. Billy was playing with Little Richard then. Billy was quite young then, but by '69, in January, when he was with Ray Charles in London, George was excited to see him. He went back to the studio and told all the fellows, "You'll never believe who this crazy guy on organ was last night with Ray. It was Billy Preston!" So they're all interested and he said, "I'd like him to drop by." And they're all like, "Great, let's have him."

Billy Preston, George Harrison, Gerald Ford and Ravi Shankar in the Oval Office in 1974.
David Hume Kennerly, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Billy Preston, George Harrison, Gerald Ford and Ravi Shankar in the Oval Office in 1974.

I know you've seen all of this documentary. What was your reaction when Billy appeared? 

It's not just my reaction. What's really important is the Beatles' reaction. He comes in and says hello and they said, "Hey, how would you like to join us on this song?" And he [says] "Absolutely." And the moment he starts playing, and it takes him no time at all to just drop in; the rest of the Beatles' faces are visibly lit, just happy as can be, because it's the first time during these sessions where it suddenly is all coming together and sounds great.

There are some moments there, especially with George Harrison, where it seemed like the Beatles might not make it through the “Get Back” sessions. But you're right, it was a tipping point when Billy Preston appeared. 

Yes. And because, really, it took about 10 days at Twickenham [Studios] and George was fed up. It was kind of miserable. It's not that they weren't getting along. It's just that nobody really wanted to be there except Paul. He was the only one trying to hold it together.

So when George left, one of the conditions was, let's abandon Twickenham and let's go to our business office. We have a studio in the basement at Apple and let's record there. So it took a day or two, but when Billy came in, everything fell together. The problem the Beatles were facing is that they were trying to cut all this music live, as opposed to doing their old way of overdubbing. Billy mitigated that fact and just really enriched the Beatles so much that they were thrilled, so much so that when Billy was out of the room, John literally said, "We should make Billy the fifth Beatle."

Billy Preston with the Rolling Stones in 1975.
Tony Morelli, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Billy Preston with the Rolling Stones in 1975.

Something we should point out here is that the Beatles didn't credit any other musicians as appearing on their records, except for one, and that was Billy Preston, when they released the “Get Back” recording, right?

Absolutely true. He was the only one ever listed on the label as: the Beatles, with Billy Preston.

That must have done a lot for Billy Preston's career. In the early 1970s, I can recall hearing Billy Preston's name on the air a lot; he had a lot of hit records.

He did. And, indeed, he used that session with the Beatles as kind of a launching pad. They signed him to their record label, Apple Records, and put out two albums – some terrific stuff on there. He eventually signed with A&M [Records] and had several hits on his own.

What else helped his career was hooking up with the Rolling Stones. Apparently, Mick [Jagger] noticed how awesome Billy could play and asked Billy to join them on tour and also play on some album tracks. He plays this fabulous organ solo on “I Got the Blues,” which is on “Sticky Fingers.” Also, he plays on a song called “Melody,” this deep cut from the Rolling Stones where he duets with Mick. It's beautiful.

I also understand that by the time he was cranking out some really big hits, he was invited to be the first-ever musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.”

That's right, absolutely.

Tell us about more of his standout career moments because he died at a rather young age of 59. 

Indeed, he did. Gosh, he may have had one of the last No. 1 hits that was an instrumental: “Outa-Space.” And then he actually wrote one of the biggest songs of that era. He didn't sing it, at least not the hit version: “You Are So Beautiful” with Joe Cocker. I think Billy might have written it with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and Joe Cocker covered it and had a gigantic hit.

That's amazing. Well, as people are made more aware of Billy Preston through the “Get Back” docuseries, what do you hope they'll discover? 

You'll discover that the mythology behind the sessions is that they weren't really angry with each other. They were just tired and a little bit lazy. And Billy saves the day. I mean, quite honestly, without Billy Preston, I don't know what “Get Back” would have amounted to – probably some half-baked ideas. But no, he came through, saved the day. He's on the rooftop concert and the look on his face is just unmitigated joy at all times. He is so happy to be there, helping out the biggest band in the world. That's Billy Preston.

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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