It’s advantageous to get an early start on your chosen career, but Billy Preston took the concept to extremes. By age ten he was playing keyboards with gospel diva Mahalia Jackson, and two years later, in 1958, he was featured in Hollywood’s film bio of W. C. Handy, St. Louis Blues, as young Handy himself. Preston was a prodigy on organ and piano, recording during the early ’60s for Vee-Jay and touring with Little Richard. He was a loose-limbed regular on the mid-’60s ABC TV series Shindig, proving his talent as both vocalist and pianist, and he built an enviable reputation as a session musician, even backing the Beatles on their Let It Be album.
Billy was of course playing with the Beatles in their last live performance, the rooftop concert that closed the film “Let It Be.” And that’s Billy’s electronic piano in the solo on the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” (also from the rooftop concert), one of Lennon’s most heartfelt compositions. Today’s news brings word that Preston died yesterday in Arizona at age 59 of drug-related kidney failure. The Los Angeles Times obituary is excellent: “Billy Preston, 59, dazzling, troubled keyboardist known as the ‘fifth Beatle.'”
Coincidentally, today’s New York Sun carries a fascinating note on the republication of Notes of a Pianist by nineteenth-century keyboard prodigy Louis Gottschalk. Notes is Gottschalk’s journal of the years 1857-68, when he was engaged in an early version of the never-ending tour (“A few more weeks in this way and I would have become an idiot! Eighteen hours a day on the railroad”). Adam Kirsch calls Gottschalk a “one-man Grateful Dead.” It seems like an appropriate companion piece to the obituary for “the fifth Beatle.”