PHOENIX – Billy Preston, the exuberant keyboardist who landed dream gigs with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and enjoyed his own hit singles including “Outta Space” and “Nothing From Nothing,” died Tuesday at 59.
His longtime manager, Joyce Moore, said a heart infection in November left him in a coma, and he never regained consciousness; he was taken to a Scottsdale hospital Saturday after his condition deteriorated.
Preston had battled chronic kidney failure and received a kidney transplant in 2002. But the kidney failed and he was on dialysis ever since.
Known for his big gap-toothed smile and towering Afro, Preston was a teen prodigy on the piano and organ, and lent his gospel-tinged touch to classics such as the Beatles’ “Get Back” and the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”
He broke out as a solo artist in the 1970s, winning a best instrumental Grammy in 1973 for “Outta Space,” and scoring other hits with “Will It Go ‘Round In Circles,” “Nothing From Nothing” and “With You I’m Born Again,” a duet with Syreeta Wright that became a favorite at weddings. He also wrote Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful.”
Other career highlights included being a musical guest, in 1975, on the debut of “Saturday Night Live”; having a song named after him, by Miles Davis; and appearing last year on “American Idol.” Among his film credits: “Blues Brothers 2000” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
His partnership with the Beatles began in early 1969 when friend George Harrison recruited him to play on “Let It Be,” a back-to-basics film and record project that nearly broke down because of bickering among band members. Harrison himself quit at one point, walking out on camera after arguing with Paul McCartney.
Preston not only inspired the Beatles to get along – Harrison likened his effect to a feuding family staying on its best behavior in front of a guest – but contributed a light, bluesy solo to “Get Back,” performing the song with the band on its legendary “rooftop” concert, the last time the Beatles played live. He was one of many sometimes labeled “The Fifth Beatle,” a title he did not discourage.
Preston also toured and recorded extensively with the Rolling Stones, playing on such classic albums as “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street.” In the mid-‘70s, he parted from the Stones, reportedly unhappy over not getting proper credit for “Melody” and other songs, but reunited with the band in 1997 on its “Bridges to Babylon” record.