As the musical arrangements became more complex during a nearly 10-year span of recording as a group, many musicians can lay claim to having performed on a Beatles' record. Only one, however, received equal billing on the label.
Billy Preston will renew his acquaintances with the Beatles and their music when he appears at the Fest for Beatles Fans 2005-N.Y. Metro this weekend at the N.J. Crowne Plaza Meadowlands Hotel in Secaucus, N.J.
Having already met John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best in the early 1960s, it was a renewal of that friendship that led to the keyboard wizard's appearances on both the vinyl and celluloid versions of Let It Be toward the end of that decade.
Preston's Beatles experience will perhaps become full circle with the forthcoming release of his latest project, Billy Preston's Beatles Salute, several tracks of which are scheduled to debut at this weekend's festival.
"The full album isn't out yet, but I have the four-song EP," Preston said during a telephone interview from Arizona.
The keyboardist, who was born in Houston in 1946, has had a long and interesting career that has included studio recordings, television, movies and composing.
He was only 12 when he played composer W.C. Handy as a child in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues. By the time he was a teenager, he was an established session musician and was working with some of the biggest names in the music industry..
It was while he was touring with Little Richard that Preston first encountered the Beatles. Most accounts say this meeting occurred in 1962 at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, but the artist remembers things slightly differently.
"The first time I actually saw them was at a show in Liverpool (England)," Preston recalled. "I was working with Little Richard at the time, and I got a chance to meet the Beatles.
"I just thought that their harmonies were so unique, and their personalities were exciting. And then when we went to Hamburg, I went to see (the Beatles at the Star Club)."
While the Beatles were enjoying their climb to unprecedented fame, Preston's star was also rising. He recorded solo albums, had a stint with the house band in the TV series Shindig and continued to tour with such artists as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.
The Beatles were working on what were originally called the Get Back sessions in 1968 when Harrison found out that the Ray Charles entourage was in England, so he contacted his old friend.
"That was a chance meeting," Preston said of the unexpected phone call. "George called, and he left word for me to stop by to see the guys."
(Best had been replaced by drummer Ringo Starr in late 1962.)
"I just wanted to say hello, but when I got (to the studio), they were recording and filming," Preston continued, "and they said, 'Join in.' "
And how would any musician react if asked to sit in with the Beatles?
"Well, you join in," Preston chuckled. "You go for it."
Although the project was initially scrapped, a single was released from those sessions. Get Back, along with the "B" side Don't Let Me Down, were both credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston."
When revived and released a year later, the film Let It Be graphically depicted the problems that were affecting the band during the recording of the album of the same name.
Harrison later said that he thought bringing in Preston would help ease some of the tension in the studio, similar to the way guitarist Eric Clapton had done previously when the band recorded the two-disc The Beatles, commonly known as "The White Album."
It was during the Let It Be sessions that Preston witnessed the sad meltdown of the Beatles as a recording band.
"I didn't see it at first, but after a while, I could see (the tension)," the keyboardist said. "I didn't really say anything about it. I was just there. After a while, I finally took it up with George, and we spoke about it."
And he apparently felt that all he could offer was encouragement.
"I just said that I hoped that they would be able to get it together," Preston said.
Those sessions ended with the famous rooftop concert above Apple Corp. headquarters on Saville Row in London's West End. The Beatles did return to the studio once more to make their swan song LP, Abbey Road. They also signed their friend to their Apple record label.
Preston's association with the Fab Four continued with the release of his own albums, including That's the Way God Planned It, which was co-produced by Harrison, and with the various solo albums of Harrison, Starr and Lennon. He also recorded with Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Aretha Franklin, Sly & the Family Stone and many others.
On stages, Preston appeared as part of the all-star group in The Concert for Bangladesh and in Harrison's 1974 North American tour. He's also toured with Starr, the Rolling Stones, Clapton and B.B. King.
His career as a solo artist took off with the Grammy Award-winning Outta Space (1972) and a pair of No. 1 hits, Will It Go 'Round In Circles (1973) and Nothing From Nothing (1974).
As a songwriter, Preston's You Are So Beautiful was a Top-10 hit for Cocker in 1975, and his duet with Syreeta Wright, With You I'm Born Again, was an international hit in 1980.
He also wrote songs for several hit movies, including Never Gonna Say Goodbye and Fast Break, and he co-wrote with Quincy Jones the score for the Sidney Poitier film They Call Me Mr. Tibbs.
One of his more notable stage appearances was at the memorable Concert for George at London's Royal Albert Hall on Nov. 29, 2002.
"Eric Clapton did a great job putting that concert together," said Preston of the all-star tribute staged on the one-year anniversary of the death of Harrison. "Everyone was extraordinary, and of course, George's songs were great. It was just a wonderful experience."
Visit Billy Preston's Web site.
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