Billy Preston played a key sideman role with two of classic rock's biggest bands while still amassing an impressive pile of solo hits.

He was a lifesaver for the Beatles, as they struggled through the difficult period that eventually produced their last-released album. He later gave the Rolling Stones a booster shot of soul, both in the studio and out on the road.

Still, Preston's most important association (and influence) remained Ray Charles, who so brilliantly melded the twin African American fountainhead musical styles of R&B and gospel.

Charles had first taken the younger keyboardist on a series of seminal tours around the time of Preston's debut recordings, which included the humbly titled Most Exciting Organ Ever from 1965. A year later, Preston appeared on Charles' Cryin' Time LP, featuring the Top 40 hit "Let’s Go Get Stoned." Something clicked. While on tour, Charles reportedly said: "Billy is the man I would like to carry on the work I started."

In some ways, he did. Preston, who used to call his working band the God Squad, pretty much stuck to the Charles template — issuing records that mixed both the rhythms and spirituals of his youth. But Preston came of age during the nascent era of funk, and that provided an important new element to his emerging sound (and look).

Preston would score a string of smash singles between 1969-74, while establishing a memorable shag-carpet-era persona. There was, of course, his sky-high mushroom-cloud hair, which shivered and swayed as Preston played with an uninhibited, full-gospel abandon. Just below that shone a mile-wide, gap-toothed smile, so magnetically appealing that it threatened sometimes to obscure just how talented Preston was as a musician.

That contagious grin ended up masking a series of personal issues, which Preston battled throughout his too-short life. Thankfully, he left behind a legacy of great music, as heard in this list of Top 10 Billy Preston Songs.

No. 10. "That's the Way God Planned It" (1969)

Preston's guest turn on the Beatles' "Get Back," found later in our list of Top 10 Billy Preston Songs, led directly to his George Harrison-produced debut on Apple Records. This title track emerged from an all-star session that also featured Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Ginger Baker, and a situation like that might have obscured anyone else but Preston. Instead, his infectiously joyful delivery helped send "That's the Way God Planned It" to No. 11 on the U.K. charts. Preston was joined by Harrison and Clapton again for a rendition of this tune at the Concert for Bangladesh, providing a highlight for the 1972 concert film.

No. 9. "Saint of Me" (with the Rolling Stones, 1997)

Preston made a fitting return as a sideman and arranger for this Bridges to Babylon-era single. Not only had he enjoyed a lengthy tenure with the Rolling Stones, but the song's theme also echoed Preston's own struggles for redemption. His presence was part of a markedly different period of Stones session work. Back during their years as tax exiles, the band was often forced to set up in remote locales. Now, a variety of outsiders – conventional figures like Preston and Waddy Wachtel but also surprises like the Dust Brothers of Beck fame – could stop by. Meshell Ndegeocello also guests on "Saint of Me," locking in tight with Charlie Watts.

No. 8. "I Wrote a Simple Song" (1971)

By the time this title track arrived, Preston was beginning to take a more central role in a career that had more recently been defined by his relationship with the Beatles. George Harrison added dobro to "I Wrote a Simple Song," and played guitar on most of the other album tracks. But Preston self-produced for the first time, as he shifted from Apple Records to A&M. The gospel-inflected greatness of "I Wrote a Simple Song" was soon forgotten, however, when radio programmers fell in love with the super-funky b-side "Outa-Space," found later on our list of Top 10 Billy Preston Songs. Ironically, he'd argued for "Outa-Space" as the a-side in the first place.

No. 7. "Melody" (with the Rolling Stones, 1976)

Preston was so prominently featured on "Melody" that the liner notes for Black and Blue said the song was "inspired by" him. "It sort of came out of something that Billy and I were messing around with, just piano and voice," Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1976. "It's got an incredible amount of overdub now, but down in the nitty gritty, it's really just a rhythm section and voice." But did Billy Preston actually deserve a cut of the publishing? Former Stones bassist Bill Wyman seemed to think so: He gave Preston songwriting credit while covering "Melody" with his solo band the Rhythm Kings.

No. 6. "Outa-Space" (1971)

"Outa-Space," with its grease-fire groove and groundbreaking keyboard approach, was part of a string of celestially themed Preston songs that included "Space Race," "The Looner Tune," "Sock It Rocket" and "Go Where No One's Gone Before." But this No. 2-charting Grammy winner remains the best of them. Preston crafted a way-out new sound by running the clavinet through a wah-wah pedal, while calling out changes to his backing band during an improvised session. Disc jockeys then discovered "Outa-Space" on a b-side, allowing Preston to create a direct line to much of what came later as synthesizers infiltrated R&B, to say nothing of a growing sub-genre of trippy funk.

No. 5. "Get Back" (with the Beatles, 1969)

Though he rose to solo fame after signing with the Beatles' Apple Records, their long association actually began with sideman sessions. They'd met during a 1962 tour when Preston was backing Little Richard. Harrison reintroduced him after seeing Preston on stage with Ray Charles years later during a brief break with the Beatles. The hope was that Preston's mellow nature would help smooth things over. It did. The fruits of their labor began with this chart-topping advance single for the long-delayed Let It Be project.

No. 4. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" (with the Rolling Stones, 1973)

Preston hooked his clavinet up to a wah-wah again to help create a chugging rhythm for this Top 20 U.S. hit, leading Rolling Stone to dub it "urban R&B." Not quite, but that certainly sums up the influence Preston brought to the Stones' sound. Beyond the Hohner clavinet, Billy Preston also added a softer accompaniment on an RMI Electra piano to the verses. He began touring with the Rolling Stones this same year, and eventually earned an on-stage spotlight moment that included a live take on "Outa-Space."

No. 3. "Nothing From Nothing" (1974)

"Nothing From Nothing" was certainly something else. Preston started it backstage one night in Atlanta, having been sparked by an old saying. His instrumental accompaniment was what took the track to the next level. "The saloon piano gave it character," Preston later said, "and I had a feeling it would be a hit because it was a sing-a-long kind of thing." He was right. "Nothing From Nothing" became his second chart-topping song – after 1973's "Will It Go Round in Circle," found later in our list of Top 10 Billy Preston Songs. He also performed "Nothing From Nothing" as part of the first-ever musical performance on Saturday Night Live.

No. 2. "Don't Let Me Down" (with the Beatles, 1969)

Preston was one of just two non-members (along with Tony Sheridan) to earn performing credit on a Beatles record, and "Don't Let Me Down" – released as the b-side to "Get Back" – shows why. He brings a note-perfect melancholic interplay to bear against the raw emotion of John Lennon's lyric. He then became a fixture. Preston was there for the group's final rooftop concert then later performed, though this time uncredited, on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Something." Preston also appeared on solo projects by Harrison, Lennon and Ringo Starr, and had minor hits with his own versions of "Get Back" and "My Sweet Lord."

No. 1. "Will It Go Round in Circles" (1973)

"Will It Go Round in Circles" was borne out of an off-handed comment – "I got a song that ain't got no melody" – made to songwriting partner Bruce Fisher. They got to work, and eventually Preston had both – along with his first-ever solo No. 1 song. It emerged out of sessions that featured guitar and bass work by the Brothers Johnson, who later hit with "I'll Be Good To You" and "Strawberry Letter 23." As "Will It Go Round in Circles" raced to a million in sales, Fisher was finally emboldened to quit his day job in the NBC mailroom. Smart move. He went on to collaborate on two more Top 5 songs with Preston, "Nothing From Nothing" and "You Are So Beautiful," the latter of which was taken up the charts by Joe Cocker.

 

 

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