Billy Preston is a name that all lover of rock music should be familiar with. A bonafide great on the keys, Preston also possessed the kind of voice that could make butter melt in your refrigerator and still have you getting goosebumps. Preston is also the only man, aside from Tony Sheridan’s brief dalliance with the band, to ever be given equal billing on their songs. For a release of some serious magnitude, the Fab Four agreed that they needed to pay tribute to Preston and released the song as ‘The Beatles with Billy Preston’.
It may seem somewhat inconsequential, but it was a seismic moment for the band and hinted that the previously rock-solid Fab Four were now beginning to tire of one another. The two songs in question, ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, have gone down as two of the group’s finest, and Preston had a lot to do with it. In truth, when Preston arrived to perform with The Beatles in 1969, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were already beginning to find their own paths.
Born in Houston, Preston is one of only two artists, alongside Tony Sheridan, to ever be given top billing on a Beatles record. He had first crossed paths with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr in 1962 during their Hamburg days while working with Little Richard. The group had been inspired by the keyboardist incredible groove and had always thought of him fondly.
So while Harrison was taking a break from the group, clearing his head and writing what would be some of his finer solo songs, he made sure to venture down to a venue in London to catch Preston performing with the one and only Ray Charles. The performance was a flagrant reminder of Preston’s talent, and it jolted an idea for the Quiet Beatle. He decided to send Preston a private message and ask him to join The Beatles in the studio. It was a tactic that Harrison had used before, once inviting Eric Clapton into the Fab Four fold during their White Album sessions to ease tensions within the workspace.
“It’s interesting to see how nicely people behave when you bring a guest in, because they don’t want everybody to know they’re so bitchy,” Harrison remarked in Anthology. “Suddenly everybody’s on their best behaviour.”
“He got on the electric piano, and straight away there was 100 per cent improvement in the vibe in the room,” wrote the guitarist. It was clear that the atmosphere had changed for the better. “Having this fifth person was just enough to cut the ice that we’d created among ourselves. Billy didn’t know all the politics and the games that had been going on, so in his innocence he got stuck in and gave an extra little kick to the band. Everybody was happier to have somebody else playing and it made what we were doing more enjoyable. We all played better, and it was a great session.”
During those sessions came two of the band’s most cherished songs, ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. Before that session, following on from his appearance at the famous rooftop concert, Preston had been originally tipped to become a full-time member of The Beatles, something heavily pursued by Lennon, but he was met with a McCartney shaped roadblock, who, with his prior knowledge of the band’s growing tensions and potential to implode, suggested it would be a waste of everybody’s time. Preston did come back to perform on Abbey Road, with additions on ‘I Wasnt You (She’s So Heavy)’ and ‘Something’, but his crowning moment came with the release from ‘The Beatles with Billy Preston’. While the songs brought a bounce and a rhythm to the group’s canon, they also came with the genuine sentiment that The Beatles would not be around for long.
Whether it was Harrison’s insistence on bringing in a new member of the band to “lubricate friction” or indeed Lennon’s clear desire to expand The Beatles’ musical vocabulary meeting McCartney’s earnest and pragmatic refusal — it’s clear that even by suggesting a new man be a part of the band, the cracks had started to become irreparable.
The band had used similarly qualified session musicians before, so why would they introduce such a high profile name? The answer is likely something close to when, as children, we all try and keep our friends at our house for longer than necessary to avoid a stern word from our increasingly angry parents. They needed him to break the tension and to keep the band on “best manners”.
By releasing the songs as ‘The Beatles with Billy Preston’ the band were subconsciously telling the world that the band as we had known them was over. Of course, within the year, the world was pretty clear on this fact anyway. But for the eagle-eyed fans around the world, this admittance of allowing a new member to infiltrate their previously airtight ranks was a sign that the cracks had turned to chasms and The Beatles were about to fall apart.