By the time George Harrison temporarily quit The Beatles during the Get Back sessions, tensions between the four band members had reached fever pitch. To put it simply, the band were at each other’s throats. When Harrison did finally return, he came with some backup.
Billy Preston is arguably one of the finest session keyboardists the sixties ever saw. His work with The Beatles is renowned but he also worked with some of the finest artists of the decade including the likes of Sam Cooke, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and Ray Charles. It was a performance with the latter is where Harrison would rekindle their friendship and, for a time at least, induct him as the fifth member of The Beatles.
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 John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in 1962 during their Hamburg days while he was 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.
Harrison 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. While that move would see the creation of one of The Beatles’ best guitar solos, Preston was drafted in for another reason.
“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 remark 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.”
Alongside Preston’s incredible talent and his enthusiasm, the whole band were soon contemplating making Preston a full-time member of the group. John Lennon certainly thought it was a smart idea and just compound the point, the keyboardist’s contribution to one of the standout tracks of Let It Be the powerhouse rocker, ‘Get Back’.
Producer and longtime collaborator George Martin also saw the value in Preston’s presence saying he “helped lubricate the friction”. But not everybody was convinced of his effect on the band, “I don’t think Billy Preston made us behave a bit better,” said Ringo of Preston’s introduction. For the drummer, he felt it was the atmosphere of making such a brilliant song that lifted everybody, “As always, when you’re working on something good — the bullshit went out of the window and we got back to doing what we did really well.”
Paul McCartney has always shared his love of Preston’s part on ‘Get Back’ and also agreed that having him in the room put everybody on “best manners” but he was wary of inviting another person into the band. He described the idea as “a little bit puzzling”, likely because The Beatles were so close to breaking up. Preston would only end up being a temporary solution to huge rifts between the group.
While he may not have joined The Beatles officially, it’s fair to say that he was a crucial component of The Beatles for a good chunk of their final career. As well as ‘Get Back’, a song shared as “The Beatles with Billy Preston,” the keyboardist also contributed to ‘Dig A Pony’, ‘Dig It’ and four more songs which featured on the Let It Be LP.
Perhaps his crowning moment though, and proof of just how vital he was to not only the band’s cohesiveness but their enthusiastic spirit and unequivocal sound during their final moments as a group, was his performance on the roof of Apple Records. The set would be later referred to by the musician as his “favourite moment”.
Without the late, great Billy Preston, the chances are that we would never have had Let It Be and for that alone, his place in history is safe.