In 1991, keyboardist Billy Preston was arrested for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Mexican boy. According to the boy, whose name is unknown to the public, Preston brought him back to his home in Malibu and exposed the minor to pornographic materials. Crack cocaine was reportedly offered to him as well.
Reporting on the case, the Los Angeles Times stated that the 45-year-old was “arrested for investigation of sexual battery, showing pornographic material to a minor, possessing cocaine and being under the influence of a controlled substance”. Submitting to a drug test, Preston pled guilty to cocaine and was charged for the assault. More surprisingly, the charges of child molestation and exhibiting pornographic material to a minor were dropped.
Although his sexual orientation was known to close friends such as Keith Richards, Preston – best known for his 1974 standard ‘You Are So Beautiful’, later covered by Joe Cocker – had not come out publicly as a gay man. Indeed, Richards confirmed his sexual orientation in his 2010 memoir, Life, which was published after Preston’s death.
In 2010, Preston’s manager Joyce Moore revealed some uncomfortable secrets that offered a different perspective about the songwriter. While travelling with a touring production of Amos ‘n’ Andy – a popular musical centred around an all-black cast – Preston claimed he was molested by the company pianist. Preston was nine-years-old at the time. When he finally found the courage to tell his mother what happened, she refused to believe him, and the abuse continued. There are suggestions that a pastor also assaulted Preston, but those claims have not been verified.
Like Freddie Mercury, Preston was romantically involved with a woman he loved very dearly. Her name was Kathy Silva, and the pair were set to marry before Preston caught Silva and musician Sly Stone in flagrante delicto. What made matters worse was Preston’s involvement on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. “[Getting high] was the only way he could do it,” Moore said. “And when his sexual urges came down on him, he couldn’t bring himself to ever touch a woman again.”
“The demons from childhood abuse never left him,” agreed Lettie Preston, the keyboardist’s half-sister. More horrifyingly, she added: “And he suffered nightmares and tears from the memories. Drugs helped him to escape.”
Whatever demons were surfacing within the keyboardist ultimately does not excuse his behaviour. On January 18th, 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported that Preston assaulted a second victim. The man was older than the Mexican boy – he was 38 – but it demonstrated a pattern in the keyboard player’s life. According to the report, the judge increased Preston’s bail from $10,000 to $25,000. In a motion that was eerily similar to the assault from 1991, Preston picked up the man under supposedly altruistic pretences, before attempting to engage in sexual intercourse, after exposing him to pornographic material.
Invariably, the songwriting keyboardist eventually plead no contest to drug and sexual assault charges and he was sentenced to nine months in a drug rehab facility and three months on house arrest. His solo career never recovered, but Preston’s fortunes picked up dramatically when he toured with Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. Preston died in 2006, at the age of 59.
Preston was a keyboard player of high distinction. John Lennon was in favour of inviting Preston into The Beatles sphere, only for Paul McCartney to put the kybosh on that particular avenue. Nevertheless, Preston played hammond with The Beatles on ‘Let It Be’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. He later toured with George Harrison, tackling many of the more intricate harmonies as the guitar player struggled to keep his vocal cords intact. He was deeply spiritual, even religious, which might account for his life’s struggle with his sexual orientation.
When asked to compare working with Harrison to The Rolling Stones, the keyboardist replied: “I like a livelier show and the Stones are much livelier than George. Although I enjoyed playing on the Harrison tour, this one is more fun, faster-paced and more of a rock and roll thing. The Stones are a lot more R&B-oriented. It feels like I’ve been playing with them for years. We’re a family. All the guys are hanging out together and definitely getting off on each other. Keith is really enjoying playing with Ronnie. This time around people are a lot happier. The music isn’t as laid-back and Keith and Ronnie are really clicking. The band is doing a lot of things they’ve never done in America. It’s been a pretty good tour so far, not nearly as exhausting as the last few I’ve done.”
Music, like drugs, proved a distraction for Preston, and when he put his heart and soul into the organ, he tended to deliver beautiful solos. Behind those solos stood a man who was deeply troubled and capable of abhorrent acts and, more pertinently, one who was prone to inflicting trouble on those around him.