One of the biggest revelations that came with the release of the recent multi-part documentary series The Beatles: Get Back was how essential American keyboardist Billy Preston was to the success of the project. Preston’s association with the Let It Be album was always strong, but the series revealed that Preston likely saved the recording, and the band, from collapse.
While the Beatles attempted to work out new song ideas at Twickenham Studios in the early part of January 1969, it’s clear that the setting is hampering the band’s creativity. Although the film shows that large scale brawls and shouting matches were never part of the equation, a palpable sense of tensions, awkwardness, and discontent floats throughout the process. When George Harrison infamously leaves the group during the rehearsals, it’s more out of resignation than anger.
The commonly held idea was that morale improved once things moved to the band’s Apple headquarters on Saville Row, but the film contradicts this notion. For one, the newly built recording studio from ‘Magic Alex’ Mardas is woefully understocked with quality equipment, and the setting remains relatively cold and unfamiliar. The band were determined not to return to the confines of EMI Studios, but it took several days to acclimate to the new surroundings. On top of this, tensions were still in the air as arrangements were slowly coming together. Each song found the members shuffling between instruments, but it always felt as if there was a piece missing.
That’s when Preston arrives, accompanying Lulu on a forthcoming TV special. Preston originally drops in to say hi, having become friendly with the band during their shared time in Hamburg in the early ’60s. With a fair amount of downtime between commitments, Preston becomes the perfect solution, hoping in on Fender Rhodes Electric Piano and occasionally performing organ and piano parts for songs. The change can be heard immediately in songs like ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, which struggled to find their form during previous sessions.
The difference can be seen in the band’s demeanour as well. Preston’s expert musicianship makes everyone kick up their own playing by a few notches, while his easygoing attitude eliminates some of the egos that were flaring up. John Lennon was so impressed that at one point he suggests bringing Preston into the band full time. Paul McCartney is understandably wary, as The Beatles already have difficulty accommodating four members, but the band are impressed enough to continue featuring Preston prominently in compositions.
Preston’s keyboard work became the glue that held the Get Back sessions together, and when the group trotted up to the Apple roof for their finale live performance at the end of the month, Preston had a prominent spot among the Fab Four. He even gets a solo on ‘Get Back’, a rare feature that has only been allowed for a few lucky souls like Eric Clapton on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Clapton went uncredited, but The Beatles understood how important Preston was. For the first and last time, Billy Preston was credited along with The Beatles on the ‘Get Back’ single, solidifying his place as one of the many ‘Fifth Beatles’.
Check out Preston’s isolated keyboard work on ‘Get Back’ down below.