Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Billy Preston dies at 59

Electrifying keyboard player Billy Preston, who was dubbed the "fifth Beatle" for his work on some of the band's most storied projects, died Tuesday at age 59. Preston, who had such hits as Will It Go Round in Circles, Outa-Space and Nothing from Nothing in the '70s, was considered one of the world's greatest organists for the way he'd make his Hammond B-3 sing whether he was playing rock, soul, blues or gospel.

AUDIO: Listen to some of his music

Preston had battled chronic kidney failure and had been in a coma since November. He had received a kidney transplant in 2002. He was taken to a Scottsdale, Ariz., hospital Saturday, after his condition deteriorated, according to his manager, Joyce Moore.

The musician — instantly recognizable with his huge Afro and gap-toothed smile — toured with Ray Charles and Little Richard in the early 1960s before hooking up with the Beatles, who had opened for Little Richard. He backed them on the albums Let It Be, Abbey Road and the White Album. He also appeared in films with the band and continued playing and touring with individual members after the band broke up.

The Houston-born Preston also collaborated with the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Sam Cooke, Quincy Jones, Sammy Davis Jr., the Jackson 5, Barbra Streisand and others. He was a child prodigy who played with gospel greats Mahalia Jackson and the Rev. James Cleveland when he was 10. Two years later, he played blues great W.C. Handy as a child in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues. In addition to touring and recording in the '60s, he was a regular on the pioneering live TV rock show Shindig. His early albums included The Most Exciting Organ Ever and Wildest Organ in Town.

Preston's solo breakthrough came in 1972 with the I Wrote a Simple Song album, which included the Grammy-winning Outa-Space. Later that year he put out Music Is My Life, featuring his signature, Will It Go Round in Circles. He also won another Grammy in 1973 for his participation in the George Harrison-led Concert for Bangla Desh album.

Starting in 1974, he and his band the God Squad spent three years opening for the Rolling Stones. Members of the God Squad would later form Rufus and the Brothers Johnson. He played on such Stones albums as Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and Bridges to Babylon.

He also thrived as a songwriter, penning Joe Cocker's You Are So Beautiful and scoring a huge hit with his duet with Syreeta,
With You I'm Born Again. He wrote theme songs for such films as In the Heat of the Night and Slaughter.

By Steve Jones, USA TODAY

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