Few musicians had the kind of career that Billy Preston did. The Houston-born keyboardist was equally at home doing high-profile session and back-up work as well as writing and recording some killer hits of his own. The announcement that Preston (who died in 2006) would receive the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's Award for Musical Excellence in 2021 was a long-overdue recognition of what a long, tall shadow he cast over rock and soul in the '60s and '70s.
Here's a few of our favorite songs that bear his distinctive stamp.
The Beatles with Billy Preston, "Get Back" (1969): Preston had already backed up legends like Little Richard and Sam Cooke before his fateful stint on keyboards with The Beatles during their final recording sessions. But on "Get Back," Billy really earned his place in history. While others had recorded alongside the Fab Four (like Eric Clapton's fiery guitar on the band's self-titled "white" album in 1968), the single label of "Get Back" bore the only featuring credit on a Beatles release - high praise indeed for his skills.
"My Sweet Lord" (1971): While The Beatles weren't long for the world in the year after "Get Back," their Apple Records label went on a tear signing talent that each of the band members respected. Preston was one of those acts along hitmakers like Badfinger and a then-unknown James Taylor; on Encouraging Words, his second and final album for the label, he debuted a tune penned by the band's former guitarist George Harrison, who was about to start his own solo career in earnest. While Billy's "My Sweet Lord" is predictably unlike George's singing-guitar take, his evocative piano and organ and gospel-inspired delivery (complete with a backing choir offering "Hallelujah"s and "Hare Krishna"s) is a keeper all its own.
"Will It Go Round in Circles" (1973): Upon signing to A&M Records, Preston began to finally get recognized by the record-buying public for his funk 'n' soul sensations. "Will It Go Round in Circles," accompanied by an infectious horn groove and the guitar-bass supremacy of The Brothers Johnson, became Preston's first song of his own to top the Billboard Hot 100.
"Nothing from Nothing" (1974): Preston's next No. 1 was the upbeat "Nothing from Nothing," built around a jaunty set of piano riffs and a rollicking horn section. Thanks to its use in film and TV, it's probably Preston's signature song - and the small screen helped the song and him make more pop history, when it became the first song ever performed on NBC's Saturday Night Live.
"You Are So Beautiful" (1974): the side-one closer to The Kids & Me, the album that spun off "Nothing from Nothing," was a simple romantic ballad gussied up with some dramatic production, including swelling strings and some Stevie Wonder-esque keyboards. (Preston later found out that soul singer Sam Moore would perform it to woo ladies in his audience, and later told the singer he was misusing a tune Billy had co-written for his mother.) While it was never a single, British blue-eyed soul interpreter Joe Cocker slowed down the tempo and sang it in his own stormy style that same year, earning a No. 5 pop hit in America.
Billy Preston & Syreeta, "With You I'm Born Again" (1979): Preston was initially reluctant when Motown called him to perform a song co-written by film composer David Shire (The Conversation, Saturday Night Fever) for the Gabe Kaplan comedy Fast Break. He was less sure of singing a duet - nothing against Syreeta Wright, Stevie Wonder's ex-wife, but he wasn't interested until label executive Suzanne de Passe convinced him to do it. How right that conviction was: the song soared to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and No. 2 in the U.K. - Preston's only Top 10 other than "Get Back"), and the pair later cut an entire record together, which would become Preston's last as a frontman before spending the rest of his career as a sideman and session player.