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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2006/06/22
by Mike Gruenberg

Billy Preston

In My Life
Two weeks ago, my family and I went on vacation to the Cayman Islands. My concept of a perfect vacation is to find a shady spot at the beach or pool, do as little sightseeing as possible, eat well and bring along a great book. On this particular vacation, I accomplished all the prerequisites by making a reservation at a wonderful resort, packing strong enough sun screens and bringing along a brilliant book. It was written by Bob Spitz entitled The Beatles, The Biography. Spitz has written a glorious and thorough account of the lads from their childhood through the formation of the band the eventual breakup of the group. I was impressed with the level of detail present in the book. Its a must read for not only Beatle fans, but also a great chronicle of the music scene from the 60s.
By the time my glorious week in the shade was over in the Cayman Islands, I had gotten to the part of the book where Spitz speaks about Billy Preston. Apparently, the Beatles first became friendly with Billy when he worked in Hamburg during the same time period they were in that city. Billy was a musician with the band that played behind Little Richard. Interestingly, Billy is first mentioned by Spitz near the second half of the book when he describes the Beatles in LA playing the Hollywood Bowl. After the engagement, a party in their honor was hosted by Peggy Lipton of Mod Squad fame and one of the party attendees was Billy. According to Spitz, they were happy to reunite with Billy since they had not seen him since the early 60s in Hamburg. I thought it somewhat odd that Spitz, who painstakingly described the lives of the Beatles in Hamburg in great detail earlier on the book, would wait until so much later to even mention Billys name.
No other musician or music personality more exemplified the term, The Fifth Beatle than Billy. His profound effect on the band is indisputable. He can be heard on Get Back and on the Let It Be album. Even after the Beatles ceased to exist, he worked extensively with George Harrison most specifically on All Things Must Pass and at the landmark Bangladesh concert at Madison Square Garden. In 1975, he played keyboards for the Rolling Stones on their world-wide tour that year. That same year, he wrote You Are So Beautiful which earned Joe Cocker a gold record and became the biggest hit of Joes career. In Billys lifetime, he played with all the greats and had his own share of solo success as well. In 1989, he toured with Ringo Starr on one Ringos All-Star Band tours. In 2000, he toured with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and also appeared in the Blues Brothers 2000 movie.

It was therefore with considerable sadness that I read about the passing of Billy who had been in a coma since last November in a hospital in Arizona suffering from kidney failure brought on by what was described as malignant hypertension.
In our world-wide society, we are consumed with knowing everything there is to know about our celebrities. I am amazed at how much money Brad and Angelina received so we can see pictures of their baby although I could care less. Similarly, while saddened to know of the pending divorce of the McCartneys, I really am not interested in how much of a payment his wife will receive when the divorce is finalized. Yet tabloids and television talking head hosts shout out every excruciating detail concerning the lives of our celebrity heroes. It was therefore with surprise while reading his obituary that I learned of Billys battles with drugs which probably helped cause his eventual demise. I really didnt have to know that fact.
The death of a friend, celebrity or relative usually causes those left behind to think about the life and accomplishments of the person who is no longer with us. For Billy, I will always remember his enormous Afro, his incredible keyboard skills and marvel at the Whos Who list of music stars he worked with. I will choose to remember that You Are So Beautiful is a song that is special to me and my daughter. I am pleased to say that in my music collection, I have a number of Billys solo albums and have many more albums where he contributed his musical skills. He brought a lot of good music into this world and I am thankful for that. Billy can now join George and John if there is such a place where music people go after they have left this earth.

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