Billy Preston, a trusted sideman with the Beatles and Rolling Stones who also charted with several solo hits, earned the Musical Excellence Award tonight during the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.
Preston’s award was announced by Ringo Starr, who was part of two groups with Billy Preston – the Beatles, of course, and also his own All-Starr Band.
“I like to say that Billy never put his hands in the wrong place,” Starr said via a pre-recorded message. “He was an amazing singer, songwriter and human being.”
Preston joins fellow honorees Todd Rundgren, Carole King, the Go-Go’s, Foo Fighters and Tina Turner as part of the Rock Hall’s 36th induction class.
He seemed almost preordained for this kind of honor, joining Little Richard‘s touring band as a teenager in 1962 and appearing on Sam Cooke’s Night Beat album a year later. Cooke signed Preston to a record deal, and he released the organ-fueled 16 Yr. Old Soul at an age when most kids are still thinking about first cars and prom.
Along the way, he met the young Beatles – and ended up becoming a lifesaver a few years later as they struggled through the difficult period that eventually produced their last-released album. He subsequently gave the Stones a booster shot of soul, both in the studio and out on the road.
“He was a Beatle – and a Rolling Stone,” Starr marveled. “He was like a part of the band and that’s why he played on a couple of tracks because he was Billy and he gave us a different feeling,” he added, noting that “the last time the Beatles played live, Billy was with us up on the roof.”
Still, Preston’s most important influence and association remained Ray Charles, who so brilliantly melded the twin African-American fountainhead musical styles of R&B and gospel. Charles had first taken the younger keyboardist on a series of seminal tours around the time of Preston’s debut recordings, which included the perfectly titled Most Exciting Organ Ever from 1965.
A year later, Preston appeared on Charles’ Cryin’ Time LP, featuring the Top 40 hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” Something clicked. While on tour, Charles reportedly said: “Billy is the man I would like to carry on the work I started.” In some ways, he did.
Preston, who used to call his working band the God Squad, pretty much stuck to the Charles template — issuing records that mixed both the rhythms and spirituals of his youth. But Preston came of age during the nascent era of funk, and that provided an important new element to his emerging sound – and his look.
He’d score a string of smash singles between 1969-74, while establishing a memorable shag carpet-era persona. There was his sky-high mushroom-cloud hair, which shivered and swayed as he played with an uninhibited, full-gospel abandon.
Just below that shone a mile-wide, gap-toothed smile, so magnetically appealing that it threatened sometimes to obscure just how talented Preston was as a musician. That contagious sense of joy ultimately masked a series of personal issues, which Preston battled throughout his too-short life.
The 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will air on Nov. 20 on HBO alongside a radio simulcast on SiriusXM Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Radio.