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.
White Horse Pictures and Homegrown Pictures have teamed on an untitled documentary feature about the legendary musician and genius keyboardist Billy Preston. He was called the Fifth Beatle, because he the only non-member ever to be credited on a Beatles recording. He had plenty of his own hits and co-wrote the song Joe Cocker made famous, You Are So Beautiful. Fifteen years after his death in 2006, Billy Preston was inducted this past weekend into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Paris Barclay, the multi-Emmy-winning director, producer, and writer (In Treatment, Glee, Sons of Anarchy) will direct. Cheo Hodari Coker (Creed II, Luke Cage, Ray Donovan) is writing the film alongside Barclay.
The film is produced by Homegrown’s Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow, Dear White People, 2020 Oscars), White Horse’s Jeanne Elfant Festa, (Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart) and Nigel Sinclair (Pavarotti, George Harrison: Living in the Material World). The exec producers are Barclay, Daniel Shaw, G. Marq Roswell, Olivia Harrison, Jonathan Clyde, and White Horse Pictures’ Nicholas Ferrall and Cassidy Hartmann. Coker is co-producing and Erikka Yancy serves as the film’s supervising producer. Pic is presented by Concord Originals alongside Impact Partners, Chicago Media Project, and Play/Action Pictures, Polygram Entertainment, Dave Knott, and Sobey Road Entertainment.
Said Allain: “A singular figure in music history, Billy Preston lent his genius to elevate the most celebrated artists of the 20th Century. Grateful to work with this team, using this soundtrack to explore his personal journey and finally place him front and center.” Barclay said “the Billy Preston we know was an incomparable musician,” but the Billy we’ll see in this documentary was a mass of contradictions. I’m thrilled to dig deeper into the complex man under the Afro, and behind the famous smile.”
A self taught prodigy keyboard player, Preston was just 16 when he met the not-yet-famous Beatles while playing for Little Richard while they toured Hamburg in 1962. He befriended the young, impoverished band by sneaking them food and drinks. Later in the ’60s, this led to Preston playing on The Beatles’ Let It Be and Abbey Road albums as a credited musician, and performing with the Beatles in their last live performance as a group – the famous Roof Top concert. The Grammy Award-winning artist had solo career that included number one hits, and working with The Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nat King Cole, Sly Stone, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson, among others. Preston is featured in the upcoming Peter Jackson-directed documentary The Beatles: Get Back.
Despite an enviable career in music, Preston had a challenging personal story that involved sexual abuse he endured as a child. He struggled with his sexuality and had substance abuse problems he used to make his pain. Only later in life did he come to terms with his truth and so find his peace.
Barclay and Hodari Coker asked to make a shout out to those who knew Preston or worked with him, who and may have recordings, photographs, or personal memories to make contact through http://www.billyprestondoc.com.
UTA Independent Film Group with White Horse Pictures helped raise the funding and they will broker sales of the film.
Allain’s Homegrown is repped by UTA, First Artists and Marcy Morris; Barclay is ICM and Lovett Management.
Joel Fry (Cruella, Game of Thrones) has signed up for horror feature The Queen Mary and will star alongside Alice Eve (Belgravia).
Gary Shore (Dracula Untold) is directing the pic, which is a psychological horror/mystery exploring three interwoven stories, covering the violent disintegration of two families onboard the ship in 1938 and present day.
Principal photography is currently taking place at the UK-based ARRI/Creative Technologies studios, a virtual production facility which immerses cast and production crew inside CG environments rendered in real time with the help of a massive wraparound LED screen. Later in November, it will board the actual Queen Mary as part of the exclusive license granted to Imagination Design Works by the ship. The multi-storied ocean liner is currently located in dock at Long Beach, California.
Stephen Oliver and Tom Vaughan wrote the script with revisions by Gary Shore. The film is being produced by Brett Matthew Tomberlin of Imagination Design Works, Thorsten Schumacher of Rocket Science, Lars Sylvest, and Nigel Sinclair and Nicholas Ferrall of White Horse Pictures (The Woman in Black). Rocket Science is also handling world sales.
Tobin Armbrust is set to executive produce together with White Horse’s Cassidy Hartmann. Andy Trapani, Brian Gilbert, and Steve Sheldon of Epic Entertainment Group also serve as Executive Producers. White Horse Pictures’ Jeanne Elfant Festa is co-executive producing. Tom Vaughan is co-producing. Mali Elfman is producing alongside Mark Tomberlin, Chris Tomberlin, and Jordan Rambis who are executive producing as part of Imagination Design Works. Morgan Emmery and Julian Gross from Trinity Media Financing, Lina Ghandour from National Bank of Canada, and Imagination Design Works are financing.
Fry is represented by Will Hollinshead and Livi Shean of Independent Talent Group in the UK.