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.
Los Angeles, CA (November 4, 2021) – Multi-Emmy and Grammy Award-winning production company White Horse Pictures and Emmy-nominated Stephanie Allain of Homegrown Pictures are set to produce a documentary featureabout the legendary musician and genius keyboardist Billy Preston. Dubbed the “Fifth Beatle,” he is the only other musician ever to be credited on Beatles recordings and co-wrote the song Joe Cocker made famous, You Are So Beautiful. Fifteen years after his death in 2006, Billy Preston was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2021 this past weekend.
Multi-Emmy-winning director, producer, and writer Paris Barclay (In Treatment, Glee, Sons of Anarchy) directs and Cheo Hodari Coker (Creed II, Luke Cage, Ray Donovan, Southland) is writing the film alongside Barclay.
UNTITLED BILLY PRESTONis produced by Homegrown’s Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow, Dear White People, 2020 Oscars), White Horse’s Jeanne Elfant Festa, (The Apollo, Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart) and Nigel Sinclair (Pavarotti, George Harrison: Living in the Material World). Executive producers are Barclay, Daniel Shaw, G. Marq Roswell (Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music), Olivia Harrison (George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Concert For George; The Beatles: Get Back), Jonathan Clyde (The Beatles: Eight Days A Week; Get Back), and White Horse Pictures’ Nicholas Ferrall (Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart; Get Back) and Cassidy Hartmann (The Apollo). Coker is co-producing and Erikka Yancy serves as the film’s supervising producer.
The film is a presentation of Concord Originals alongside Impact Partners, Chicago Media Project, and Play/Action Pictures, who present in association with, Polygram Entertainment, Dave Knott, and Sobey Road Entertainment. Serving as executive producers are Scott Pascucci, Sophia Dilley, Charles Hopkins, Jenny Raskin, Steve Cohen, Paula Froehle, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Lauren and John Driscoll and Patty Quillin, Jeffrey Lurie, Marie Therese Guirgis, Jody Gerson, Bruce Resnikoff, Dave Knott, John Keller, Brad and Debbie Buss and Andrew Trapani. Serving as Co Executive producers are Lauren Haber, Kelsey Koenig, Jane Solomon, Bob Valentine and Wesley Adams.
“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,” said Stephanie Allain, of Homegrown.
“The Billy Preston we know was an incomparable musician,” said Paris Barclay. “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.”
“Billy Preston collaborated with a massive wide range of artists. His story of love and ultimate self-acceptance resonates with all of us,” said Jeanne Elfant Festa.“I am ecstatic to be collaborating with such a stellar team, Stephanie Allain, Paris Barclay, Cheo Hodari Coker and Nigel Sinclair and our White Horse team!”
16-year-old Billy Preston met the not-yet-famous Beatles when he played 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 Billy 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 enjoyed an illustrious solo career including several number one solo hits, and worked with the Rolling Stones, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nat King Cole, Sly Stone, Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson just to name a few. Billy also had a lifelong devotion to gospel music.
Despite his preternatural talent which earned him a place on stage beside the biggest names in 20th century musical history, Billy had a challenging personal story. Only later in life did he come to terms with his truth and so find his peace.
The film explores Preston’s towering musical accomplishments, matched by his triumphant personal journey to self-love and acceptance. His story is a stark reminder of how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we still must go. Later this month Billy is featured in Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back multi-part documentary event.
Director Paris Barclay with Cheo Hodari Coker are making a call out to anybody who knew Billy Preston or who worked with him, and may have recordings, photographs, or personal memories to make contact. The project website is www.BillyPrestonDoc.com.
UTA Independent Film Group with White Horse Pictures helped raise the funding and White Horse Pictures with UTA will be representing the picture for sales.
Homegrown is repped by UTA, First Artists and Marcy Morris.
Barclay is represented by ICM and Lovett Management.
Cheo Hodari Coker is represented by CAA, Literate, and Darrell D. Miller of Fox Rothschild.