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Musician Billy Preston Dies of Kidney Failure


Keyboardist Billy Preston had a session musician's dream career. He played with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He was also a hit maker on his own. Today we learned of his death in a hospital, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 59 years old and he had battled kidney failure for years. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY reporting: In a Rolling Stone interview in the early 1970s, Billy Preston announced his arms were wide open to all his fans. He said young whites, young blacks, old people, jazz people, I want them all.

(Soundbite of “Nothing From Nothing” by Billy Preston)

Mr. BILLY PRESTON (Musician): (Singing) Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. You gotta have something if you want to be with me.

ULABY: Besides Nothing from Nothing, Preston recorded big pop hits like Outta Space, Will It Go Round In Circles, and wrote You Are So Beautiful, that Joe Cocker turned into a standard. But veteran music critic, Ira Robbins, says composing hits was just one of Billy Preston's talents.

Mr. IRA ROBBINS (Music Critic): He was a consummate sideman. He was a guy that could play anything at any time for anybody. He was never - even though he had a career of his own, his strength was not as a front man, a pop star in his own right. I mean, he wasn't one of those outrageously over-sized characters like Ray Charles. Preston was something of a bridge between the British invasion and the roots of American rock. Born in Houston, Preston grew up in the gospel and early rock and roll scene in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of Mahalia Jackson music)

Ms. MAHALIA JACKSON (Musician): (Singing) We cannot feel (unintelligible) teardrops.

ULABY: Like Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles was an early friend of Billy Preston and the two played together for decades. Two years ago, Preston told NPR what he felt people had learned from Ray Charles.

Mr. PRESTON: To dig down in their soul and be able to express what they feel inside without trying to go along with what's happening or the fads or whatever. Whatever natural feeling that they have, as far as expressing the way they feel in song. Just do it that way and just be yourself all the time.

ULABY: Charles was not the only star of the young Billy Preston's acquaintance. Ira Robbins says Preston was something of a child prodigy.

Mr. ROBBINS: He was 15 when he was in Little Richard's band. Can you imagine being 15 years old and working for as flamboyant a character as Little Richard? Imagine whose parents would let him do that.

ULABY: Even the most imaginative stage parents could hardly have envisioned a career that included seminal work with Sly and The Family Stone, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. The consummate sideman's career reached its height, figuratively and laterally, on a London rooftop the day the Beatles recorded this song.

(Soundbite of song “Get Back” by the Beatles)

THE BEATLES (rock and roll band): (singing) Get back, get back to where you once belong.

ULABY: It was a famously rocky session when the group seemed on the verge of falling apart. Music journalist Ira Robbins says Preston's brilliance as a performer and a person helped hold the Beatles together.

Mr. ROBBINS: He really seemed to have an inspirational role for them. I think his unguarded enthusiasm probably sparked up a lot among these, otherwise very British, artists.

ULABY: There was a dark side to Billy Preston. He battled a long-standing drug addiction, and he was convicted for insurance fraud and assaulting a teen-age boy. But his legacy will be for making any project he took part in, from Mahalia Jackson recordings to the iconic concert for Bangladesh, a little part better.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.