The term “the Fifth Beatle” has been thrown around a lot over the past decades – often in a generic way, referring to a musician or band’s manger or producer. But those who’ve seen the docuseries “The Beatles: Get Back” by famed director Peter Jackson will see that Houston-born Billy Preston was the true Fifth Beatle the band needed while recording its final album.
“Billy saves the day,” KUTX Music Director Rick McNulty told Texas Standard. “I mean, quite honestly, without Billy Preston, I don’t know what ‘Get Back’ would have amounted to – probably some half-baked ideas.”
But Billy Preston was a lot more than that. Listen to the audio player above or read the transcript below for more on Preston’s life before and after this time with The Beatles.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: We don’t get to learn a ton about Preston; he just suddenly appears there in the video. Could you tell us a little bit about his earliest years?
Rick McNulty: Yeah. His mom realized he was a child prodigy, and she immediately got him lessons and took him on auditions and he quickly moved up the ladder of showbiz.
I guess it helped that he moved from Houston to Los Angeles when he was just a kid, after his parents’ divorce. He went on and was playing gospel for some pretty big names in the music business.
That’s right – Mahalia Jackson for one; he accompanied her. Also, James Cleveland, the reverend who produced Aretha’s [Franklin] “Amazing Grace” album.
The story I’ve heard is that he was playing with no less than Ray Charles at a performance in London when George Harrison spotted him on stage. [Harrison] went back, talked with him a little bit and said, “Hey, why don’t you come down to Twickenham Studios where we’re working on this ‘Get Back’ project?”
Yeah, George did that. And George recognized Billy because they had met in Hamburg in 1962. Billy was playing with Little Richard then. Billy was quite young then, but by ’69, in January, when he was with Ray Charles in London, George was excited to see him. He went back to the studio and told all the fellows, “You’ll never believe who this crazy guy on organ was last night with Ray. It was Billy Preston!” So they’re all interested and he said, “I’d like him to drop by.” And they’re all like, “Great, let’s have him.”