'Fifth Beatle' Billy Preston Dies at Age 59

Ed Gordon pays tribute to late keyboardist Billy Preston, who died Tuesday at age 59 after a long battle with kidney failure. The Grammy-winning songwriter was once dubbed the "fifth Beatle" and played on many of the group's biggest hit songs. He also penned his own hits including "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," and "Nothing From Nothing."

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(Soundbite of “Let it Be” by the Beatles)

Sir PAUL MCCARTNEY (Musician): (Singing) When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.

ED GORDON, host:

The rhythm behind this famous Beatles tune is provided by the soulful piano playing of Billy Preston. Preston collaborated on some of the best-known Beatles recordings.

The keyboardist died yesterday at the age of 59, after a long battle fighting kidney failure. He had been in a coma since November.

(Soundbite of “Let it Be” by the Beatles)

Sir PAUL MCCARTNEY (Musician): (Singing) Let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.

GORDON: Preston had his own hits. He and singer Syreeta performed the loving duet, With You I'm Born Again, and he's probably best known for his huge hits of the 1970s, Outa Space, Will It Go Round in Circles, and Nothing From Nothing.

(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. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing…

GORDON: Billy Preston wrote what was to become one of the most recognizable tunes ever, You Are So Beautiful, which Joe Cocker made into a worldwide hit.

Preston's mentor was none other than the great Ray Charles, whom Preston, in a 2004 NPR interview, credited for his own musical success.

Mr. PRESTON: As far as the way he interpreted songs, the way he, you know, had it in his heart to express this, the lyric, and the to live the songs that he sang. I mean he just took every song that he sang and made it his, as his own experience.

GORDON: Preston took what he learned from Charles to Europe in the 1960s. He was playing with Little Richard in Hamburg, as part of the Beatles' opening act, and began a life-long friendship with the Fab Four. He later became known as the Fifth Beatle.

The Houston, Texas native soon gained a reputation as a musician's musician. Rock bands that wanted a soulful keyboard sound knew that Billy Preston was the man to call. Most recently, though seriously ill, Preston performed on albums by Neil Diamond and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Billy Preston died Tuesday in Scottsdale, Arizona.

(Soundbite of “Will It Go Round in Circles” by Billy Preston)

Mr. PRESTON: (Singing) I've got a song, it ain't got no melody. I'm a gonna sing it to my friends. I've got a song, it ain't got no melody. I'm a gonna sing it to my friends. Will it go round in circles?

GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, recycling old electronics. Tech guru Mario Armstrong tells you how. And NEWS AND NOTES commentator, Joseph C. Phillips, has a new book on politics, family, faith, and keeping it real.

(Soundbite of “Will It Go Round in Circles” by Billy Preston)

Mr. PRESTON: (Singing) …like a bird up in the sky. I've a story, ain't got no moral. Let the bad guy win every once in a while. I've got a story, ain't got no moral. Let the bad guy win every once in a while.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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