William Everett Preston was born in Texas in 1946 but raised in Los Angeles, where his prodigious talents blossomed early.
At the age of 10 he backed gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. At 12 he appeared in the screen musical St Louis Blues playing a young W C Handy.
Making the switch from the gospel circuit to rock & roll in the early 60s, he toured Europe with Little Richard, meeting The Beatles for the first time in Hamburg.
After a short spell under the wing of soul legend Sam Cooke, Billy released his Sly Stone-arranged 1966 instrumental solo debut album, The Wildest Organ In Town.
Ray Charles was so impressed by him that he declared Preston would be “the one who will take my place”.
By 1969 Preston had shared co-billing with The Beatles on their #1 single Get Back, and in the years that followed he won Grammies for the solo instrumental Outta Space and for his part in The Concert For Bangladesh, a US #1 with Will It Go Round In Circles? and chalked up credits on The Rolling Stones‘ Exile On Main Street and Bob Dylan‘s Blood On The Tracks.
By the early 90s, changes in musical fashion left him out in the cold. The booze and cocaine that had previously fuelled him now dragged him down, and imprisonment on drugs charges followed.
Preston also pleaded guilty to taking part in a series of elaborate insurance frauds involving torching buildings and faking car crashes.
Although he emerged from prison drug-free, appearing at 2002’s ‘Concert For George’, the kidney failure that eventually killed him was the sad by-product of a career musician’s wild lifestyle. But even as his health deteriorated, Preston continued working at the top of his game.
He made his final recordings for producer Rick Rubin on Neil Diamond‘s 12 Songs and the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Stadium Arcadium. Preston passed away in 2006.