Billy Preston has the distinction of being the only musician besides the band members to be credited on a Beatles record. Preston’s status as “the Fifth Beatle” came about only because “the Third Beatle” – George Harrison – had, for all intents and purposes quit the band and would only return to the fold if certain criteria were met. It was January 1969, just 11 weeks after the contentious and seemingly interminable The Beatles (The White Album) recording sessions had ground to a close. During the sessions, an atmosphere of outright hostility had developed between the band members. Beatles archivist Mark Lewishon describes the root causes of that hostility as the perception that Yoko Ono was encroaching on the band’s sanctity, Paul McCartney's “bossing” the group around and allegedly “preaching” to Harrison about his playing. At one point during the sessions, Ringo Starr walked out and came very close to completely quitting the band. After the stressful White Album sessions, “As (the Beatles’) natural motivating force,” says Lewishon, “Paul could think of only one solution: to have them ‘get back’ to what had united them best before inconceivable fame and fortune had clouded the issue – live performance.”
McCartney came up with the idea that the band should perform a live or taped television broadcast in front of an audience. A venue could not be agreed upon, so just to get things rolling, it was suggested that they at least start rehearsing at Twickenham Studios. The rehearsals were filmed for potential inclusion in a television broadcast or a proposed “Beatles at Work” film. On January 10, the rehearsal came to a crashing end when McCartney and John Lennon had a bitter argument and Harrison, fed up with the bickering, walked out of the studio. He returned five days later and said he was leaving the group unless the television show idea was dropped. He wanted to work on an album, and he wanted to bring along a friend.
Billy Preston first met the Beatles in Hamburg in 1962. Preston was playing keyboards for Little Richard, and the Beatles were huge fans. Harrison, the youngest of the Beatles and only 18 at the time, bonded with the 15-year-old Preston, and they remained life-long friends. Harrison went to see a Ray Charles show in London, where Preston was playing as a sideman. Harrison got the idea to recruit Preston to play with the Beatles on the Get Back project. Preston’s contributions to the project were more than musical. Harrison likened Preston’s effect to a feuding family staying on its best behavior in front of a guest – hoping that bringing in an outsider would make the others “be nice” and make the Get Back set a happier place to be. "It was a struggle for (the Beatles)," Preston recalled about the Get Back sessions in 2001. "They were kind of despondent. They had lost the joy of doing it all." The combination of Preston’s sterling musicianship and his happy, open demeanor and spirit did the trick, and he has been credited with no less a feat than keeping the band together for a time.
During a Get Back meeting on January 26, the idea came up for the Beatles to give a live performance the next week on the roof of the Apple office building. So, around noon on a cold and windy London rooftop, January 30, 1969, with Preston on keyboards, the Beatles began what was to be their final live performance. Preston contributed tasty, soulful and jazzy keyboard accents to the 42-minute show, with his solo on the song “Get Back” a particular highlight.
Preston remained close to Harrison, and besides his contributions to Let It Be (as the Get Back film and album came to be titled) and Abbey Road, he performed at Harrison’s 1970 all-star charity Concerts for Bangladesh. Preston also served as sideman on solo records by Harrison, Starr and Lennon. He was also signed to the Beatles' label, Apple, and made two albums produced by Harrison: 1969’s That's the Way God Planned It and 1970’s Encouraging Words. Preston paid tribute to his dear friend when he performed at the tribute concert held in Harrison's honor on November 29, 2002, the first anniversary of Harrison’s passing. In 2004, Preston told the Chicago Sun-Times that musically, his favorite moment ever was “on the roof for Let It Be.” Preston passed away in 2006.
WATCH: Billy Preston in the studio with the Beatles
WATCH: The Beatles with Billy Preston perform "Get Back" during the group's final live performance.