Rock keyboard master dies

Musician Preston passes at 59

Billy Preston, the child prodigy keyboardist who landed jobs with Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones before scoring his own hit singles, died Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 59.

Preston had been in a coma since November in a care facility and was taken to a hospital Saturday after his condition deteriorated.

Preston had battled chronic kidney failure and he received a kidney transplant in 2002. But the kidney failed and he had been on dialysis ever since. In the past several years, Preston had revived his career as a sideman, performing on albums by Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, Michael McDonald, Nikka Costa and others.

At age 10, Preston was backing gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and at 17 appearing on Cooke’s band. His gospel roots came to the fore on the Beatles’ album “Let It Be,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street”; his perf of “That’s the Way God Planned It” was a standout at George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh.”

Preston’s partnership with the Beatles began in early 1969 when friend Harrison recruited him to play on “Let It Be.” Preston inspired the Beatles to get along and would perform on solo discs by Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Preston also toured and recorded extensively with the Rolling Stones.

In 1972, after making eight albums dominated by his organ work and cover songs, Preston scored with the album “I Wrote a Simple Song,” which featured the instrumental “Outa-Space.” He won a Grammy for the track.

Other hits included “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles,” “Nothing From Nothing” and “With You I’m Born Again,” a duet with Syreeta Wright. He also wrote the Joe Cocker ballad “You Are So Beautiful.”

A regular on the TV show “Shindig” in the 1960s, Preston made his screen debut in 1958 playing a young W. C. Handy in the biopic “St. Louis Blues.” He also appeared in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Blues Brothers 2000.”

Preston had numerous personal troubles in recent years. In 1992, he was given a suspended jail sentence, but ordered incarcerated for nine months at a drug rehabilitation center for his no-contest pleas to cocaine and assault charges. Five years later, he was sentenced to three years in prison for violating probation. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and agreed to testify against other defendants in an alleged scam that netted about $1 million.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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