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Billy Preston dead at 59

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Los Angeles (Reuters): Keyboardist Billy Preston, a so-called ''fifth Beatle'' who also played with the Rolling Stones and enjoyed solo success in his own right, died in Arizona today after a long illness, his sister said. He was 59. Preston had been in a coma at Scottsdale Healthcare Shea in Scottsdale, Arizona, since last November after suffering kidney failure and related illnesses, the legacy of a longtime battle with drugs that landed him in prison in the late 1990s. His sister, Lettie Preston, told Reuters his condition worsened over the weekend. An autopsy will be performed, she said.

A young keyboards prodigy, Preston, who was born in Houston, Texas, spent most of his life in the entertainment business. While still a teenager, he played with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Little Richard and Ray Charles. He entered the Beatles' orbit in 1969, as the band was on the verge of breaking up, and helped to soothe some of the tension. He performed on both sides of the ''Get Back''/''Don't Let Me Down'' single, which was credited to ''The Beatles with Billy Preston'' -- the first time the band had shared the spotlight with a sideman. He also accompanied them during their last concert, the famous rooftop gig in London in 1969.

In the early 1970s, he topped the charts as a solo act with the Grammy-winning instrumental ''Outa Space'', ''Will It Go Round in Circles'' and ''Nothing From Nothing.'' He also wrote Joe Cocker's 1974 hit ''You Are So Beautiful.'' At the same time, he was becoming a fixture with the Rolling Stones, recording such tracks as ''Can't You Hear Me Knocking'' and ''Heartbreaker'' and playing on several tours.

His private life was darker. In 1997, a California judge sentenced him to three years in prison for violating the terms of his probation for a cocaine possession conviction handed out earlier that year. In his later years, he toured with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood as well as Motown session musicians the Funk Brothers. He also was featured on Ray Charles' last album ''Genius Loves Company'' as well as the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers album ''Stadium Arcadium.''

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