New Documentary Focuses on Beatles Collaborator, Apple Records Star Billy Preston

The Hits Daily Double site has a look at "Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned It," a documentary debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival.


[Director Paris Barclay] deftly chronicles Preston’s musical rise from church prodigy (at the age of seven he conducted a 75-member Baptist choir, standing atop a step stool so his tiny hands were visible to the adults) to studio collaborations with The Beatles and multiple world tours with The Rolling Stones. As a solo artist, Preston had #1 hits with “Will It Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing” (both co-written with Bruce Fisher), as well as “Outa-Space,” which scored Preston a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Joe Cocker’s cover of Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful” (also co-written with Fisher) was a Top 5 pop hit.

Tragically, Preston was never able to see the beauty within himself. Even as he sang the Lord’s praises on Sundays, he heard his pastor invoke that same Lord to condemn homosexuality—and therefore Preston—as “wicked” and “unnatural.” This cognitive dissonance was a painful circle Preston spent most of his life unable to square. 

....In January 1969, George Harrison, with whom Preston would forge a lifelong friendship, was delighted to see his old friend drop by Apple Corps studios in London for what would turn out to be The Beatles’ final recording sessions (observed in fly-on-the-wall detail in Peter Jackson’s Emmy-winning 2021 documentary series, The Beatles: Get Back).

At 24, Preston was younger than any of the Fab Four. He’d actually met them seven years earlier during their first big gig, a two-week stint opening for Little Richard at Hamburg’s Star-Club (15-year-old Preston was his accompanist). This teenager, who himself had never been out of the United States, was the first American the Liverpool lads had ever met, and they were keen to learn about life in the States. Years later, Preston recalled, “They had a look that was kind of odd. They were nice guys, so I’d always stand in the wings and watch them… They’d come to me and ask questions, so we’d hang out. I remember getting them free steaks and free Cokes.”

Almost immediately after Preston entered the studio that day in 1969, John Lennon invited the always-upbeat keyboardist to “sit in” for the day. He never left. Preston’s infectious spirit infused new musical energy into what had been, before his arrival, largely contentious, unproductive sessions. George, who was so frustrated he’d briefly quit the band, later said Preston’s presence saved the sessions. “He got on the electric piano and straight away there was 100% improvement in the vibe in the room,” he recalled. Preston’s contributions were so essential that John talked to George (as captured in The Beatles: Get Back) about offering him a permanent spot in the group. “I mean, I’d just like him in our band, actually.” George nodded eagerly. “I’d like a fifth Beatle.”

The results were Abbey Road and Let It Be, The Beatles’ last two albums, both of which went to #1. But as it turned out, the public only got to see the “Fab Five” play together once: on a rooftop in London for The Beatles’ final live performance.

...Preston’s downward spiral in the last two decades of his life is depicted without judgment in the film. The facts are not spared: charges of sexual assault and offering cocaine to a 16-year-old boy, which Preston did not contest; receiving a nine-month sentence to drug rehab; three years in prison for cocaine possession; and, while still in prison, an indictment for $1 million of insurance fraud after he set fire to his own house to pay his bills.

Director Barclay displays a gift for eliciting deeply personal stories from those who loved Preston the most but who were helpless to prevent his self-destruction. One of those was Clapton, who chokes up describing how he tried and failed to help his friend stay sober.