“The Beatles: Get Back,” the three-part documentary on Disney+, shows us the fraying band in 1969, at its end stage, grumpily attempting to knit itself back together by preparing for a live concert. Halfway through the series — which is to say, at the point when viewers are nearly as tired of John, Paul, Ringo and George as they are of each other — salvation arrives. Sweet, laid-back Billy Preston pops by.
Preston, born in Houston, was only 23 then, but he went way back with John, Paul, George and Ringo: He’d met them in Hamburg. A teen prodigy, he was touring as Little Richard’s organist; the Beatles were Little Richard’s opening act.
In the documentary’s restored footage, Preston’s gap-toothed smile lights up the studio where the bickering band has holed up. He'd thought he was just stopping for a visit, and is delighted when they ask him to play. With the addition of his electric piano, the troublesome “Don’t Let Me Down” gels – and just as important, the Beatles suddenly look as though they’re having fun again. “You’re in the band!” jokes John.
The Beatles held together long enough for Preston to play the famous rooftop concert with them. Later, he performed with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Aretha Franklin. He had his own hits – among them, the classics “Will It Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing from Nothing.” He was Saturday Night Live’s first musical guest. His '70s Afro was astounding even by Soul Train standards.
But Preston himself couldn't hold it together. His story ends the way so many musicians’ do. Drugs. Sex charges involving a teenager. Rehab. Bankruptcy. What's unusual, for musicians of that era, is that he came out of the closet – hesitantly, and with great pain. Soon after that, in 2005, he died. He was 59.
But in the documentary, it's still 1969. Preston is still 23. The Beatles are still a band. And it's a joy to watch the five of them play.
Thanks to Russell Contreras, whose tweet alerted us to Billy Preston’s Houston connection.