Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Billy Preston's memory celebrated at Inglewood funeral

Joe Cocker sang, Little Richard reminisced, and hundreds of friends and relatives of Billy Preston celebrated his musical legacy Tuesday during a funeral as vibrant as Preston himself.

A brass band played a rollicking version of "Amazing Grace" during a service filled with tributes to the prolific songwriter and keyboardist who played with the Beatles so often he was sometimes called the fifth member of the group.

Preston died June 6 in Scottsdale, Ariz., at age 59. He battled chronic kidney failure, received a kidney transplant in 2002 and had been in a coma since November.

"He made that piano walk and talk," said Richard, who discovered Preston, then in high school, took him on tour in the early 1960s and introduced the teen prodigy to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

"There's nobody in this world who could play the piano like Billy Preston. He never got the credit he deserved. He made other people look good," Richard told the crowd in the Faithful Central Bible Church's Tabernacle Worship Center.

Earlier, Cocker elicited emotional shouts and thunderous applause when he sang the ballad "You Are So Beautiful," which Preston wrote but was made famous by the raspy-voiced singer.

A gospel choir clad in bright red sang throughout the almost three hour service, and at one point, Preston's own sister Rodena Preston accompanied on piano.

Other musical guests included Preston's longtime gospel troupe the COGICS, former Temptations lead singer Ali Woodson, and singer Merry Clayton, who said she had known Preston since they were children.

One day, Preston pulled Clayton away from doing her homework, she said, to audition for Ray Charles. They both ended up touring with the famous singer.

"Wherever I would go, Billy would go. We had a long, beautiful history. Billy was absolutely my brother and I loved him," Clayton said before launching into a booming, soulful number.

The mourners also heard letters written by Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others who toured and recorded with Preston.

"I am deeply saddened to lose such a wonderful friend," McCartney wrote. "I love you Billy."

Bonnie Raitt, also in a letter, said Preston was "one of the most soulful artists I ever knew."

In addition to a hefty solo career, and his work with the Stones and the Beatles, Preston performed in recording sessions with Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone and Bob Dylan.

He lent his gospel-tinged touch on piano and organ to classics such as the Beatles' "Get Back" and the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?"

Sporting a memorable Afro and gap-toothed grin in the 1970s, Preston broke out as a solo artist, winning a best instrumental Grammy in 1973 for "Outta Space," and scoring other hits with "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," "Nothing From Nothing" and "With You I'm Born Again," a duet with Syreeta Wright that became a favorite at weddings.

In 1975, Preston sang on the debut of "Saturday Night Live." Last year he appeared on "American Idol."

"We've come not just to be sad but to praise a good life," Bishop Noel Jones said during the eulogy.


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