R&B piano prodigy Billy Preston could have been the fifth Beatle

Billy Preston in footage for “Get Back.”
Courtesy of Disney+

“We’d always got on very well with him,” Beatles band member Paul McCartney remembers in 2000’s “The Beatles Anthology.” “He showed up in London and we said, ‘Oh, Bill! Great— let’s have him play on a few things.’” So he sat in on the sessions because he was an old mate really.”

But the new Disney+ docuseries “Get Back,” which premiered on Thanksgiving weekend, shows that R&B musician and pianist Preston was more than just an “old mate.” Preston was a talented keyboardist who had the respect of the legendary music group, and whose addition clearly improved the quality of songs on which he played. He also came very close to being the only Black Beatle.

The three-episode, seven-plus-hours-long series is derived from over 60 hours of never-before-seen-or-heard film and 150 hours of audio, footage from the Beatles’ practice, rehearsal, and recording sessions. Held over 22 days in January 1969, they culminated in the band’s first live performance in two years and the albums “Let It Be” and “Abbey Road.”

Directed by Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy), “Get Back” chronicles the legendary group as they mostly joyfully, sometimes painfully, create the music that would be part of the soundtrack of the lives of multiple generations.

The series also debunks the pervasive myth that Preston, a child prodigy who never took a piano lesson, was just invited to the sessions in order to keep the peace among the Beatles, who were going through much conflict at the time.

First, the Beatles knew plenty of people, musicians and non-musicians alike. Their rehearsals were regularly attended by an assortment of people they knew. It’s more likely Preston would have been at the bottom of the list of people brought in merely to “keep the peace.”

Further, Preston was already a highly respected, thriving musician when the Beatles were just growing in popularity. The group, composed of McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, met Preston in 1962 because they were the opening act for Little Richard in Hamburg, Germany, when Preston was the then-superstar’s pianist. 

Because the tour manager insisted on providing meals only for the main act, Preston used to order extra food so that the British rockers could also eat. It was an act of kindness they always remembered.

Still, by the time Preston serendipitously dropped in around day 13 of the “Get Back” sessions, as shown in Jackson’s docuseries, he was playing with Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and other venerable acts. 

“Get Back” shows Preston was the first person they thought of when they realized they needed someone to play piano to enhance the sound of some of the songs they were creating. Lennon then invited him to play on the album. 

Preston agreed, seamlessly joining in. The delighted looks on the band members’ faces after Preston joins say it all. Lennon was moved to declare, “You’re in the group!” immediately upon finishing. 

He continued playing with them for the “Get Back” sessions, in between his own prior professional commitments. Preston became only one of two people credited on a Beatles album, and they signed him to their Apple Records label.

Later, Lennon stated, “I’d just like him in our band, actually. I’d like a fifth Beatle.” Harrison replied, “We can do that as well.” Lennon repeats this entreaty, but was met with opposition from McCartney who posits that they have a hard enough time with just the four of them.

In actuality, the amiable Preston didn’t become the fifth Beatle not because he was just there to “keep the peace,” but because the band was experiencing irreconcilable differences. McCartney saw the writing on the wall and figured it would do no good to bring someone else in. Indeed, the iconic group broke up within a year.

Preston was inducted by Starr into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November 2021.