“Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned It” Screens at SXSW 2024

Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned It” is a documentary from Paris Barclay, whose own film accomplishments put him in a class that few can match. Barclay (“In Treatment,”  “Glee”). This is an outstanding documentary. It goes right up there with my favorite from last year’s SXSW, “Little Richard: I Am Everything.” (Lisa Cortes)

Says the synopsis: “With his signature gospel sound on the Hammond B3, Billy Preston doublehandedly elevated the greatest artists of his time – from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, from Aretha Franklin to Eric Clapton, from Ray Charles to Barbra Streisand to Sly and the Family Stone. In our film, we explore Billy’s career and influence on generations of musicians, as he scored several number-one hits of his own and became one of the most sought-after musicians in the world. He did all of this as a soul divided — by his deep roots in the church, in constant conflict with his identity as a gay Black man, searching for a family of his own that would accept him for who he was.”

EARLY LIFE

Preston was an early phenomenon, playing piano and organ by ear from the age of three. In fact, he appeared on television for the first time at the age of 5. He sang a duet of Fats Domino’s song “Blueberry Hill” on Nat King Cole’s television show in 1957 at age 11. From there, his career went straight up, intersecting with nearly every major musical name of the past 60 years.  Preston said, “It’s been the way God planned it for me. I’ve never gone out and auditioned.”

Preston himself said, “You don’t know how glad I am that God laid his hands on me.” But, as articulated by Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots”), “It’s hard being queer.” Porter, born in 1969, knows how much worse it was for someone like Billy Preston, born in the forties (September 2, 1946). Porter acknowledged that his own ability to openly declare his sexuality is based on those, like Billy Preston, who came before him.

Very close to his mother, Robbie Preston Williams, the Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful To Me” was co-written by Williams for his mom. Robbie is shown playing and singing with Billy. Sadly, she didn’t protect him well enough from those who took advantage of him in his youth. Billy was first molested at the age of 9. He was repeatedly molested by a piano player when he was working for the “Amos ‘N Andy” radio show. His mother either didn’t believe him or didn’t want to deal with it. That’s the way it was in 1955.  He also went on a European tour with Little Richard in 1962 when only 16, an experience that he would never later discuss.

BEING GAY IS BURDEN

Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots” on Broadway) appears onscreen commenting. Porter dismissed the idea that early sexual abuse would cause the young boy to become gay. Regardless, it did leave Billy Preston psychologically scarred.  In the era that he grew up in, Preston was in the closet. Porter says, “God wouldn’t be so narrow-minded.”

Narrow-minded defined the years that Billy Preston was ascending to fame and fortune. His talent was undeniable and unmatchable. But, on a personal level, he suffered. Part of it was his struggle with his sexuality. But he also suffered because he lost his older brother when his brother entered his home smoking a lighted cigarette and was blown up in the explosion that resulted from a gas leak.

Preston did not discuss the repeated abuse when he was nine. He simply threw himself into music, saying, “Music is my life.”  It would take a large book to list every famous musician who  worked with Billy Preston. Onscreen we hear from Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. There is archival footage, showing Billy collaborating with the Beatles, whom he met in 1963 when touring Europe with Little Richard. The man was a dynamo, playing, singing and dancing.

1960s – 1980s

In the sixties Billy collaborated with the Beatles on the Abbey Road Album and is the only artist given a credit on a Beatles album for “Get Back:” The Beatles With Billy Preston.  Preston was dubbed “the Fifth Beatle.” Preston played keyboards on the Beatles very last performance from the New York City rooftop on January 30, 1969. He also appeared on television’s “Shindig” as musical director.

In 1972, he won a Grammy for “Outa-Space’ as the Best Pop Instrumental Performance. (He was nominated for 9 Grammies and won 2, including Album of the Year in 1973.) In 2021 he was inducted into the rock-and-roll Hall of Fame for musical excellence.

Billy Preston was the Rolling Stones primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. I saw him on their Bridges to Babylon tour two times, once in Chicago and once in Minneapolis.

CRACKS IN THE CAREER

There may have been a romance with a woman named Kathy Silva in the early 70s. If there is a criticism of this documentary, it is how much this was soft-pedaled in the narrative. Whatever their relationship was, it ended badly when Preston returned home to find her in bed with Sly (of Sly and the Family Stone). Some sources say that Preston swore off women from that point on. It couldn’t have helped that Silva married Sly onstage in Madison Square Garden shortly after her betrayal of Billy.

Disputes over money led to Preston’s departure from the Rolling Stones. In 1975 he was also the very first musical guest on the very first airing of “Saturday Night Live.” In 1978 he was cast as Sergeant Pepper in Robert Stigwood’s musical treatment of the famous Beatles album. It involved an all-star cast; it was a failure, which also bothered Preston, as did his one year (1986-1987) on a failed nighttime talk show, “Nightlife,” built around comedian David Brenner.

The 1990s

Paris Barclay
Paris Barclay, Director of “Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned It” at SXSW 2024.

Preston was asked to tour with The Band in 1991. He did, but he was sentenced for cocaine possession  and assault in 1991. That was the end of his ability to tour. In August, he was sentenced to 9 months in drug rehabilitation (in Malibu) and given 3 months of house arrest. In 1992 he was given 30 days in jail. There was a sex charge involving a 16-year old youth. (Think Kevin Spacey).

Preston’s intense need for money to feed his drug habit became so great that he burned his own house down. When apprehended, he pled guilty to the $1 million insurance fraud and was ordered to prison and had to pay $60,000 in restitution.

Billy Preston was 44 years old and had various probation violations. Although 7 (of 8) charges were dropped Judge Bernard J. Kamins of Los Angeles District Court felt that if the musician didn’t clean up his act, he’d soon be dead (the Mayo Clinic agreed.) Preston was remanded to Avenol State Prison for a term that ended up being much less than the 4 years for which he was sentenced. However, his health—especially his kidneys—were failing.

BLOWS TO THE MUSICIAN

George Harrison, Billy’s great and good friend, died in 2001. (Preston participated in the Concert for George in November of 2002). His beloved mother Robbie died in 2005. Even his good friend Eric Clapton said, “I had to let him go” (Clapton teared up after that comment).  Billy’s last session was with Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave). Randy Jackson (of “American Idol”) fame is seen in the footage. We also see Sam Moore and Billy Preston flanking Paul Schaffer on a “Letterman” gig. Preston appeared on one “American Idol” segment.

Billy Preston called his last manager and revealed that he had finally told the others in group therapy that he was gay, something he had refused to do throughout his entire life. He lapsed into a coma four days later, dying on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, Arizona (site of a Mayo Clinic facility) at age 60.

CONCLUSION

As one of Preston’s oldest friends, interviewed onscreen in this SXSW documentary said, “How did we let someone like Billy Preston slip away?” She added (to spontaneous audience applause), “Can you imagine if church was really what it says it is?”

Do yourself a favor and make it a double-feature night. Watch the Little Richard documentary (“Little Richard: I Am Everything”) and follow it with “Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned It.” It is an absolute gem and extremely well-done.

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About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo's Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com. Weekly Wilson is also the name of her podcast on the Bold Brave Media Global Network on Thursday nights at 7 p.m. (CDT).