Many have claimed to be the fifth Beatle. Most of them are wannabes, hangers on, or quite frankly, mildly deranged. There is one man however who was employed by The Beatles during the Get Back/Let It Be to be, in effect, The Fifth Beatle.
That man was Billy Preston. He did an excellent job and was hugely underpaid.
Born a full 18 years before the repeal of The Jim Crow Laws in Texas, with one of the finest Afro’s in the Western Hemisphere, Billy Preston was not the most likely Mop Top.
In 1962 Preston was touring Britain in Little Richard’s band. In Liverpool they found themselves on the same bill as a local group managed by the owner of the local music shop. The manager was Brian Epstein and I think you know who his band were.
All of the lads were in awe of Little Richard but George Harrison gravitated to Billy. George had a million questions about American music and Billy was happy to answer them. They bumped into each other occasionally when touring but it wasn’t until 1969 that anything serious came of their relationship.
George had stormed out of Abbey Road frustrated and ready to leave the band. He found himself at a Ray Charles concert where Preston was playing organ. They chatted again. George was taken with Billy easy-going style and invited him over to Abbey Road.
Billy fitted in just fine with the band and played on most of Let It Be. His personality calmed what was turning into a war-zone in the studio.
It was no small thing that was a masterful player steeped in the blues and gospel either. He put out his first album when he was sixteen and was not put off by playing with big personalities.
Before the Let It Be Sessions he had played with Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Little Richard, James Cleveland and Sam Cooke.
John and Yoko were not going to let him get in the way of him doing his work. On the contrary, John suggested that Billy become a full-time member of the band. It was Paul, ever the astute businessman, that vetoed the idea. But on the single release "Get Back" was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston”
It’s no coincidence that McCartney wrote two of his most gospel influenced songs during those sessions (“Long And Winding Road” and “Let It Be”)
Preston also worked on the Abbey Road album, contributing to the tracks "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)" and "Something." Sadly on that album he received no credit.
“Dig it” is a free form jam session with Lennon making lyrics up on the spot. There are four versions of the song that are easily available to anyone with access to a torrent site:
Let It Be Version – 0:51 (The Official Release)
Get Back Mix – 4:24
Full Version – 8:20
The participants in that session are Lennon on vocals and 6-string bass, Harrison on guitar, McCartney on piano, Ringo on drums, and Billy Preston at the organ. In the background of the longer versions you can hear Linda McCartney and her six-year-old daughter Heather adding to the chaos.
The tune is a talking blues based around the classic chord structure I, IV, and V.
The production is a bit of a mess with organ, piano, and drums playing prominent roles, often at the same time. This was one of many jams from the start of The GetBack/Let It Be sessions, and I wish they had turned it into a proper song.
At the begining of the jam Lennon repeats the phrase “Like A Rolling Stone” referencing the competition and Bob Dylan simultaneously.
On all of the versions except the one released Lennon added a really great verse that could have made it into a song.
You can give it if you got it,
If you got it you can give it.
You can get it if you want it,
If you want it you can get it,
Paul replies with an infectious blues-influenced “Come On Come On Come On Come On” that sounds like it came straight from one of their Hamburg gigs 10 years earlier.
Lennon begins to repeat "Like a rolling stone", then goes into the "famous people" part.
Lennon’s obsession with popular culture is in full flow here. It’s almost as if he blurting out what is on the TV as he is channel surfing.
“Rolling Stone, FBI, CIA, BBC, BB King, and Doris Day…. Matt Busby”
The most interesting of these is Matt Busby – We have claimed before that The Beatles were from Liverpool but not OF Liverpool, and this is further proof. For our American readers let us explain who Matt Busby was.
The Liverpool and Manchester United football rivalry is a long and deep one based on all the tribal hatred that prevails in that sport. In May 1968 Manchester United became the first English team to win The European Cup, thanks in no small part to their manager Matt Busby. It is no surprise that he caught Lennon’s attention. But a true Scouse would have choked before mentioning Busby in a song. The even more charismatic Liverpool manager Bill Shankly would have been a more likely candidate. A man so devoted to football he was famously quoted as saying.
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
Shankly and Lennon were cut from the same cloth. Both angry obsessive men determined to succeed at any cost. Busby was more like McCartney. Affable, good at business and meticulous to detail. Go figure.
The Ukulele Version of “Dig It” expands on the original including parts from the 15 minute jam-session and adding a new verse based on current day channel surfing. The ukulele is based around Billy Preston’s organ part and our version is dedicated to him.
Nobody sings like Sophia Ramos. The feedback guitar solos at 1.28 and 2.06 are not a guitar at all. That’s Sophia screaming. She says “I’m screaming for Lennon, screaming for peace, love, justice, and musical equality.” DIG IT!
“Dig It” of the few songs credited to all four Beatles. It is obvious that everyone in the room created the backing track. But there is someone missing from the writing credits – Billy Preston.
I have no idea why that should be. He was part of the jam session from which the song came and he should have got a credit – and a royalty.
So how much does 1/5th of one song on a Beatles album pay? There are no exact sales figures for total sales of the Let It Be album available but a conservative figure would be around 20 million. The current Statutory Rate that writers receive for record sales is $0.91 per sale.
Billy Preston’s royalties for a one fifth share of one song on a 20 million selling album at current day rates would be calculated at:
$0.91 x 1/5 x 20M = $3,640,000
But hey… It’s only money right?
It can’t buy you love… Apparently.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
“Sophia Ramos is one of the greatest Rock singers of the last 20 years” :Joey Ramone.
Sophia makes her money singing for the devil. She’ll even do a jig if the price is right.
A WORD FROM THE ARTIST
I think it’s safe to say that most aspiring Rock musicians go through a Beatle phase, usually early on in their evolution.
My obsession started at age 11. That very year my class took a trip to the Museum of Natural History, which ended with a stroll through Central Park. We ended up on 72nd and Columbus where our teachers allowed us to purchase beverages in a local bodega, which is no longer there.
As we wrecked havoc, behaving as obnoxious adolescents will, there in the store were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I froze where I stood, which was about 4 feet away from John and stared. I was the only one in my class besides my teacher who knew who he was!
A Puerto Rican kid from the Sout h Bronx wasn’t supposed to know or even like John Lennon. Rap was taking off around my neck of the woods and while everyone was hipping and a hopping to the boogiddy beat, I was banging my head to Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and believing I was the Walrus who wanted to start a Revolution.
I couldn’t move I just stared and finally, I guess because I was burning a hole into the side of his head, Lennon turned and smiled and said, ”Hello Love”.
I can’t quite remember what happened next. I think some inaudible scream shriek thing came out of my throat. I felt like an ass but honestly I didn’t care, John Lennon had spoken to me, me, little ol’ Boricua rocker me.
One year later he was dead.
I cut school the morning of his death and went down to the historic Dakota building where he lived to mourn with all the other Beatle fans. I called the only person I knew would understand why I was there, my sister Diana. I explained how I just couldn’t leave yet and asked if she would come down and meet me here. She did. We, along with thousands of others stood across the street from his home and sang and cried together, our coats covered in wax from the hundreds of vigil candles.
It was 1980. The year that felt like the end of an era I had become enamored with. An era I was too young to have been a part of, but wished so much it would come back. Any last remnants of the 60’s idealism had been completely annihilated with Lennon’s assassination. John Bonham was dead too and to top it off Reagan had been elected president.
I wish someone would have talked me out of a career in the Rock n Roll business but meeting Lennon felt like a good omen I thought, so I forged ahead.
I am thrilled that David asked me to contribute to this wonderfully creative project.
And, as if a higher power were involved, he picked the perfect song for me. A Lennon tune that I get to scream on. I’m screaming, screaming for Lennon, screaming for peace, love, justice, and musical equality.
Screaming for that space in time when Rock was pure and simple.