Seeking Saving Grace
THE CAP-TOOTHED SMILE WAS GONE, the once familiar Afro cropped and flecked with gray as Billy Preston, 46, waited to face the music one more time. The former keyboardist for the Beatles and the Stones, a veteran of concert halls around the world, had come to a different sort of venue this time—Santa Monica Superior Court—to face an audience of only one: Judge James Albracht. There would be no applause, no encores—only a no-contest plea to charges of assault with a deadly weapon and possession of cocaine.
Dressed in a blue suit and clutching a dog-eared copy of The Holy Spirit and His Gifts, Preston listened grimly last Oct. 16 as the judge suspended a one-year prison sentence, placed him on five years' probation and ordered him into a drug-and-alcohol rehab program for the next nine months. For Preston the proceedings marked the sorry end of a drug-and-drink-sodden odyssey that had begun almost 30 years earlier. "Unfortunately it took this long to get caught by it," says the singer, now being treated at the Promises Residential Treatment Center near Los Angeles. "You don't realize when you are doing it that it is ruining you."
The clues were easy to miss back in the '70s when Preston was riding high on hits like "Nothing from Nothing," "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "That's the Way God Planned It." He played with the best back then—the Beatles on Abbey Road and Let It Be and as a sideman for the Rolling Stones, with whom he recorded and toured throughout the decade. Rich with royalties, he drove a trademark white Rolls-Royce, owned a Topanga Canyon ranch and, like many of his fellow rockers, dabbled freely in the drugs of his choice.
Then three years ago, Preston was hospitalized twice for heart seizures, the result of an addiction to freebase and crack that he now says sometimes cost him up to $1,000 a day. The following year he was arrested twice for drunk driving and sent to rehab for cures that didn't take. Back on the streets, he began spending his time in L.A.'s MacArthur Park, getting high openly among the addicts and homeless. "Cops would drive by and just let it go," he says. "They figured we were all killing ourselves anyway."
In August 1991, while still on probation for drunk driving, Preston was accused of attempted sexual assault by two young Mexican day laborers who claimed he had threatened them at knifepoint. Police found a small amount of cocaine at the Malibu home he shared with his manager and arrested him for probation violation. The sex charges, eventually dropped, were an attempt to extort money, Preston claims. "I am a lover, not a fighter," he says. "I would never do that to anyone." But he has come to look at his arrest as a blessing. "In a sense, God planned this," he says. "It made me look at how I have been wasting away. Very likely, I wouldn't have stopped."
The youngest of four children, Preston grew up in South Central L.A. His mother, Robbie, now 75, divorced his alcoholic father when Preston was a year old and supported her four children by working as a funeral-home secretary and church organist. At 3, Preston himself was playing keyboards. By 10, he was good enough to back such visiting gospel greats as Mahalia Jackson and the Reverend James Cleveland. It was during a Jackson concert that he was spotted by a Hollywood producer and signed to play the young W.C. Handy in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues.
At 16, Preston wont on tour through Europe with Little Richard, and during that tour, he says, he took his first drink—vodka, straight up. Within a year he had sampled cocaine as well. During the '70s he toured the world, wrote Joe Cocker's smash hit "You Are So Beautiful" and parlayed his gospel-flavored compositions into hits for himself. By decade's end he was earning up to $20,000 a night but spending so much of it on drugs that he was in debt to the IRS. "I wanted to keep the high that I felt onstage," he says. "After the crowds go home, you are left alone. Especially when you travel, there is no one there for you.
While living in Europe in 1986, Preston was hired as musical director of David Brenner's short-lived Nightlife talk show. He returned to New York City to begin his new job, bringing his addictions with him like extra baggage. "I would take a hit and go on national TV high." he says of those days in the spotlight. When the program was canceled a year later, he moved to Los Angeles, where his drug use escalated into freebasing and doing crack. Soon the addictive slide turned into a free-fall that would end, finally, in the Santa Monica courtroom in October.
Barring another relapse, Preston will remain at the Promises center until July, then serve the remaining three months of his sentence at home under house arrest and subject to random drug tests and unannounced visits from counselors. He talks hopefully of future albums, an autobiography, perhaps even a benefit concert—in MacArthur Park—to help others in their struggle against drug abuse. "I plan to fight the addiction this time, not just for selfish reasons," he says. "I want to help others get off, and that will help me stay off."
For now, though, the hard business of treatment and cure must come before any of those projects. As a musician, "Billy still has the talent," says Preston's sister Rodena. an L.A. secretary who has been laboring to put his business affairs in order. And will a cure finally lake? "We are hoping he can do it this time." she says cautiously. "We love him so much."
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles