'Fifth Beatle' Billy Preston Dies at 59

Billy Preston | 'Law & Order' | Randy Jackson | Little Richard | Ellen Barkin

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'Fifth Beatle' Billy Preston Dies at 59

The great singer-songwriter and performer Billy Preston, the real "Fifth Beatle," has died after a long illness as a result of malignant hypertension that resulted in kidney failure and other complications.

As a result of a medical insult, he'd been in a deep coma since last November 21, but was still struggling to recover. He died at Shea Scottsdale Hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he'd lived for the last couple of years.

Billy was called the Fifth Beatle because he played keyboards on "Let It Be," "The White Album" and "Abbey Road." He also played on the Rolling Stones' hit song "Miss You," and often played with Eric Clapton. He also did the organ work on Sly & the Family Stone's greatest hits.

Preston's own hits include "Nothing From Nothing," "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "You Are So Beautiful," which Joe Cocker turned into an international hit.

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Preston was actually mentored by Ray Charles, and acts like Little Richard (see below), Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland had a huge impact on him at a young age.

In the early '60s, Billy went to Europe with Little Richard who was playing in Hamburg. The Beatles were the opening act, and as the story goes, he was the one who made sure they got fed.

His friendship with them lasted through the 1960s and he was the first act signed to Apple Records, thanks to George Harrison. The resulting album is called "That's the Way God Planned It."

In 1971, Preston played in "The Concert for Bangladesh." Last year, in one of his final appearances, he performed at a reunion in Los Angeles for the release of the Bangladesh DVD with Ringo Starr and Harrison's son Dhani on guitar.

More recently, Billy can be heard on the latest albums by Neil Diamond and Red Hot Chili Peppers. He's also featured on the Starbucks soul album "Believe to My Soul," featuring Mavis Staples and Ann Peebles.

Among his film credits: "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

I had the good fortune to know Billy the last few years, and saw him perform — as chronicled in this column — last August at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut and last October at the Atlantis in the Bahamas.

He was one of those spectacular performers who put everything into his show, even though he had no working kidneys by then and was receiving dialysis. He was a warm, wonderful human being with a mile-wide smile. He was also a genius musician, the likes of whom we will not see again.

Rest in peace, Billy. You deserve it.

More 'Law’ & No 'Order' for NBC Shows

As I told you last month, the "Law & Order" shows produced by Dick Wolf are going through some big changes.

Now what I’m hearing is that actress Annabella Sciorra, one of my personal favorites, is out at “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Sciorra appears in about half the season’s episodes with Chris Noth, while the other half of the season is guided by Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe.

Also out at "Criminal Intent" is solid actor Jamey Sheridan, who put in five years there as the captain of police. There’s no word yet on casting for replacements.

At the same time, Dennis Farina is out at the main “Law & Order” show, where he had the unenviable task of succeeding the late Jerry Orbach. Farina was preceded to the exit door by Annie Parisse, who had one season as the assistant district attorney.

I guess the one person whose job is secure on the “Law & Order” shows is the casting director. One thing is for sure, Wolf never lets that department rest. It should be interesting to see them fill all these important roles before the new season begins filming.

“Criminal Intent,” by the way, is losing a longtime Wolf writer-producer in Rene Balcer. He’s being replaced by playwright and screenwriter Warren Leight, a favorite New York scribe whose play “Sideman” starred Edie Falco long before she was a "Soprano." Warren’s worked on “Law & Order” for many years, so he’s no stranger to Wolf’s ways.

At the same time, there are rumblings that Wolf is developing a new show about Los Angeles district attorneys who prosecute Hollywood types, with much emphasis on the Anthony Pellicano case.

If so, Wolf would do well to hire investigator Paul Barresi as a consultant. Barresi is the only link between Pellicano — for whom he worked — and the supermarket tabloids that the sullied private eye used to stir the pot in Hollywood.

Barresi’s treasure trove of tape recordings left to him by National Enquirer reporter Jim Mitteager could provide several seasons of riveting episodes.

Jacko's Bro Hits My Space With a Thud

Randy Jackson, Michael’s brother — not the one from “American Idol” — has entered Myspace.com, owned by News Corp., which also owns FOX News, with a thud.

Jackson closed down his Web site for his brother last year when not enough fans forked over $49.99 for subscriptions. The ones who did got very little for their money.

But now Randy is back, authorizing a “free” site on Myspace run by a Michael Jackson fan who was served with a restraining order last year by reporter Diane Dimond.

The site features two tracks from Randy’s little known 1989 solo album, as well as a blog by the youngest male Jackson and pictures of his Myspace friends.

Click here for the Michael Jackson Celebrity Center.

Randy is also sponsoring a contest for fans to send him their poems and artwork at randyjackson805@aol.com. Winners will get his autograph, if they want it.

Tutti Frutti, Oh Rudy

Little Richard, who rightly calls himself the Architect of Rock 'n' Roll, made his first appearance in 30 years at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on Saturday night.

I’m not clear about why he stayed away. Richard — whose real name is Richard Penniman — is 73, and on Saturday he wore a white suit with rhinestone adornments that looked like it had been designed by Liberace for Elvis. He also sported a unique wig meant to recall his days of high pompadours constructed with pomade.

“Rhythm and blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll,” Little Richard announced early in what turned out to be a glorious nearly two-hour show.

He then demonstrated how he, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry actually invented what we came to call rock 'n' roll. In a word, he was mesmerizing, which was something considering that he has a bum leg that prevents him from moving around too much.

But on the keyboards, there is no one else like him. Paul McCartney learned to yelp from Richard’s records; Elton John and Billy Joel picked up his piano acrobatics.

No one attacks a piano like Little Richard, and on Saturday he was in rare form. His long fingers skate along keys with exasperating precision. He never makes a mistake as he carves out his original brand of boogie-woogie staccato that literally could raise the dead if given the chance.

Richard’s patter with the audience remains hilarious even if tried but true. He had to get through endless shouts for requests from the audience, and obliged the nearly sold out crowd with “Lucille,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Slipping and Sliding” and Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.”

Several times it looked like he might launch into “Long Tall Sally,” but didn’t. When one fan shouted at the end for “Molly,” Richard replied: “But we played that. Don’t you remember?” And then he launched right back into it again.

Little Richard does not have a Kennedy Center honor, and like a lot of artists — including Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis — he exists for most people in a historical sense. I’ll bet most don’t even realize he’s alive. But he is, and more vital than ever.

History was made Saturday night at the Apollo — but artists like Richard need to be seen on TV by a young audience before they’re gone. Otherwise a whole generation will grow up thinking you just need to sample rock 'n' roll piano on a computer. They will never know what the great art of it is.

Barkin at the Diner

Yes, that was newly single Ellen Barkin sitting at the lunch counter yesterday of Greenwich Village’s beloved diner, Joe Jr.

And yes, that was also famed photographer Patrick Demarchelier sitting in a window booth with a dozen white roses watching his assistants dress up Joe’s for a shoot with Barkin for Vogue.

The funniest moments came watching the assistants try to “dress up” the diner for the shoot, while outside other assistants ate what looked like expensive pastries not from Teddy Hondros’ beloved establishment.

A crazy time was had by all. We’ll have to look in Vogue this fall and see if Barkin wore a waitress’ uniform. That’s where she got her start, you know, waiting tables at the legendary Chinese Chance with actress Glenne Headley in the early 1970s.…

Actor James Franco turned up at the premiere for “A Prairie Home Companion” and went right over to talk with Lily Tomlin — who was busy chatting with Lauren Bacall.

Franco was accompanied by a cute girl from L.A. who told me she was his girlfriend’s best friend, and was supposed to be watching him.

Franco’s in New York to shoot “Spider-Man 3.” He has half a dozen films coming out in the next year, including the much discussed at Cannes “Flyboys,” starring David Ellison, son of billionaire Larry Ellison, who put up the money for the project.…

Finally, someone tell director Menno Meyjes that Garland Jeffreys has the perfect song for his new movie, “Manolete,” starring Penelope Cruz and Adrien Brody. It’s Jeffreys’ 1990s hit “Matador,” which he just re-recorded for his greatest hits on Universal Records. Brody plays a matador in the film, of course…