The Bitter Battle Over "Fifth Beatle" Billy Preston's Estate
"Billy Preston 1901720021" by Heinrich Klaffs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Billy Preston in Hamburg, Germany
On Nov. 21, 2005, the man known as "The Fifth Beatle" lay on a hospital bed, dressed in street clothes, thrashing and gasping for air. Billy Preston had just arrived at the Intensive Care Unit at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey, Calif., rushed there from the Canyon, a nearby drug-rehab center. A large, frustrated nurse wrestled with the legendary, 59-year-old organ player (and native Houstonian), struggling to fit a black oxygen mask over his face. Eyes wide with fear, Preston dodged his head back and forth, unable to breathe.
Holding his hand at his bedside was Preston's manager, Joyce Moore. She tried in vain to calm him down.
"I gripped him tight and said, 'Boo, you gotta relax,'" Moore says. "I thought he was having a panic attack. I kept saying, 'Breathe with me...breathe with me.'"
But it wasn't a panic attack or the pangs of crack withdrawal. Years of drug abuse had culminated in malignant hypertension and pericarditis, the internal drowning of the area around Preston's heart. He mustered the strength to push the mask away, look up at Moore and painfully utter his last words: "I...can't!"
Suddenly Preston's eyes rolled back, and his grip loosened. The monitors flatlined. Even after doctors drained the fluid around his heart, he didn't wake up. He lay in a coma for nearly six months before dying on June 6, 2006. The loss is a nightmare that Moore's mind refuses to erase.
"I feel like Billy's sitting here. It's weird...He never leaves," says the spindly, silver-haired 69-year-old. "It's not a physical presence, more like a conscience thing."
Producing a string of acclaimed albums and hits through the 1960s and '70s, Preston's talent is knitted into the fabric of rock and roll, soul, gospel and funk. In life, his talent defied gravity. The same goes for the financial mess that has followed his death.
On a recent Tuesday night, Moore, dressed in a black-and-white-striped cardigan, sat in an empty restaurant inside a Costa Mesa hotel. There was barely room for food on the table, which was covered in court documents, the earthly remnants of Preston's ghost. They're pieces of the musician's tangled, now-long-posthumous bankruptcy case, originally filed in 2005. For nearly a decade, Moore has waged a quixotic battle with bankruptcy trustee lawyers in Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse.
Besides settling what the bankruptcy trustee believes to be Preston's $4 million debt, there's the fight over money gained from Preston's intellectual property and royalties from Preston Music Group Inc. (PMGI), of which Moore is the CEO. Decades later, Preston's soulful classics - including "Nothing From Nothing," "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "That's the Way God Planned It"-- sadly describe the legal battle that has followed his death.
Accusations of misconduct have been leveled by both sides of the case. The bankruptcy trustee's lawyers accuse Moore of using Preston's royalties for her own financial gain, not paying his debts and refusing to disclose the financial records of PMGI. In the media, she's been accused of isolating Preston from his family in life and hoarding his money in death.
Moore insists the bankruptcy trustee has no right to go after intellectual property as part of the delinquency of Preston's estate and that the entire case itself is a fraud. The war has put a hold on concerts, tours and projects done in the artist's memory -- in other words, it kills any and all projects that might create revenue to pay off his creditors.
And Moore believes she is the only person alive who has the right to determine Preston's legacy. "Here's a man who was a genius, literally, who trusted me with his life and his legacy," she says. "Walk away from that? Maybe most people would. I can't."
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Photo courtesy of Joyce Moore Joyce Moore with Preston
Copies of the 2005 bankruptcy forms obtained by OC Weekly show they were initially filled out by Moore and Preston, then completed by Perlman. To call them sloppy is an understatement. Aside from being outdated and marked in purple, there are numerous crossed-out names, misspellings and false information, which Perlman allegedly contributed. Even many of Preston's signatures were later suspected by Moore and attorneys of the Preston estate to be forgeries. The trade name "Billy Preston" was not listed anywhere in the document, only his legal name, William Everett Preston.
Despite his crack addiction and poor health, Moore says, Preston made a fortune touring with people such as longtime friend Eric Clapton and her husband, R&B legend Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave fame). He also collected his share of his music and publishing royalties. For Perlman, Moore says, helping the star to sell his home would make him look like a hero and possibly position him to replace Moore as Preston's manager.
However, Perlman caused financial havoc for Preston, Moore alleges, by filing the forms as if they were a legitimate Chapter 11 bankruptcy, something she claims he did without her or Preston's knowledge. (In a deposition before his death in 2012, Perlman admitted he had no authority to file the papers.)
The bankruptcy case was filed in Los Angeles while Preston was in a coma. Appointed as trustee was R. Todd Neilson -- a rainmaker represented by law firm Lewis-Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith (LBBS), who handled bankruptcies for Mike Tyson, Suge Knight and Death Row Records, among others. In 2006, the case was given to Judge Theodor Albert in downtown L.A. Albert was moved to Santa Ana Federal Court later that year, and he took the case with him.
Also that year, the Chapter 11 case got converted into a Chapter 7, which mandated the liquidation of Preston's assets. This happened despite a federal bankruptcy rule that would normally not allow this when someone dies. Once the conversion was approved, Neilson and LBBS also set their sights on PMGI, which controlled Preston's publishing rights and intellectual property.
"If the Billy Preston trust was enforced as of the date that the bankruptcy petition was filed, we would have the right to terminate the Billy Preston trust," says LBBS attorney Larry Halperin. "If we did, then the distribution of funds would not go to PMGI."
As an individual and CEO, Moore shared 50 percent of the company's stock with Preston until his death, when she assumed his share. Moore says 75 percent of PMGI's profits are set up to go to his probate-avoidance trust to be given to various charities chosen by Preston. At first, LBBS asked Moore to hand over any and all documents and possessions belonging to Preston, including bank and royalty statements. This information would later be used to stop payments to PMGI (and therefore Preston's estate) from Universal, AFTRA, Warner Music and other companies.
LBBS also began working with Preston's disinherited half-sisters, Rodena, Gwen (who is now deceased) and Lettie, to try to get them some money in the case. The fighting continued in Santa Ana Federal Court for nearly a decade. "This case has all been done in the dark, and it continues in the dark," Moore says. "And as long as it functions in the dark, they can do this." LBBS says that Moore has filed endless motions to delay the case.
In 2014, bankruptcy lawyers at LBBS claimed that money was coming into PMGI through licensing and publishing funds from the European company Buma/Stemra. They allege the income hadn't been disclosed to the bankruptcy trustee. However, payments are reflected in the claims register going back as far as 2006. LBBS demanded Moore disclose how much her company was making off Preston while his posthumous bankruptcy case lingered, with creditors allegedly unpaid.
Moore says she's doing everything possible to pay off Preston's debt, including using PMGI money to try to free up the rights to his music, which she insists were never supposed to be part of the bankruptcy. The battle for her famous client is a test of endurance, to say the least.
"That I'm not crazy at this point is a miracle," Moore says. "This case is enough to drive anyone nuts."
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Photo by David Hume Kennerly/White House Photograph Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library Preston, George Harrison and President Gerald Ford at the White House
Preston, having been a highly regarded artist and sideman for years, was about to reach the peak of his post-Beatles fame. He was the only musician ever credited alongside the Fab Four (for helping to write their 1969 hit "Get Back"). Most historians also credit his boisterous personality and charm in the studio for keeping the band together a bit longer. The band even considered making him a permanent part of the lineup, hence the nickname "The Fifth Beatle." Sporting a giant afro wig, a sharp suit and his signature gap-toothed smile, he introduced himself to Moore.
"I thought he was just ridiculous-looking, but he was such a sweet guy," Moore remembers.
In 1988, Preston and Moore's third husband, Sam Moore, were booked together on tour throughout Italy. The trio drove around in a maroon, Volvo station wagon with broken air conditioning for a sweltering six weeks. Dirty jokes and salty language bounced around the car as they made their way through lush countryside. Moore still has grainy 8mm film of Preston riding horseback in the mountains between stops.
"It was like going to summer camp," Moore says. "Just one ridiculous adventure after the next."
Preston's sensitive honesty offstage belied his role as the masculine, organ-playing swami of soul, whose distended shrieking notes accompanied the Beatles on their final rooftop concert. On the outside, he was the charming prodigy who cut his teeth playing for Mahalia Jackson at age 10. He'd learned wild showmanship from Little Richard and perfected his art with Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin and many others. But Preston opened up to Moore about his entire life story, including the tragic parts.
The star was the victim of molestation and sodomy as a child. After moving with his family to L.A. from Houston, his mother -- also a brilliant organ player -- performed in a touring production of Amos 'n' Andy. Preston was about nine years old when a piano player in the company began assaulting him. His mother refused to believe him, and it went on for an entire summer. He was also molested by a local preacher. It was devastating abuse that he would hide with smiles, but from which he would never fully recover.
Preston would become successful in spite of the trauma as a virtuosic, in-demand organ player with chart-topping albums and hit singles under his belt. In the early '70s, while he was engaged to model/actress Kathy Silva, he returned home one evening to find his fiancee in bed with his friend Sly Stone (whom Silva later famously married onstage at Madison Square Garden). That ended Preston's relationships with women, Moore says. He began smoking crack regularly and having sex with men.
"[Getting high] was the only way he could do it," Moore says. "And when his sexual urges came down on him, he couldn't bring himself to ever touch a woman again."
Preston didn't have long-term relationships, but his sexual orientation became widely known in the entertainment world. However, being an openly gay black man associated with the black church wasn't an option for him.
His career stalled in the '80s, lost in a haze of cocaine and alcohol. In 1991, he was arrested after a 16-year-old boy claimed Preston had shown him pornography and committed obscene acts with him. He was also accused of assault with a deadly weapon. His punishment was a procession of rehab, house arrest and probation. In 1997, he broke his parole by testing positive for cocaine, resulting in a three-year sentence. While in prison, authorities found that a team including his former manager had staged car crashes, burglaries and fires for insurance purposes. Preston declared bankruptcy twice around this time and was sentenced to another year in jail.
"When he got out, he didn't think he was going to be accepted," Moore says. "He thought he'd never work again."
Moore was the first person to offer Preston gigs after his prison stint. She became his manager when he toured with Eric Clapton in 2001. Though Preston was starting to break back into full-time show business, the troubled star was nearly derailed when he experienced renal/kidney failure twice while on tour that year and again in 2004. Both bouts nearly killed him. After that, Preston remained on dialysis until his death.
He moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in September 2004 to live in an estate ten minutes from the Moores. Despite all of the drama in his life, Preston -- a cropped haircut in place of the 'fro -- still had some decent years of success touring in the mid-2000s. His potential income in 2006 was to be well more than $2 million, making him far from financially insolvent at the time of the bankruptcy.
In October 2005, Preston performed in LA at a DVD-release event for The Concert for Bangladesh, a 1972 film (and album) chronicling the awareness- and fundraising effort spearheaded by the late George Harrison. Sadly, another would-be bright spot in his career was marred by drug use. According to his personal assistant at the time, Preston wound up sneaking a bag of crack onto his flight -- risking even more prison time -- and then feigned sickness to get out of concert rehearsals so he could score more drugs.
"For him to have taken a baggie full of crack cocaine on a commercial airline, and then go out in a $100,000 car into the hood and get some more rock -- it had totally taken him," Moore says.
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Despite never living in Orange County, Moore has become quite familiar with downtown Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse. For the past eight years, she has regularly hopped onto a flight in, then gone to the courthouse, rolling her briefcase past security and through the echoing marble foyer as she makes her way to courtroom 5B. But her motions are often either denied, filed improperly, or written less like a lawyer and more like a standup comedian. A few times, her written filings have compared Neilson's main troupe of underling attorneys on the case to various cartoon characters and cast members from The Wizard of Oz.
But her studied legalese and accounting is on point regarding a few facts about the case. Documents provided by Moore show that all the secured creditors in the Preston bankruptcy were paid off in 2006. As for much of the unsecured debt, a huge chunk goes all the way back to 1990. The statute of limitations for the IRS or the bankruptcy trustee to collect on debt is ten years. Plus, Albert was once represented by LBBS attorneys in a malpractice case when he was a lawyer. Despite the potential conflict of interest, the case was allowed to continue with Albert as the judge in the Preston case.
A more tangled aspect of the case involves Moore's former attorney, Bruce Fein (also a former U.S. deputy attorney general). While representing Moore, Fein says, he had a large amount of case documents stolen from his computer by his ex-wife, with whom he was going through a bitter divorce. The ex-wife, Mattie Lolavar, gave the documents to LBBS's Halperin and revealed information about Buma/Stemra over the phone. Court records show Halperin has tried to use those documents to compel the judge to force PMGI to hand over filings regarding the company's profits since Preston's death.
"[PMGI] and its trustee Joyce Moore, an individual, were and are continuing to interfere with the orderly handling of a bankruptcy estate by delaying proceedings and constantly attempting to have unknown access to property rightfully subject to the estate," the firm alleges.
Files related to the Edward Snowden case were also believed to be among the pile of documents Halperin accepted from Lolavar. Because of that, Fein lost the appointment to the Snowden trial, and he later recused himself from Moore's case. Since February 2014, Moore has continued as a "pro se" interested party without counsel. While she knows the facts of the case better than anyone, her overall lack of legal experience is apparent when filing motions or addressing the court.
"With all due respect, Mrs. Moore, the problem is you are not a lawyer, and you do not have background on how to do things procedurally," Albert declared in a recent hearing. "I'm not upset about that, but hopefully, explaining things to you a third time, you'll get it right."
She's also had her share of criticism from Preston's family. In a 2006 article on the case, half-sisters Rodena and Lettie curiously labeled Moore and her husband as the "white couple" who hijacked their brother and were "attempting to assume control over all of [his] assets," refusing to let him see his family.
However, Moore says, she and her husband (who is obviously black) had almost wiped out their life's savings to fight the case and until recently had been using $40,000 per year from PMGI earnings to do so.
Twice, Moore says PMGI offered to settle with LBBS, but neither side could agree on the terms. Last month, Albert gave both sides some stern advice in court.
"Litigation is always -- particularly in bankruptcy court -- an invitation to a discussion. Because you never get anything black and white, it's always a shade of gray, and it costs a boatload of money to get there," the white-haired and -mustachioed judge observed, leaning back in his chair. "And all of the heated rhetoric makes it more difficult, not less. But maybe peace is going to break out in the valley, and maybe intelligence will overtake emotion. I hope so."
But what broke out in the valley two weeks later wasn't peace. It was a big-ass fire.
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On December 8, 2014, LBBS's L.A. office was severely damaged after monstrous flames engulfed a complex of apartments under construction on the 900 block of West Temple Avenue. More than 250 firefighters rushed to the blaze, a product of arson adjacent to the 110 freeway. Flames roared higher than the tops of some downtown buildings, as the fire burned for an hour and a half, producing an acrid cloud of smoke. By the time it was over, the Da Vinci apartment complex was obliterated; LBBS suffered the brunt of the collateral damage.
All the windows on the fire-facing side were blown out, and the firm's sign was warped by the intense heat. Computers melted; desks, filing cabinets and chairs burned. Shards of glass covered the parking structure below. Despite the catastrophe, the firm says that most of its legal data was housed off-site and lawyers were quickly able to work from its San Bernardino and Costa Mesa offices. But a chunk of important paper documents for the Preston case did go up in smoke, enough of them for the firm's attorneys to finally come to Moore with a plan for mediation.
"I remember getting the call about the fire and looking up in the sky saying, 'Billy! What the hell did you do?!'" Moore recalls.
A date for mediation hasn't been set yet, and PMGI still refuses to let LBBS review its records.
"Preston Music Group is not in the bankruptcy; nothing should be in the bankruptcy. It's a complete fraud!" Moore insists. "Basically, nothing [LBBS has] done in this case has been legal, including filing the damn thing." The firm still alleges that Moore's company should be investigated for collecting Preston's royalties without telling the court.
Although a fire didn't end the case, that's not the reason Moore still gets emotional when talking about Preston. It's the thought that he was so close to finally turning his life around when he fell unconscious.
Four days before his coma, Moore got a call from Preston after his group-therapy session. He was pissed and cussing up a storm over something he'd said in public.
"Are you satisfied! I hope you're happy, goddamn it!" he yelled.
"Are you okay?" Moore asked.
"No, I'm not okay!...I did it! Goddamn it, I told it!" Preston yelled.
"You told what?" Moore asked.
"I told them I'm gay!"
She paused. Preston was never able to talk so openly about his homosexuality. Then Moore started bawling on the other end of the phone.
"What are you crying about?!" Preston yelled.
"Because you're well," Moore said, sobbing. "The reason that you had the drug problem was because you couldn't come to terms with who you've become. For you to say it out loud in therapy means you're cured. You'll never have to do [drugs] again. You're safe; you're okay, Boo."
After a brief silence, they cried together over the phone. Moore had no idea that it would be her last conversation with Preston. Now, even in death, Moore believes the soul of the troubled genius and his legacy are still worth saving.
"I'm the Timex watch of the Preston case," she says with a somber smile. "I take a licking and keep on ticking. No one can change the facts of the case. They can try. But I can put my head down on a pillow at night knowing that I did everything I could for Billy Preston."
Note: this article originally appeared in Houston Press sister paper OC Weekly.
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