The Secret History of "You Are So Beautiful"

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Six years ago today, on June 6, 2006, the world lost Houston-born musician Billy Preston. The session man, kind soul and all-around secret weapon was in the mix for some of the best and brightest moments of rock's heyday. The man backed up Little Richard and Sam Cooke, and as a child prodigy he played with Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson.

The keyboardist and organist laid down tracks for some of the biggest albums in rock history, including the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. and Sticky Fingers, Eric Clapton, most of the Beatles' solo work and numerous others. In some capacity, he would become a mainstay in the studio for most of those artists up until his death.

It's said that at one point John Lennon wanted him to join the Beatles, but Paul McCartney shot down the idea of having too many cooks in the kitchen. That's him with the Fab Four in that famous rooftop performance. Even still, he was billed briefly as "The Fifth Beatle," and he and George Harrison would be friends for life.

Imagine the funkiness that could have come from Preston being in the Beatles through the '70s had the band still existed then...

Preston worked well into the 21st century, throwing down on albums and singles by modern acts like Jet, Austin's Fastball, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others. If you ever think there's no reason to listen to Jet's Get Born disc, you are wrong. Preston played all those buttery piano bits.

But few know that he and the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson wrote the late-night radio request and wedding standard "You Are So Beautiful" together one night at a party.

Beach Boys biographer Jon Stebbins tells the tale of the song in his Web site's FAQ. It seems that Preston and Wilson were at a party late one night fumbling with songs, and Wilson helped him complete it. If you check out Wilson's solo work, you can hear where Wilson's mind took over "Beautiful." Wilson never pressed the issue, and let Preston have the cut and the royalties.

It wasn't Joe Cocker, as pop culture would have you believe. Or even John Belushi. Though it was Cocker who made the song go global and become iconic. It's one of the most beloved tunes of his career.

Preston's own take on the song comes with these spacey keys attached to the front of it, and has this amazing group of female backing vocals. The kissing sound effects are a fun touch, too.

This week while doing my homework for Friday night's Beach Boys gig in The Woodlands, I stumbled upon this fact while watching a Dennis Wilson documentary on YouTube. Easily the darkest and most tormented -- he partied with the Manson Family briefly -- of the Beach Boys, Dennis passed away in 1983 after a battle with alcoholism. His solo albums are also essential listening.

Of course, the only version that matters to most people is Joe Cocker's, with his gravelly voice taking command of the ballad by the balls. If you catch most people at the right time and place in their lives and play Cocker's version, you will make them cry.

Where Preston's is jaunty, Wilson's is now bittersweet, Cocker's take is downright haunting. Is he singing to a lost love, or a current one? Is he mourning or praising? You can take it either way.


No blog about the birth and history of "You Are So Beautiful" would be complete without mentioning Alfalfa's rendition in the 1994 film version of The Little Rascals. Poor kid, he's only a few years old and doesn't even know what sort of beauty lies ahead of him in life.

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