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Billy Preston wrote "You Are So Beautiful" with one of his regular collaborators, Bruce Fisher. Preston's inspiration was his mother, who worked as a stage actress. According to his friend Sam Moore (who had assumed it was a standard love song), Preston was appalled to learn that Moore was using the song as a means to attract young women each time he sang it in concert. In Moore's description, Preston told him: "That song's about my mother!" The composition incorporates part of Preston's 1969 song "Let Us All Get Together (Right Now)", which he wrote with soul singer Doris Troy.
According to Beach Boys biographer Jon Stebbins, although Dennis Wilson is not credited as a writer, he helped Preston finish writing "You Are So Beautiful". Preston and Wilson are said to have collaborated on the song while attending a party where they discussed the concept of beauty. In the opinion of Craig Hlavaty, writing for Houston Press, while Wilson never sought to claim a share of the song's authorship, "If you check out Wilson's solo work, you can hear where Wilson's mind took over 'Beautiful.'"
Billy Hinsche, a session musician for the Beach Boys, stated that he was at the party and witnessed Preston and Wilson working on the song "out of the corner of my ear and the corner of my eye". He said that he was unaware of how much of the song Preston had already written prior to Wilson's involvement. "Maybe it was just his [Wilson's] interpretation of the song. Later Dennis said to me, 'Well, you know, I helped write that song.'" In a 2004 interview, when asked whether his brother Dennis was "one of the uncredited writers" of "You Are So Beautiful", Brian Wilson said: "He did not write that song."
"You Are So Beautiful" was originally published in the key of E? major in common time with a tempo of 70 beats per minute. Cocker's vocals span from B?3 to E?5.
Marc Lee of The Daily Telegraph noted the song's contemplative beginning, accompanied only by piano, followed by "lush strings" which "sweep in and carry [Cocker] off into passionate ecstasies". Lee commented that the song, one of Cocker's best-known works, was a good example of Cocker's ability to be both gentle and "gloriously stirring".
Cocker performed the song along with Ray Charles in a 1983 television tribute to Charles, "A Man and his Soul.
Television programs have used commercial recordings of the song. Seventies-themed sitcomThe Wonder Years used a recorded version of the song in Season 6, Episode 16, "Nose", where it played at the end of the episode at a school dance where Kevin's friend Ricky loses a girl with a large nose just as Ricky had come to appreciate her.
In 2016, the song appears in the season one finale of Quantico entitled "Yes", first sung by a drunk Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers) and Brandon Fletcher (Jacob Artist) celebrating their graduation, then leading into the Joe Cocker version for the remainder of the scene.
In The Simpsons season 2 episode "Simpson and Delilah," a singing telegram employee serenades Marge with the song when Homer forgets their anniversary. At the end, when Homer loses all the hair he grew with no way of growing it back, Marge tenderly sings it to him in bed.