In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Billy Preston had done a whole lot of things by the time he got to #1. A self-taught keyboard prodigy, Preston had played with Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Sly & The Family Stone. He’d also come close to joining the Beatles — playing on a bunch of late-period Beatles records, sitting in on their final rooftop concert, and getting an extremely rare “with” credit on “Get Back.” Preston recorded the first version of George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” with Harrison co-producing, though Harrison’s own version of the song was the one that hit. And Preston had gotten as high as #2 with the zippy 1972 clavinet-funk instrumental “Outa-Space.” (It’s a 6.)
That is one hell of a pop-music résumé. Preston did all that by age 26, and then he got his first #1 song. “Will It Go Round In Circles,” the first of two Billy Preston #1 singles, is a sunny soul-funk vamp, and it practically bursts with joy. Billy Preston had plenty of reason to be happy. He’d done some things.
The worst thing you can say about “Will It Go Round In Circles” is that it’s not a Stevie Wonder song. Wonder and Preston were contemporaries, and they were both former prodigies who were early adapters to the clavinet and who shared a lot of the same friends and collaborators. But Wonder was a paradigm-shifting genius, while Preston was simply an extremely good musician. As a singer, Preston sounds nothing like Wonder, but “Will It Go Round In Circles” is the same type of big-band squelch-stomp that Wonder might’ve made a few years earlier. It can’t stand up to the kind of thing that Wonder was doing at the time, but on its own terms, it’s a lot of fun.
There’s a lot going on on “Will It Go Round In Circles”: pianos, organs, harmonica, horns that burst together and then weave in and out of each other. The Brothers Johnson, soon to become hitmakers themselves, play guitar and bass, and they mostly give Preston and some of the other musicians room to go nuts. (The Brothers Johnson’s highest-charting single is 1976’s “I’ll Be Good To You,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) Preston’s a keyboardist first and a singer second, but he still sells “Will It Go Round In Circles.” He’s got a nice full-bodied bleat, and he clamps down on certain words with absolute relish. (I love how “moral” becomes “maw-rulllll.”)
Preston co-wrote “Will It Go Round In Circles” with his friend and regular collaborator Bruce Fisher, who got to quit his job in the NBC mailroom when the song blew up. Preston had told Fisher that he had a song but didn’t have a melody. They made a joke out of that, and the joke became a song. The “Will It Go Round In Circles” lyrics are all silly paradoxical lines about a story with no moral (“let the bad guy win once in a while”) or a dance with no steps (“let the music move me around”). If you wanted, you could read this as Preston making a gnomic point about the eternal clash between expectations and reality. But when you listen to the song, it’s pretty clear that he’s just having fun, and that those lyrics are really just a framework for these expert musicians to run wild. In the end, it’s a best-case scenario for the jam-based song. It’s the sound of a bunch of killer musicians doing whatever they want with a nasty groove, and refusing to let the whole thing mean anything more than that.
In real life, Preston wasn’t as happy as he sounded on this song. He had to deal with the impossible reality of being a closeted gay man living his life in public. (He only came out shortly before his 2006 death.) And in his later years, his cocaine addiction would absolutely derail his career. But for the four minutes of “Will It Go Round In Circles,” you can hear Preston shaking off whatever might have been weighing him down, losing himself in doing the thing that he was really, really good at doing.
BONUS BEATS: Preston briefly joined the Band in the early ’90s, though he had to leave because of cocaine and sexual assault charges. Here’s video of Preston and the Band playing “Will It Go Round In Circles” at a 1991 Arrowhead Ranch show, with Preston getting in some weirdly amazing dance moves:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Click, the great Bay Area rap crew, sampled “Will It Go Round In Circles” on “Old School,” a track from the classic 1992 album Down And Dirty. Here’s that song:
(He doesn’t rap on “Old School,” but the most successful member of the Click is E-40. E-40 doesn’t have any top-10 singles as a lead artist, though “U And Dat,” his 2006 T-Pain/Kandi Girl collab, did make it as high as #13. But E-40 did have a guest verse on Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers,” which peaked at #7 in 2006. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: House star Hugh Laurie sometimes gets together with a band — Band From TV, get it? — who play covers at charity events. Here’s a video of Laurie and his band covering “Will It Go Round In Circles” in 2008:
Check out Greg Grunberg from Alias on the drums! Teri Hatcher apparently sings for Band From TV now, but I’m pretty sure she’s not in this video.
THE NUMBER TWOS: Paul Simon’s cuttingly written Muscle Shoals throwdown “Kodachrome” peaked at #2 behind “Will It Go Round In Circles.” It’s an 8.