The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing”

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 – “Nothing From Nothing”

HIT #1: October 19, 1974

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

In October of 1975, the very first episode of Saturday Night Live opened with John Belushi as an immigrant in an English class, exaggeratedly mangling the language. George Carlin was the host of that first episode, and he did three monologues, all of them drawn from his stand-up act. Andy Kaufman did the thing where he stood next to a turntable as it played the Mighty Mouse theme. Albert Brooks had a short film. A pre-Muppet Show Jim Henson had a surprisingly ribald Muppet sketch. And Billy Preston played “Nothing From Nothing.”

These days, that’s probably how “Nothing From Nothing” is best-remembered: the first song ever performed on SNL, almost exactly a year after it had been #1. Preston wasn’t the only musical guest on that first episode; he shared those duties with Janis Ian. (Ian’s highest-charting song is 1975’s “At Seventeen,” which peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) But if you were starting an anarchic enterprise like that early SNL, Preston was a good person to have around. With both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Preston had plenty of experience playing the sideman, doing his job without taking attention away from the real stars. And Preston also possessed a deep silliness that fit pretty well with what the SNL players were doing. That silliness is all over “Nothing From Nothing.”

The first thing we hear on “Nothing From Nothing” is a riotous horn section playing the kind of thing that should soundtrack a Benny Hill pratfall. And the song doesn’t exactly gain gravity when Preston comes in. Preston plays what he called a “saloon piano,” banging out a vaudevillian barrelhouse riff. The song stays fast and antic. It never gets funky or intense or passionate. Instead, little touches like the buried-in-the-mix banjo let you know that this is just pure goony joy-music — music that has as much to do with ragtime as it does with Stevie Wonder.

As with “Will It Go Round In Circles,” Preston’s previous #1, “Nothing From Nothing” has vague but infectious lyrics. Preston and his co-writer Bruce Fisher built “Nothing From Nothing” out of a Shakespeare line from King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing.” (Lear says that after one of his daughters says that she can’t put her affection for her father into words. Lear is letting her know that that’s not going to be good enough.) The “Nothing From Nothing” lyrics don’t hold up to much literary scrutiny, but I think Preston is saying that he can only get into a relationship with someone who already has money: “I’m not trying to be your hero, cuz that zero is too cold for me… I’m a soldier in the war on poverty.”

That sounds like a tough, mercenary message, but that’s not how Preston plays it. Instead, the song is almost oppressively fun. It’s a romp. It’s Preston doing a character — the good-times piano-man — without putting any real stakes into it. Preston could be funky, and he could be emotionally resonant, too. (“You Are So Beautiful,” the Preston song that was later famously covered by Joe Cocker and Al Green, was both, and it was the B-side on some editions of “Nothing From Nothing.”) But “Nothing From Nothing” is neither. It’s pure schtick — schtick done with flash and style, but schtick nonetheless.

Preston wouldn’t get back to #1 after “Nothing From Nothing,” though he’d keep making hits for a while. But even when he was at the peak of his fame, Preston did as much work as a sideman as he did as a star. Even as he was scoring #1 singles, Preston was touring and recording as the Rolling Stones’ keyboardist. Later on, he turned to session work, playing records for people like Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. He also struggled with the weight of being a closeted gay man, dealing with addictions and legal issues later in life. He was convicted on cocaine charges and on charges that he’d sexually assaulted a 16-year-old boy. Years later, he was also convicted of insurance fraud when he burned down his own house.

But Preston kept working. He briefly joined the Band. He toured with Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. He played on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium. And in 2006, after suffering from respiratory failure, Preston died. He was 59.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mac Miller’s short and shattering voice-and-keyboard “Nothing From Nothing” cover, recorded in a 2018 Spotify session and released after Mac died:

(Mac Miller never made the top 10 as a lead artist, but he guested on Ariana Grande’s 2013 single “The Way,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)