“These are BABY records”
So declared my 11 year old step brother to my 10 year old self as he thumbed through my meagre record collection in my blue shag carpeted bedroom many years ago. And he had a point I suppose. My favorite albums at the time were most certainly the soundtracks to Disney’s “Bedknobs & Broomsticks” and “the Aristocats” with “Free to be You and Me” running a close third. I was instantly humiliated and taken aback. “Well what records do you have ?” I quickly asked, trying to take the focus off me, now officially the baby. “Chicago and Elton John…” he smugly declared. I ingeniously/pathetically followed up with “Oh…so uh what’s your favorite song? “. He sneered and said “Butterflies are Free“. Okay. What he’d meant to say was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” ( Elton John). That “butterflies” line is just a repeated refrain in the song that, even with my limited knowledge of pop music at the time, was well known to me, since it was always on the radio … but I didn’t have the guts to correct him since I’d already lost the larger battle ( I will now: it’s called “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” asshole, duh). He then laugh snorted defiantly as he spotted my worn and obviously played to death Sesame Street “Original Cast” lp. Great.
“This is the greatest album of all-time” -direct quote from a 10 year baby
That little interaction made a huge impression on me (in a bad way) but it changed nothing. I liked what I liked and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t fight it. While I listened to the radio and was aware of pop music names and songs ( see Elton reference above !), my knowledge was gleaned solely from being a passenger in my Mom’s car and just being captive to whatever she had on. And sadly I gravitated toward the questionable : Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” is the first song I ever remember loving and…I still love it. Leave me alone.
I swear this record was sprinkled with love and made the world taste good…
To the modern youth of today it would appear I was in a state of arrested development, 10 years old and the top records in my rotation and consciousness were, okay one more time, baby records. That was true…but the tide was about to turn. There was something stirring in my blood just waiting to be woken up. And it did suddenly and unexpectedly in the aforementioned back seat of the car on the way to the supermarket which is when I first heard “Nothing from Nothing” by Billy Preston. Billy Preston was a child piano prodigy, whose skills and reputation grew as he did, to the point where he was backing everyone from Little Richard to Sam Cooke, and led to his becoming, literally, the fifth Beatle during their tumultuous latter years of existence ( that’s him on the keys in “Let It Be” and “Get Back”). I knew none of this at the time and it wouldn’t have meant a damn thing to me even if I had. All I knew was “Nothing from Nothing” ruled. I liked the banging piano riff, the chorus, the bounce of the whole thing. Here it is ( song starts at 2:27):
And so began my first step into musical adulthood : “Mom, can you get me the Billy Preston album with “Nothing From Nothing” on it ” ? And so on my birthday, she did ( you rule too Mom), and I finally came of musical age.
First impressions : That cover ( see at top ). Billy’s laughing face. His glowing ring. The mysterious paper he’s looking at. The peace loving kids. Honestly it’s still one of my favorite sleeves of all-time. As for the record itself well,uh… it was slick and funky and fun but if I’m being honest it was really home to only one killer (“Nothing”) and a whole lotta filler. Plus there was one song on it that gave me the genuine creeps. It was called “John the Baptist” and joyfully mentioned Jesus and baptism and I felt as a Jewish kid ( albeit only in name as we weren’t practicing in fact we may have been un-practicing if there is such a thing) that I had no business listening to it. Religious things scared me and this John the Baptist guy seemed like some kind of boogeyman who was trying to get me and if I played the song, he ultimately would. I would run to the turntable to skip it every time it came on. I wish I could explain this, but like some imaginary monster in the closet, there was no logical reasoning that could be applied.
Still, once Billy entered my life, the baby record years ended. Billy had thrown a ladder down to me and I climbed up and never looked back (well mostly, like I mentioned, I still love “Candy Man” and it’s something I just have to live with). AM radio, Soul Train, Creem Magazine, Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and the Beatles, well Billy kind of took my hand and led me down that thrilling pop hallway.
As for the man himself, after the “Kids” album, he remained in demand as a session musician, most prominently with the Stones, while continuing to pursue a solo career. He went on to have a huge hit in 1979 with Syreeta called “With You I’m Born Again” which as love ballads go is oddly mournful but remains an unerringly lovely thing.
Sadly Billy passed away in 2006 at the too young age of 59 ( as did beautiful Syreeta, his duet partner on “Born” and a wonderful artist in her own right, in 2004 at 57). He had some well-documented troubles and personal challenges but I’m not going to recount all that here, just know the deeper story is out there if you are interested in knowing more about his life.
“Nothing from Nothing” is still a fun and funky song but I rarely put it on. And though I’d like to say “Kids” is one of my favorite albums of all-time, it’s not….but then neither are “The Aristocats” or “Bedknobs”, or “Free to Be”. Still, Billy will always have a special place in my heart: he ushered me into the pop/soul/everything musical universe and yeah, truth be told, helped my ears to finally grow up….and so eternal thanks Billy, gonna end this with a little fire…