Once heard, the voice of Gil Scott-Heron was never forgotten. His rich baritone could break your heart with its tenderness on ‘Your Daddy Loves You’ or ‘Did You Hear What They Said’ or seduce with power and passion on ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’ or ‘When You Are Who You Are’.
His words also had huge range, from grim visions of ghetto life (‘The Bottle’, ‘Whitey On The Moon’) to pure beacons of positivity (‘I Think I’ll Call It Morning’). He could also do sublime, almost playful satire, as on the spoken word pieces ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ or the extraordinary ‘B-Movie’, his 13-minute indictment of the Reagan administration (see below).
A crusading, outspoken artist of warmth and enormous subtlety, he railed against the injustices of the world with clarity and intelligence. And for many musicians and music fans alike, his deceptively-mellow blend of Fender Rhodes, flute, bass, percussion and drums was the very epitome of jazz/funk.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949. His mother was a singer, his father a professional footballer who became Celtic’s first black player in the ’50s. When his parents separated, he moved to Tennessee to stay with his grandmother. The racial abuse he suffered there would have a huge effect on his writing.
He rejoined his mother in the Bronx, New York, where his writing started to blossom. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, following in the footsteps of his poet hero Langston Hughes, where he met pianist and future collaborator Brian Jackson. Scott-Heron wrote two novels during this time, ‘The Vulture’ and ‘The Nigger Factory’, the former being published and well-received in 1970.
He started to perform more regularly with musicians and soon got the attention of Bob Thiele, owner and house producer of Flying Dutchman Records, who had worked with such singular talents as John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly. Scott-Heron’s debut album Small Talk at 125th And Lenox featured just spoken word poetry with percussion and occasional piano or guitar accompaniment, drawing on various topics including consumerism, black politics and middle-class hypocrisy.
Heavily influenced by The Last Poets, the famous ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ has been seen as a proto-rap song, a claim Scott-Heron later rejected, saying: ‘If there was any individual initiative that I was responsible for, it might have been that there was music in certain poems of mine with complete progression and repeating hooks which made them more like songs than just recitations with percussion.’
The legend goes that before the sessions for the second album Pieces Of A Man, Thiele asked Scott-Heron for his fantasy wish-list of musicians. ‘Ron Carter on bass… Bernard Purdie on drums… Hubert Laws on flute,’ Scott-Heron drawled, and was astonished when Thiele lined up all his first choices.
Augmented by Brian Jackson on keys and arrangements, Pieces Of A Man and Free Will, issued a year later, patented a new kind of groove-based music, combining a solid bass/drums foundation in the Motown tradition, modal keyboards influenced by McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, ethereal flute and saxophone playing and Scott-Heron’s spontaneous, adrenalised vocals. His inner-city observations included hard-edged social commentary but also the difficulties of romantic love and the power of jazz with its potent heroes and heroines.
In 1975, Scott-Heron became the first solo artist to sign with Clive Davis’s Arista Records, and was marketed as ‘the black Bob Dylan’. Despite this dubious comparison, the album First Minute Of A New Day introduced him to a new audience and gave him his first Top 40 record. A hit single ‘Johannesburg’ followed in 1976, followed by an impressive run of solid albums including Secrets, Reflections (featuring the aforementioned ‘B-Movie’) and Moving Target.
The albums featured a tight, funky band with a large horn section, guitar, percussion and sometimes two bass guitarists. Scott-Heron built a large and loyal live following and toured with Stevie Wonder in 1980 and 1981. He was also a very vocal opponent of the nuclear arms race, playing at the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1979 and issuing the chilling ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’.
After leaving Arista in 1985, Scott-Heron continued to tour regularly and also recorded the famous ‘Let Me See Your ID’ track alongside Miles Davis and Melle Mel for the Sun City – Artists United Against Apartheid album. The song compared race relations in the US with those in apartheid-era South Africa, implying that the US wasn’t that far ahead.
He returned to the studio for the 1994 album Spirits which featured the seminal ‘Message to the Messengers’ track which called on the hip-hop artists of the day to start preaching about social change rather than negatively perpetuating the existing social climate.
Scott-Heron battled drug addiction throughout the ’90s and 2000s, serving time in the notorious Rikers Island prison in 2001 for cocaine possession. He performed regularly at Glastonbury throughout the ’90s and played some legendary gigs at London’s Jazz Cafe and Town and Country Club. He returned to the studio in 2007 to begin recording I’m New Here, his first album in 16 years. It was released in 2010 to universal acclaim, critics applauding Scott-Heron and producer Richard Russell for their bold, stark musical soundscapes and chilling songs of loneliness and frailty.
Though Scott-Heron was now looking inwards rather than outwards, his observations were as pithy and poetic as ever. It was a remarkable comeback and seemed to herald a new dawn for his career, though tragically he died in a New York hospital on Friday 27th May after returning from Europe.
In 1978 Scott-Heron married the actor Brenda Sykes, with whom he had a daughter, Gia. He also had another daughter, Che, and a son, Rumal.
Gil Scott-Heron, poet, musician and author, born 1 April 1949; died 27 May 2011