by Stephen Ramsay
While Gil Scott-Heron is most widely known for his oft-quoted, little understood diatribe ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, his body of work is extensive, varied, and crucial to the formation of modern R&B. A self-described ‘bluesologist’, frequently touted as the godfather of rap, his collaborations with songwriting partner Brian Jackson in the 1970s produced richly textured and immensely listenable music that paved the way for contemporary jazz and neo-soul, and is sampled endlessly in hip-hop to this day.
Despite this – and in large part because of his radical politics – he never received the popular recognition that so many of his peers, like Stevie Wonder, believed he deserved.
His first studio album, 1971’s Pieces of a Man, received critical acclaim upon release. Being more accustomed to spoken word, Scott-Heron’s singing voice is still young and rough around the edges. Nonetheless, the thoughtful songwriting, Jackson’s creative piano work, and Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie’s irrepressible drums add up to an original and captivating listen.
The haunting title track features a child’s perspective, as he describes his father’s breakdown upon becoming unemployed. It’s delivered with such pathos that he could credibly be singing from experience. Scott-Heron’s father, however, left for Glasgow when his son was only one and a half, and they only met by chance twenty years later.
His father, Jamaican born Gil Saint Elmo Heron, was an ex-Canadian air force man and gifted footballer. When the Scottish national team visited Chicago, Heron played against them in an exhibition match, and the coaches were so impressed that they offered him a position at Celtic FC. Heron accepted, forcing a break up with Scott-Heron’s mother Bobby.
Scott-Heron, writing in his memoir, sympathised with his father’s choice. Soccer in 1940s America was as much boxing as football for a young black man who excelled beyond his white peers. Heron left his family behind in 1950 to become Celtic’s first black player, scoring on his League Cup debut against Morton in 1951, and earning the nickname ‘the Black Arrow’.
Fans attending Scott-Heron’s later gigs in Glasgow would make a point of wearing Celtic tops, a tribute which earned the Scots a soft spot in Scott-Heron’s recollection.
Scott-Heron and Jackson reached their artistic peak with 1974’s Winter in America. Jackson’s mesmerising chord changes and Scott-Heron’s simple, evocative lyrics paint a soul-wrenching picture of alienation and longing on ‘Rivers of My Fathers’, while ‘H20gate Blues’ offers an insightful and humorously incisive commentary on the state of American politics under Nixon and Spiro Agnew. ‘The Bottle’ is a deceptively infectious jazz-funk number with a message whose relevance, much like Scott-Heron’s father, travels across the Atlantic to Glasgow.
In the following years, Scott-Heron and Jackson’s band became known for their tight, high-energy live performances, and put out a number of hard grooving tracks that should have been bigger hits: 1977’s anti-nuclear ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’; 1978’s ‘Angel Dust’; 1981’s ‘Gun’. Creative tensions between the duo, however, resulted in their break up in 1980, with Scott-Heron going his own way.
Meanwhile, Scott-Heron’s revolutionary political leanings had invoked the ire of the FBI and CIA, and as they began to target him, his corporate funding gradually dissolved. He was eventually dropped by his label in the mid 1980s, and was relegated to touring in small venues.
Fortunately he was signed by a new label for a one-off, 1994’s Spirits. It features ‘Message to the Messengers’, a respectful but critical glance at the state of violent and misogynistic language in rap, a scene for which he evidently felt at least some personal responsibility.
But in the early 2000’s, he was diagnosed with HIV, and on the dark, musically sparse I’m New Here, released in 2010, he sounds like a different man. His illness has ravaged his voice, yet the soulfulness remains, and his spoken word becomes deeper and arguably more impactful than before. The effect is a powerful, occasionally harrowing listen, but one in which the warmth and humour of his voice shines through.Gil Scott-Heron died in 2011. The tremors of his impact, musically, culturally, and politically, can be felt to this day – although he’ll have no highlights on the eleven o’clock news, and his theme tune will not be sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones or Johnny Cash any time soon, the spirit of his revolution will continue to burn as brightly as ever