The World Has Lost One of the Greats —Gil Scott Heron Passes.
ATLANTIC CITY — I was disturbed beyond disbelief when I received a text Saturday morning from a close friend that one of my all-time favorite musicians, singers, songwriters and people had died, the Harlem, N.Y.-based Gil Scott Heron.
His death was originally announced via his manager on Twitter and then confirmed by his latest record company XL recordings, who released Scott-Heron’s 2010 “comeback” album I’m New Here.
I was lucky enough to meet Gil several times over the past 20 years, and spoke to him on occasion on the phone from his New York home or office — especially over the past few years, after we hung out after a show in Washington DC, at the Blues Alley club a few Junes ago.
He let me listen to a few songs from his then-uncompleted new album, I’m New Here over the phone. I’ll never forget that.
He was working on a book describing the 1980 tour he was on with Stevie Wonder, when, not only John Lennon was murdered (the news of which hit Wonder and Scott-Heron had before they were to go on, and Stevie, according to Gil, decided not to tell the crowd — this was before the age of the Internet — so as not to cause a traumatic environment. Instead, Gil Scott Heron and his outstanding band — The Amnesia Express — opened the show without a mention that Lennon had been gunned down in NYC. Wonder’s band then came on and followed suit. Then, right before the end of Wonder’s set, he did reveal the sad news to the outdoor, big-arena crowd.
During one of the many often very funny, authority-questioning, and freedom-inspiring stories during his live show sets, which had just begun to become more frequent in recent year. The reason? Well, before the release of I’m New Here in 2010, it was, as Gil once told me candidly, “When me and the band need groceries.” But after the release of I’m New Here and the critical acclaim for it that followed around the world, Gil-Scott Heron — whose father was an Irish football star — was constantly performing around the U.S., including several stops in DC, Philly, and New York’s S.O.B.s in recent years; as well as at festivals around the world, especially in Europe, where he, like fellow truth-teller and songwriter Leonard Cohen, has always had a much bigger fan base and promotion in the media. It was no coincidence he signed with XL Recordings (Radiohead’s label), based in the U.K.
But getting back to that Stevie Wonder-John Lennon story and that book that Gil had been working on finishing up after getting a few requests from the publisher to edit certain sections in recent years — anyways, the two most important things about that story, and that have to do with the legacy that this magical, tortured, beautiful, thoughtful, addicted, depressed, hilarious and genius songwriter leaves behind is that, as Gil told audiences at several shows in recent years, including a Passover show a few years ago at the World Cafe in Philly, and at the Tin Angel, also in Philadelphia — a city where Gil had a strong bond and a large contingent of fans, friends, family and followers — more recently, the media reported, at the time of Lennon’s death, that: STEVIE WONDER DOESN’T EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE LENNON’S DEATH AT CONCERT, even though Wonder deliberated for a long time on what to do, and Gil, whose band was on tour with Wonder that year, says that he did indeed inform the audience when he felt it was appropriate to do so.
Evidently, not wanting to cause any mass chaos or crying, Wonder waited to till the end of his set to speak the grim news about the ex-Beatle to the thousands gathered to dance and groove to Stevie’s and Gil’s sets. However, as Gil pointed out in his oft-repeated story, the reporter at the Wonder/Scott-Heron show “didn’t stay until the end,” only sticking around for Gil’s set (during which it was agreed beforehand that he wouldn’t make any mention) and a part of Stevie Wonder’s set.
The point is that “you can’t always believe everything you read in the newspapers,” said Scott-Heron, and that the media only reports “what they see,” even if it’s not always the truth, as in this case, which only helped divide Scott-Heron’s white and black fans further than they already seemed in 1980.
Gil was an underground legend in America and a hero among early rap artists and the R&B fans whom embraced him as his Amnesia Express rolled around the world from “Snow in Nashville” to “Rain in Philly,” as he sings in his biographical song “Hello Sunday, Hello Road!” from his still unreleased-on-CD 1977 album for Arista entitled Bridges (with longtime cohort Brian Jackson).
Before the recent worldwide hoopla surrounding Gil’s comeback album and this past year’s “sequel,” a remix of songs from theNew Here recording sessions by Jamie XX, from the U.K sensation xx, called We’re New Here (also on XL) he was selling “bootleg” versions of his own rare-to-find-on-CD or not-available-officially-on-CD albums 1980 and Bridges at his shows.
I’ll never forget sitting backstage at the Blues Alley in DC, on the final night of a three or four night residency at the jazz club, speaking with Gil, who had just spent a major portion of the preceding couple decades either in jail physically or spiritually related to his drug addictions, and telling him about how my two young daughters and I listen to Bridges in the car every morning on the way to school and they request certain songs and sing along to every jam on that unbelievable underrated album.
Like all of the albums he put out, some with Brian Jackson — such as Secrets, 1980, Spirits, and Winter in America, among others, Gil never received the respect, help or fame and fortune that he so much deserved as, in this writer’s opinion, one of the modern era’s greatest thinkers, jokesters and songwriters — right up there (unabashedly) with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and just as prolific, inspiring to individual communities and musicians around the world, and socially-conscious as Marvin Gaye or Chuck D. (Chuck D. should read his eulogy.)
Gil’s shows were magic carpet rides through his recorded output, which included several albums for Clive Davis’ Arista label. His Roland keyboard sound and playing was like no one’s and his singing was a conversational, jazz-inflected gospel soul that shot directly to your heart. His band was also unreal — most of the time, especially in its heyday of the 1970s and early’ 80s — and Robert Gordon, the band’s “Secretary of Entertainment” for decades, told me once that the band’s original drummer was going to be a guy from Atlantic City, “but it didn’t work out.”
Strangely enough, the mayor of Atlantic City, Lorenzo Langford, who has been a big-time Gil Scott Heron fan, as well as his wife, for decades, and who can recite Scott-Heron’s spoken-word poems or song lyrics at the drop of a hat, had been interested in bringing Gil Scott-Heron to Atlantic City this year. This writer had gotten he and Scott-Heron to swap contact info, but the connect never happened. When the mayor asked me to find out how much he gets for a concert appearance, I called Gil and asked him and he told me: “Well, it depends what it is. You know, is it inside? Outside? Big room? I mean, if it’s in a phone booth, it’ll be a quarter.”
Plans were in the works to try to get Scott-Heron to perform in Atlantic City this summer, for one of the city=sponsored concerts at Gardner’s Basin. I also suggested to the organizers of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan festival coming to Atlantic City June 24-26, to reach out to Gil to have him as one of the dozens of artists on the bill.
The world has lost an excellent writer and a major influence on American music, from Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield to Public Enemy and contemporary jazz. This writer has also lost a big influence and inspiration and a recent friend and music soul mate. It’s a shame that a lot of people — even after decades as a major touring and recording artist — will have never heard of Gil Scott-Heron until now. It’s sad, indeed, but at least his music — and live shows; check out the iconic Robert Mugge concert film Black Wax, which can be found on Amazon and elsewhere — see the Sundance Institute description here: http://history.sundance.org/films/1713 — might now get the respect they deserve in the realm of music and American history and be heard by new ears.
Maybe Gil’s book about that tour with Stevie Wonder in 1980, to be published by Canon Gate Books, as Scott-Heron told this writer in a 2010 interview for Philadelphia Weekly and AC Weekly, will finally see the light of day. Aside from the Lennon piece, the tour was significant partly because it was during this tour that Stevie and Gil and their peeps were urging the U.S. government to make Martin Luther King Jr.s’ birthday a holiday. They used the tour to rally the fans to support the cause and get their local reps in government to “listen to the people.”
I’m looking forward to reading the whole story.