For some reason, the term ‘singer-songwriter’ seems to be frowned upon when the person being referred to works in the dance music or pop genre. I haven’t heard Michael Jackson, Prince or Robert Palmer given that description, nor, for that matter, Gil Scott-Heron. It’s true that Scott-Heron was many things, but he did sing and he did write songs. His memoir, ‘The Last Holiday’, is available to read, and at least two biographies have been written, one of which is ‘Pieces of a Man’ by Marcus Baram.
The Last Holiday
Scott-Heron’s first thirty-two years encompassed some rich and varied experiences. The abandonment, death and upheaval he went through during his upbringing may have played a part in the relationship and addiction problems he had later on, though he makes virtually no mention of these. He usually sidesteps the pain with humour.
‘The Last Holiday’ was submitted in snatches by Scott-Heron to publisher Jamie Byng. It was originally written in the third person, and intended to be a homage to Stevie Wonder’s campaign to get Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday in the United States. But it was converted into a highly entertaining and idiosyncratic account of Scott-Heron’s life and career up to and including the Hotter Than July tour of 1980/81. The manuscript was unfinished at the time of the author’s death, age 62, in 2011.
In the education system, he was often the odd one out: he was one of only three black pupils in a newly-integrated elementary school in Jackson, Mississippi; then he was the kid with the southern accent at high school in New York; next he was one of the few low-income kids with scholarships at upper class Fieldston in Riverdale.
At Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, however, Scott-Heron seems to really find his feet socially. He paints himself as the archetypal student leader, and even takes a sabbatical to write a detective novel, which gets published, along with a book of the radical poetry which he is known for.
He makes it clear that writing was his thing during his formative years. It was his reputation as a writer, not a music act, which got him his first record deal. On the back of the success of this spoken word and percussion album, ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox’, which bears the same name as his first book of poetry, he and Brian Jackson, also from Lincoln University, were able to call in the players they wanted for ‘Pieces of a Man’. Then someone had to find them some gigs.
Pieces Of A Man
Reading Marcus Baram’s biograhy of Scott-Heron, which is also called ‘Pieces of a Man’, is an altogether different experience. Although a lot of the same ground is covered, the story moves smoothly, quickly and evenly through its subject’s life. The author stays out of the way, backing up his description of the events of Scott-Heron’s life every step of the way with testimonies from people who were there. It’s not as funny as ‘The Last Holiday’ but is probably more reliable.
If there is an underlying force which drives Baram’s investigation, perhaps it is the desire to find out ‘what went wrong’. Aside from a couple of outliers in 1994 and 2010, Gil Scott-Heron’s recording career came to a halt in 1982 when he was just 33 and had been in full flow ever since ‘Pieces of a Man’ (the record) eleven years earlier.
Brian Jackson had ceased collaborating with Scott-Heron around the turn of the decade. Jackson describes how Scott-Heron’s contribution to a show had dwindled to singing a few verses, playing a bit of triangle and then standing at the side of the stage. Meanwhile, Jackson was only allowed one of his own songs and some arranging duties on each ‘Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’ album. It’s arguable that the music became a little more run of the mill after Jackson’s departure, but the 1982 Channel 4 showcase ‘Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax’ does seem to show an artist fully deserving of music industry support. Sources say his cocaine use was getting out of hand by then.
I can think of at least two occasions in the nineteen-eighties when I went to a Gil Scott-Heron gig and it was cancelled at short notice. The time I did go to a full-length show it seemed a little how Brian Jackson has described. But watching another gig from 1990 recently and revisiting his 1994 album, ‘Spirits’, I was reminded that, despite not being originally signed or rated as a singer, he became a great one, particularly when improvising phrases over long funk grooves, carrying on where James Brown left off but with a heavier message. Baram’s biography makes much of what the experts say about Scott-Heron’s albums, but I would defy them and say that ‘Spirits’ is one of the best, although it was not what the music world of 1994 wanted, apparently.
‘Pieces of a Man’ (the book) chronicles Scott-Heron’s crack addiction, unreliability, prison sentences and failed attempts to get his life back on track during the nineteen-eighties, -nineties and two-thousands (none of which are described in Scott-Heron’s own book). Almost as a footnote, the regular north American and European tours are mentioned. At least Scott-Heron had enough composure and energy to travel and perform almost until the end of his life.
British producer and label owner Richard Russell visited Scott-Heron in prison in upstate New York around 2006 and their friendship resulted in the album ‘I’m New Here’. It was a success, maybe because the music was in the style that the British music world of 2010 liked, and not the 1970s funk/jazz/rhythm and blues which traditionally accompanied Scott-Heron’s voice and had been succeeded in popularity by hip-hop and R&B. Just like Scott-Heron’s spoken word debut album, 1970s ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox’, which was a hit and even contained ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, it’s interesting, but doesn’t give you ‘Gil Scott-Heron: the great singer-songwriter’. Fortunately, all his other albums do.