Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, Illinois, but spent his early childhood in the home of his grandmother Lillie Scott (mother’s family) in Jackson, Tennessee. Gil’s mother Bobbie Scott-Heron sang with the New York Oratorial Society. Gil’s father was a professional soccer player and is also a poet. His father’s family is of Jamaican descent. When he was 13, his grandmother died and he moved with his mother to the Bronx, where he enrolled in DeWitt Clinton High School. He transferred to The Fieldston School after one of his teachers, a Fieldston graduate, showed one of his writings to the head of the English department there and he was granted a full scholarship. Gil attended Lincoln University because it was the college of choice by his biggest influence Langston Hughes. It was at Lincoln University that Gil met Brian Jackson and they formed the band Black & Blues. After about two years at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Scott-Heron took a year off to write a novel The Vulture. He returned to New York City, settling in Chelsea, Manhattan, which was at the time a multiracial and multicultural neighborhood. The novel, The Vulture, was published in 1970 and well received. Although Gil never received his undergraduate degree, he has a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University.
Scott-Heron began his recording career in 1970 with the LP Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman Records produced the album and Scott-Heron was accompanied by Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals. The album’s 15 tracks dealt with themes such as the superficiality of television and mass consumerism, the hypocrisy of some would-be Black revolutionaries, white middle-class ignorance of the difficulties faced by inner-city residents, and fear of homosexuals. In the liner notes, Scott-Heron acknowledged as influences Richie Havens, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Jose Feliciano, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Nina Simone, and the pianist who would become his long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson.
Scott-Heron’s 1971 album Pieces of a Man used more conventional song structures than the loose, spoken-word feel of Small Talk. He was joined by Johnny Pate (conductor), Brian Jackson (piano and electric piano), Ron Carter (bass and electric bass), Bernard Pretty Purdie (drums), Burt Jones (electric guitar), and Hubert Laws (flute and saxophone), with Thiele producing again. Scott-Heron’s third album, Free Will, was released in 1972. Jackson, Purdie, Laws, Knowles, and Saunders all returned to play on Free Will and were joined by Jerry Jemmott (bass), David Spinozza (guitar), and Horace Ott (arranger and conductor).
1974 saw another LP collaboration with Brian Jackson, Winter in America, with Bob Adams on drums and Danny Bowens on bass. He didn’t reach the charts until 1975 with the song Johannesburg, from the album From South Africa to South Carolina. That year he and Jackson also released Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day. A live album, It’s Your World, followed in 1976 and a recording of spoken poetry, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron was released in 1979. His biggest hit came with a song called Angel Dust, which he recorded as a single with producer Malcolm Cecil. Angel Dust peaked at #15 on the R&B charts in 1978.
In 1979, Scott-Heron played at the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organized after the Three Mile Island accident by Musicians United for Safe Energy to protest the use of nuclear energy. Scott-Heron’s song We Almost Lost Detroit, about a previous accident at a nuclear facility, was included in the No Nukes album of concert highlights.
During the 1980s, Scott-Heron continued recording, releasing Reflections in 1981 and Moving Target in 1982.
Scott-Heron was a frequent critic of President Ronald Reagan and his conservative policies:
“The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can — even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment — someone always came to save America at the last moment — especially in ‘B’ movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan — and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at — like a ‘B’ movie.” (Gil Scott-Heron, “‘B’ Movie”)
Scott-Heron was dropped by Arista Records in 1985 and quit recording, though he continued to tour. He also appeared in the Sun City (album) track, “Let Me See Your ID” in 1985.
In 1993, he signed to TVT Records and released Spirits, an album that included the seminal track Message to the Messengers. The first track on the album was a position point poem to the rap artists of the day and included such comments as:
* “Four-letter words or four-syllable words won’t make you a poet, it will only magnify how shallow you are and let ev’rybody know it.”
* “Tell all them gun-totin’ young brothers that the ‘man’ is glad to see us out there killin’ one another! We raised too much hell, when they was shootin’ us down.”
* “Young rappers, one more suggestion, before I get outta your way. I appreciate the respect you give to me and what you’ve got to say.”
Scott-Heron is known in many circles as “the godfather of rap” and is widely considered to be one of the genre’s founding fathers. Given the political consciousness that lies at the foundation of his work, he can also be called a founder of political rap. Message to the Messengers was a plea for the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic:
“There’s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humour. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.”
In 2001, Gil Scott-Heron was sentenced to one to three years’ imprisonment in New York State for cocaine possession. While out of jail in 2002, he appeared on the Blazing Arrow album by Blackalicious. He was released on parole in 2003.
On July 5, 2006, Scott-Heron was sentenced to two to four years in a New York State prison for violating a plea deal on a drug-possession charge by leaving a treatment center. Scott-Heron said he is HIV-positive and claimed the in-patient rehabilitation center stopped giving him his medication. The prosecution countered that Scott-Heron had once skipped out for an appearance with singer Alicia Keys. Scott-Heron’s sentence was to run until July 13, 2009. He was paroled on May 23, 2007. He has since begun performing live again, starting with a show at SOBs in New York on 13 September 2007. On stage, he stated that he and his musicians were working on a new album, and that he had resumed writing a book entitled “The Last Holiday” (previously on long-term hiatus) about Stevie Wonder and his successful attempt to have Martin Luther King’s birthday made a national holiday in the USA. Gil was arrested October 10, the day before a second SOB’S performance scheduled for October 11, 2007 on felony posession of cocaine charges.
Scott-Heron’s father, Giles “Gil” Heron (nicknamed “The Black Arrow”) was a Jamaican football player who played for Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club in the 1950s. In fact, when he came to Scotland from the United States to join Celtic in 1951 he became the team’s first black player. At the time, Celtic F.C. was the team of Scotland’s Irish immigrants. However, Gil himself has said that he supports Celtic’s great rivals, Rangers.
Mark T. Watson, a student of Scott-Heron’s work, dedicated a collection of poetry to Gil entitled Ordinary Guy which also contained a foreword by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of The Last Poets. The book was published in the UK in 2004 by Fore-Word Press Ltd. Gil recorded one of the poems in Mark T. Watson’s book entitled “Black & Blue” due for release in 2008 as part of the album “Rhythims of the Diaspora” by Malik & the OG’s on the label “CPR recordings”.
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