The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
‘The Prince of Chocolate City’: When Gil Scott-Heron Became A Music Icon
An excerpt from Marcus Baram’s biography, Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man, which chronicles the legend’s rise to musical prominence in the ‘70s.
On August 10, 1973, Gil and the band performed at a late-night tribute concert for jazz trumpeter Cal Massey at the Apollo Theater. They exploded onstage, playing cuts from Free Will and some of Gil’s poems from Small Talk to a lively audience. Between songs, the crowd started to scream. Gil turned and saw Muhammad Ali stride out of the stage entrance, smiling and scowling at the same time. The heavyweight champion was at the peak of his popularity, especially to black fans who admired his civil rights advocacy and his refusal to go to Vietnam. Ali walked up and hugged Gil, and the pair discussed music and racism and current events before a rapt audience. For years afterward, Gil reminisced about that night, saying that that was the moment he knew that his life would never be the same.
Back home and off the road, Gil looked forward to recording again. The contract with Flying Dutchman fulfilled, he left for Strata-East, a progressive jazz label known for recording contemporary black jazz musicians including Pharoah Sanders and Charles Tolliver. He always maintained that the impetus for the departure was Thiele’s refusal to add Brian’s name to the al- bum cover. Brian says he didn’t know that Gil was pushing to add his name, explaining that he was actually satisfied with the credit he was given. Whatever the reason, the split was not an agreeable one, with Thiele insisting that the duo was obligated to deliver another album. They agreed to release a greatest hits collection called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
Released in the summer of 1974, the album garnered excellent reviews and spent five weeks on the Billboard jazz chart, peaking at No. 21 on October 12, 1974, even though all the songs had been previously released. Critics swooned, with the Los Angeles Daily News giving it an “A” rating. Ebony’s Phyl Garland said the album was “mind-blowing” and praised Gil, writing that “He does not merely posture and pacify, but presses on one to consider the uncomfortable truths of contemporary blackness.” The album was re- leased as the developing art form of hip-hop “took its first breaths of South Bronx air,” writes music scholar William Jelani Cobb.
Gil and Brian’s next album, Winter in America, on Strata-East, was credited to both Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. It was originally planned as a concept album called Supernatural Corner, in reference to the haunted vibe of the house at One Logan Circle. The record was intended to tell the story of an African American soldier coming home from Vietnam to an America that was indifferent to his experience and hostile to his race and who eventually loses his mind. The narratives in the song were taken from the soldier’s therapy sessions in a psychiatric ward, Jackson later explained. One of the original songs, “White Horse Nightmare,” is about the veteran’s heroin addiction. But the label considered the album too morose, and Gil and Brian took out some of the songs, leaving “Rivers of My Fathers,” “Back Home,” “The Bottle,” and a few new pieces.
They had recorded the album in the beginning of September 1973, at Dan Henderson’s D&B Sound Studio, in Silver Spring, Maryland. The space was so small that there wasn’t enough room for both of them in the studio, so Gil would sing in the studio while Brian played flute in a hallway next to a water cooler. The tight quarters only added to Gil’s discomfort, and he complained about how long the sessions were taking. True to the ethos of the impromptu jams and poetry readings he’d soaked in as a teenager at jazz clubs in New York, he felt alive when he was performing and disliked the recording process. Whereas some musicians love to tweak their songs and do multiple takes in the studio, Gil tried to get it done as quickly as possible. Engineer Robert Hosea Williams, who had recorded Roberta Flack and funk guitarist Chuck Brown, recalls, “Gil was one of the hardest I’ve ever recorded. He had to do everything at once.” Not only would he resist multitrack recording, in which each section of the song is isolated and separately recorded, but “he never shut up,” says Williams. “When he would sing a verse and then start talking, it was crazy to record. We’d have to erase those things later.” Sometimes they would leave the mistakes in there. When drummer Bob Adams skipped a beat at the 1:40 mark of “The Bottle,” the band wanted to rerecord the track, but Gil said, “No, that’s okay.”
The album, the first one that Gil and Brian produced on their own, is quieter, more subdued and reflective than previous albums. The duo per- formed most of the cuts by themselves, and they used only a small group of session musicians, drummer Bob Adams and bassist Danny Bowens, on the last day of recording. Again, it was anchored by Brian’s musicianship, with a sound that combined the organ with African and free-jazz influences. Some of the songs, “A Very Precious Time” and “Peace Go with You, Brother,” feature just the two of them, with no other backing musicians. “They were put together that way to give people the further idea of what Brian’s songs were really about,” Gil told James Maycock. “I think they were really beautiful and we wanted to make sure his [Brian’s] name was out front so that people could understand how much influence he had, not only on that one, but on ‘Pieces of a Man.’ ” The album also marked the duo’s embrace of the Fender Rhodes keyboard, which was used by more and more popular musicians, from Herbie Hancock to the Doors. On their first few albums, the band wasn’t able to afford the state-of-the-art instrument and used a Farfisa, a Wurlitzer, and whatever other synthesizer was available.
The album’s title had a special meaning to the band, who had lived through the tumultuous and tragic events of the 1960s. Gil pinpointed the killing of JFK as “the day that started the Winter in America. The deaths of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were all part of that.” He explained: “America was in a dark period because all people who had been trying to do something positive had been lost . . . all those people had been killed. We were trying to say that’s how you get to winter. You put out the lights. People who were trying to bring sunshine to us had been extinguished.” Jackson felt that the song was their version of a warning, like Orwell’s 1984, to look at a grim future that was rapidly approaching and to impel people to take action. “People were still trying to effect change en masse and we were just hoping that if we put it out there, people would say, ‘Oh yeah, the window is closing rapidly.’ ”
Though Winter in America was a powerful image that resonated with them, Gil and Brian declined to include a title track, in contrast to Thiele’s preference of doing so on albums for Flying Dutchman. The partners felt that “Winter in America” should not stand as its own song, separate from the other tracks, but should, as the album’s title, convey the theme and the mood of the album.
Some of the songs reflected the duo’s sense of alienation from the music industry and the pressure to sell records. On “Back Home,” Gil wrote, “I never thought I’d be lost and searching for a warm friendly smile / I never thought I’d be running through the city streets like a newborn child.” In the lyrics to “A Very Precious Time,” that feeling translated into nostalgia for a past that didn’t really exist, said Jackson. “Was there the faintest breeze? / And did she have a ponytail? / And could she make you feel ten feet tall, / Walking down the grassy trail?” Jackson explains that he and Gil had both felt isolated during their adolescence, and they longed for an experience that made them feel loved and supported. “None of these things had happened. It was things we wished had happened.”
In “Back Home,” Gil also revisits the nostalgia for the South explored in his Johns Hopkins thesis, “Circle of Stone.” The lyrics seem imbued with his family history, the Herons moving from Jamaica to the tough streets of Detroit, and the Scott men and women leaving Tennessee for Chicago and New York. Though autobiographical in feeling, the lyrics seem to recall the story of his mother’s younger brother, William, with whom Gil stayed after arriving from Jackson in 1962. Nicknamed B.B., Gil’s uncle served with the U.S. Air Force in Germany and then took a top job with the Social Security Administration, arriving in New York in the 1950s. Smart and ambitious, he seemed to epitomize the success of that northern migration experienced by millions of southern blacks. But ten years later, he had lost his job and was forced to move into an apartment on the second floor of a building on a grungy block in the South Bronx. And B.B. missed his old home back in Tennessee.
There’s been a whole lot said about your city livin’ They told that the streets were paved with gold
And some of us believed them, left our homes and came lookin’ But that was just another story they told.
The album’s penultimate track is often cited as one of Gil’s wittiest and most incisive political satires. Throughout the previous year, he had devoured the Washington Post’s coverage by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the developing Watergate scandal. He had been reciting the “H2O Gate Blues” as a monologue in his shows for over nine months since debuting it at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in April 1973. He was going to leave it off the album because he thought that the poem would not resonate outside the nation’s capital—“nobody outside of Washington seemed to know what the hell I was talking about”—but drummer Adams convinced him to include it, telling Gil that even if most listeners didn’t understand the particular political details, the poem was still “funny as hell.” In addition to explaining Gil’s understanding of the significance of Watergate, the poem also demonstrated how much political insight he was gaining from living in DC.
Recording the poem in one take, Gil read off index cards and improvised some of the lines, such as his description of the “three thousand shades” of the blues, while the band played a slow blues jam. On “H2O Gate Blues,” he ventured beyond “that cesspool Watergate” to chronicle American misdeeds and atrocities around the world, from the overthrow of Allende in Chile to the bombing of Laos. Though the references are dated (most people under fifty would have a hard time recognizing any of the names in this delicious rhyme: “Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and Dean / It follows a pattern if you dig what I mean”) the power of the cri- tique still stings. Gil took weeks to build a monologue, skillfully turning the words on their head. “He might start talking about Reagan, and each night, he would add more to it, started with one small circle, and that small circle kept getting wider and wider,” remembers Ade.
On “Rivers of My Fathers,” Gil poignantly traces the lyrical and musical journey of African Americans, starting with a blues-style introduction featuring Jackson’s big chords and Bob Adams’s rim shots. In the song, he expresses his desire to find a “way out” of the harsh city, someplace where he can “lay down by a stream . . . miles from everything.” Instead, he’s stuck in the urban jungle where the “concrete is my smile.”
Though it may have been a depressing environment, the gritty streets of Washington gave Gil plenty of inspiration for his lyrics. One of his most famous and infectious songs on the album is “The Bottle.” It captures Gil’s ability to tell a powerful story and send a message while getting your attention with propulsive rhythms. Behind their house on Logan Circle in DC was Paradise Liquor, where a group of alcoholics would gather each morning at 6:30 or 7:00 to trade in the empty bottles they’d collected the night before. Gil and Brian would sit on the building’s lawn to get some fresh air and watch the alcoholics, prostitutes, and homeless stragglers roam Logan Circle. “Gil would follow their conversations, listening and taking mental notes all the time,” says Letcher.
He started talking to some of them and learned their personal stories, quickly realizing that none of them intended to be where they ended up. As he told it, one of them was a doctor who had lost his license and then his family for performing an illegal abortion on a teenage girl—someone had begged him to do the operation and then ratted him out. One was a military air traffic controller who had misdirected a flight, sending a plane into the side of a mountain and killing four people; he left work that day and never went back. And one was a social worker who saw one of her clients overdose; she fell into despair and couldn’t take it anymore.
“No one set out to be an alcoholic,” Gil told writer Patrick Sisson. “All of them had something happen in their lives that turned them around. This was right at the time when doctors were starting to determine that alcohol- ism and drug addiction was an illness, not just a social feeling or something weak about your character. It struck me that something needed to be done to help these people, not just jump on down on them like that.”
By the time of the recording session, Brian had become quite agile with the flute and suggested adding it to the song. His flute playing on “The Bottle” gives the track its catchy hook, and along with the propulsive rhythm, is one of the key factors in the song’s appeal. But it almost never became a hit. Gil was opposed to releasing singles, preferring to have the audience experience the album in its totality. When engineer Williams first heard the song, it reminded him of hit songs by Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “It’s got a hook with a whole story,” he recalls. “I went to Gil and Brian and said, ‘You have to make this a single.’ They didn’t think so.”
Williams told them, “Even if you don’t think so, this will become a hit song on its own.” He was right. The song got a lot of airplay on the Howard University radio station, WHUV, and producers at the influential station convinced Gil and Brian to release the song as a separate single on 45 and as a twelve-inch single. The song did indeed become an underground hit before hitting the mainstream, reaching No. 15 on the R&B singles chart. Unfortunately, because Strata-East was a small label with few resources, it was unprepared for the demand and wasn’t able to press enough copies of the single.
One of the song’s early fans was Clive Campbell, a Jamaican-born deejay who moved to the Bronx in November 1967 and joined a graffiti crew called the Ex-Vandals, taking the name DJ Kool Herc. He and his sister started hosting parties in 1972 in the rec room of their building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, playing records with funky breaks, such as the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun” and James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose.” He kept the dance floor packed by playing songs with heavily percussive drum breaks, playing one break and cueing up another record’s break on another turntable, extending the break into what he called a “merry-go-round.” Soon his parties were legendary in the neighborhood, and he started deejaying at local clubs and schools. The two tracks that Herc often played were “The Bottle” and “Johannesburg,” two of Gil’s more percussive songs. But it was the words in Gil’s music that had a special appeal for Herc, who would blend “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with other beat-heavy tracks, emphasizing certain lyrics. “When Gil cursed, he cursed in certain ways that I could respect it,” Herc says. “It had power and strength and rhythm to it.”
Eventually, Herc’s style spawned imitators, such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, who extended the break and started cutting and scratching the records, to all kinds of effect. Those deejays attracted friends who would grab the microphone and emcee the party, flattering girls in the audience, taunting rivals, or exhorting the crowd in ever-more-creative ways. When hip-hop parties featuring break dancing started to spread throughout the city, Sylvia Robinson was watching carefully from her office in New Jersey. A former R&B singer, Robinson had found success recording soul and disco groups such as the Moments, and had a good ear for new trends in music. When “The Bottle” started to shake up dance floors, Robinson got one of the groups on her label, Brother to Brother, to do a percussion- fueled disco cover of the tune, with more emphasis on the rhythm, within weeks of the original’s release.
As demand for the “The Bottle” grew in the summer of 1974, and Strata- East was unable to supply the vinyl, mob-connected record-pressing firms flooded the market with bootleg copies. Sugar Hill Records’ copycat version, “In the Bottle,” was competing for sales, robbing Gil and the band of money and attention, and also topping the charts. The label was known for its hardball business tactics, and though Strata-East complained to Robin- son about the brazen cover and considered legal action, it quickly backed down. Musically, Gil wasn’t happy with Brother to Brother’s version, which had just slapped a hard disco rhythm onto the basic riffs and rhythm of the original song. Even when one of his musical heroes in college, Joe Bataan, recorded a disco version of the song, Gil wasn’t impressed, preferring his original song’s bluesy feel.
“The Bottle” became Gil’s most successful recording, in regular rotation on urban radio. Frankie Crocker, the most popular R&B deejay in New York, used the song’s intro, “Uno, dos, uno, dos, tres, cuatro,” as his own signature drop to introduce a new record. Due to its slow build-up, the song became an infectious hit on dance floors and is still considered a classic by club deejays, ranked No. 92 on NME magazine’s list of the top 150 singles of all time. “It works so well if you’re playing in a club,” says British deejay John Kay. “There are so many elements that make sense—it builds and builds like house music, before there was such a thing as drum machines. It’s fantastic.”
The success of the song propelled the album’s sales. Strata-East, as a cooperative label, didn’t have a promotional budget, and the album was sold in only three cities, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, but it ultimately sold an impressive three hundred thousand copies and hit No. 6 on the Billboard jazz albums chart. The album holds a special place in the heart of many of Gil’s fans. “Ultimately, Winter in America is an album of extra- ordinary beauty, a balm for the black nation, struggling with the disintegration of the civil rights movement and the post-Watergate recession,” writes James Maycock.
Gil and Brian had asked their friend Eugene Coles to create the cover art for their original conception of the album, and the resulting collage- type painting, titled Supernatural Corner, was used. The massive four-foot- by-eight-foot work is anchored by an image of a coconut fragmenting into pieces, based on an analogy Gil once made to Cole about a coconut being hard on the outside and juicy on the inside. In the wake of the album’s re- lease and subsequent critical acclaim, friends convinced Gil and Brian to record a song titled “Winter in America” for their next album.
As their music careers started to take off, Gil and Brian realized they couldn’t keep living amid the chaos of One Logan Circle, with impromptu concerts on the roof and occasional visits from homeless vagrants. They were getting more focused and organized, recording and performing on a tight schedule, and they needed a more stable environment. At first, they moved elsewhere in Washington, to a two-bedroom apartment on E. Capital Street just down from the Library of Congress. Later, they moved to a large home in the leafy suburb of Arlington, Virginia, in a cul-de-sac a few doors down from a four-star general in the U.S. Army, who gave them dis- approving looks when he would see them in their backyard. Gil and Brian may have looked intimidating with their towering Afros and dashikis but they often surprised people with their generosity and communal spirit. When a teenage boy went missing in their neighborhood of Arlington, they joined the general and others to search a nearby hill, winning the respect of their new neighbors.
From Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man by Marcus Baram. Copyright © 2014 by Marcus Baram. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted by permission.