Throughout his career, poet, musician, and author. Gil Scott-Heron highlighted the social and political problems affecting American society. He was, to all intents and purposes,  America’s conscience.  Racism, poverty, corruption, inequality and drug addiction featured in Gil’s lyrics. His lyrics are cerebral, witty, scathing and most importantly, honest as Gil speaks up for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Fearlessly, Gil highlights the social and political problems that blighted America. That’s not all.

Gil tried to unite a divided America, encouraging Americans to join together, and change America for the better. The way Gil did this, was through his music.

Some of the best lyrics Gil wrote, were during his three album spell at Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions. This started with Gil’s debut album, 1970s Small Talk At 125 and Lenox. Gil followed this up with 1971s Pieces Of A Man. Gil Scott-Heron’s final album for Flying Dutchman Productions was Free Will, which he released in 1972. Unbelievably, he was only twenty-three.

April Fool’s Day in 1949 was an important day in Chicago’s musical history. That was the day Gil Scott-Heron was born. His mother Bobbie Scott-Heron was an opera singer. She sang with New York’s Oratorio Society. Gil’s father was Gil Heron was a Jamaican footballer, who at one time, played for Glasgow Celtic Football Club. Sadly, Bobbie and Gil’s marriage ended when Gil was young. 

After this, Gil was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott, who lived in Jackson,Tennessee. Then when Gil was just twelve, Lillie Scott died. Gil returned to New York to live with his mother. She was now living in the Bronx. Originally, Gil enrolled at the DeWitt Clinton High School, but later, moved to the Fieldston High School.

This came after impressing the head of the English department. He’d read one of Gil’s essays and recommended that Gil received a full scholarship. This proved a poisoned chalice. The education he was receiving was better. However, he was only one of five black students. He felt alienated. Another problem was the socioeconomic gap. Other students came from a much more affluent background. Gil was the son of a single mother. It was at this period, that Gil became socially and politically aware. His eyes were opened to inequality, injustice and racism. This would shape his music in later years. Before that, Gil headed to university.

Lincoln University was where Gil headed after high school. Gil was recommend to head to Lincoln University by Langston Hughes. He was also at Lincoln University and was a member of Gil’s first band, the Black and Blues. After two years at Lincoln University, Gil decided to take time out to write a novel.

During this period, Gil Scott-Heron wrote two novels. His first novel was a thriller entitled The Vulture, was published in 1970. Whilst writing The Vulture, Gil saw The Last Poets in Lincoln in 1969. 

After watching The Last Poets, Gil approached the band and asked: “can I form a band like you guys?” The seed had been sown. Maybe, music rather than writing would be the direction Gil’s career headed?

Having been impressed with The Last Poets and now considering a career in music, Gil had a lot on his mind as he headed back to New York. He found a new home in Chelsea, Manhattan. Once he’d settled in, Gil decided to make his dream a reality. So he looked for a record company. Gil just so happened to approach a label tailor-made for his music, Flying Dutchman Productions.

After his departure from ABC/Impulse Bob Thiele decided to found his own label. Over the last few years, Bob had worked with some of the most innovative and creative musicians in the history of jazz. Bob realised that often, large record companies aren’t the best environment for innovative and creative musicians. Often, these musical mavericks didn’t thrive within such an orthodox environment. Their creativity is restricted, meaning they’re unable to experiment and innovate like they’d like. So when Bob parted company with Impulse, who he’d transformed into one of jazz’s pioneering labels, he founded Flying Dutchman Productions. This was the label that Gil Scott-Heron approached. There was a problem though.

While Bob wanted to sign Gil, there was a problem, funding. The funding that Phillips, the Dutch record label had given Bob wasn’t going as far as he’d hoped. Despite this, when he met Gil he was impressed by the poet, musician, and author. So what Bob did, was fund an album that was a fusion of poetry accompanied by understated, percussive arrangements.

Small Talk At 125 and Lenox.

This was Small Talk At 125 and Lenox. It was recorded at a studio and released in 1970. Immediately, comparisons were drawn with the group who’d inspired Gi, The Last Poets. This was a fair comment. However, one listen to tracks like Whitey On The Moon, plus what was the original version of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, and people realised that Gil took what The Last Poets had been doing to the next level. With just a trio of percussionists accompanying Gil, Small Talk At 125 and Lenox was a potent and explosive mix of scathing political and social comment.

Sadly, when Small Talk At 125 and Lenox was released, it wasn’t a commercial success. However, a small crumb of comfort was, that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised found its way onto radio play lists. That was encouraging for Bob and Gil. They knew they were on the right track. So they decided that Gil should begin work on his sophomore album Pieces Of A Man.

Pieces Of A Man.

For Pieces Of A Man, Gil wrote The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Save The Children, Lady Day and John Coltrane and Home is Where The Hatred Is. He cowrote the other seven tracks with Brian Jackson. These eleven tracks were recorded on 19th and 20th April 1971. Joining Gil were a few well known names.

When Bob Thiele asked Gil who he’d like to accompany him, jokingly, Gil said flautist and saxophonist Hubert Laws and bassist Ron Carter. So Bob got them onboard for the recording of Pieces Of A Man. This was Bob Thiele’s way of making Gil feel at home. Bob knew this was the way to get the best performance possible from an artist. 

With a crack band in tow, Gil Scott Heron set about recording his sophomore album Pieces Of A Man. This crack band included a rhythm section of drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and guitarist Burt Jones. Brian Jackson played piano and Gil played guitar, piano and sang lead vocals. Producing Pieces Of A Man was Bob Thiele. After two days recording, Pieces Of A Man was completed. Now it was ready for release.

When Pieces Of A Man was released in 1971, only Rolling Stone magazine realised the cultural importance of the album. Pieces Of A Man passed the rest of the music press by. This is a sad indictment on music journalism at one of the most important period in musical, social and political history.  Just like Pieces Of A Man passed the majority of the music press by, the same can be said of the record buying public. Apart from spending six weeks in the US Jazz Charts, where it peaked at a lowly number twenty-five, commercial success passed Pieces Of A Man by. Ironically, later, critics reappraised Pieces Of A Man and hailed it a classic album that’s intense, politically charged, innovative and influential. 

Despite being innovative and influential album,  Small Talk At 125 and Lenox and Pieces Of A Man passed music lovers by. For Gil this was disappointing. He would only release one further album for release one further album for Flying Dutchman Productions, Free Will.

Free Will,

Free Will, which features twelve songs, is a mixture of music and poetry. Gil wrote eight of the twelve tracks. The other four tracks, Free Will, The Middle Of Your Day, The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues and Speed Kills were collaborations between Gil and Brian Jackson, who played a huge part in the Gil Scott-Heron story. 

For the Free will sessions, an all-star lineup accompanied Gil. Recording took place on the 2nd and 3rd March 1972. The rhythm section included  bassist Jerry Jemmott, drummer Pretty Purdie and guitarist Jerry Jemmott. Flautist and saxophonist Hubert Laws, who’d played on Pieces Of A Man returned.  Brian Jackson played electric piano, flute, bells and added vocals on the first five tracks. Gil took charge of lead vocals. Arranging and conducting the first five tracks on Pieces Of A Man, was Horace Ott.  Producing Pieces Of A Man was Bob Thiele. After two days recording, Pieces Of A Man was completed. It was released later in 1972.

On Free Will’s release later in 1972, it was well received by critics. Rolling Stone flew the flag for Free Will and Gil Scott-Heron. Despite this, Free Will failed to chart in the US Billboard 200 and US R&B charts However, Free Will sold between 20,000 t0 30,000 copies, and reached the US Jazz charts. Despite this, for Gil Scott-Heron, this was a huge disappointment. Free Will, which I’ll tell you, about was the last album Gil Scott-Heron released on Flying Dutchman Productions. 

Free Will opens with the title-track, Free Will. After the band tune up, Free Will gets underway. Gil snaps his fingers as if saying lets make this a take. Herbert Laws’ flute, Brian Jackson’s piano and a rhythm section, complete with chirping guitar cut loose. Above the driving arrangement sits Gil’s vocal. His lyrics are tinged with anger and disappointment. Gil criticises those who grasped the opportunities the civil rights movement fought for, but never did anything to improve society. Gil’s frustrated and angry, while the flute and piano provide the perfect accompaniment to Gil Scott-Heron at his scathing, articulate best.

The Middle Of Your Day has a wistful sound. A flute and piano play, as the drums mark time. The rest of the rhythm section play slowly. They set the scene for Gil, as he sings about people making something of their lives. His lyrics are poignant and tinged with sadness, at the thought of people trying to make their way in life, with nobody to guide them, and show them what’s write and wrong. However, throughout the song, Gil encourages people to make something of their lives.

The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues has a slow, bluesy, jazz-tinged backdrop. A piano plays and a crystalline guitar chirps. Then Gil rounds on those who are content to stay in the ghetto, cheating the system, hustling and taking drugs. Gil wants them to set their sights higher and make something of their lives. 

Speed Kills is just as relevant in 2014, as it was in 1972. Brian Jackson plays electric piano and a bass drives the arrangement along. They provide a dramatic backdrop for Gil’s heartfelt, worried vocal. He’s worried that people’s lives are so busy, they’re forgetting what’s important in life. Forty-two years later, and people are still making the same mistakes.

A dark, pensive piano is panned right Did You Hear What They Said? As Herbert Laws flute sails wistfully above the arrangement, a piano and subtle, chiming guitar combine with Gil’s vocal. It’s tinged with sadness, frustration and regret that “another brother is dead…did you hear what they said…they shot him dead, in the head, to save his country.” Gil’s saddened, angry and despondent that another young life is lost, fighting in a war. To Gil’s it’s another life wasted, as he delivers a devastating attack on the follies of war. This proved a poignant end to side one of Free Will.

Side two of Free Will is essentially Gil’s poetry set to music. On The King Alfred Plan and No Knock, it’s just drums and flute. Gil’s at his most political. He’s angry and unleashes his anger, frustration and vitriol at the Nixon regime. The King Alfred Plan worries him. He’s worried, scared and angry, about the way the black community are being treated. 

It’s the same on No Knock. It features an angry and fearful Gil Scott-Heron. No Knock tells the story of legislation that was mooted in 1972, where the police would be able to enter a person’s house without permission. Gil, America’s conscience, was determined that this would never happen.

Wiggy is  a short poem set to music. Again, it’s just drums and a wistful flute that accompany Gil, as he tells the story of a sad figure, who every night dawns her old and worn wig, before hitting the town. Here, equal parts irony, sadness and humour combine. You’re not laughing at the person, but at Gil’s delivery of the lyrics.

Ain’t No New Thing sees Gil comment on how white artists have constantly “ripped off black artists.” Accompanied by drums and a wistful, subtle, flute, Gil delivers the lyrics. Anger, sadness and frustration, Gil says “this Ain’t No New Thing.”

Billy Green Is Dead sees Gil comment on the shallowness and selfishness of people in 1972. They’re not interested in anything unless it affects them. They didn’t care that racism, poverty, corruption, inequality and drug addiction. As long as they were okay, then nothing else mattered. Sadly, this is still the case today.

Sex Education: Ghetto Style finds Gil at his angriest. He almost barks out the lyrics. Just like Billy Green Is Dead, Gil realises that nobody is interested in the young people who are sleeping around from an early age. As long as it doesn’t affect them, they don’t care what goes on in the ghetto. This is a sad reflection on society, which is just as true today, as back in 1972, when Gil wrote Sex Education: Ghetto Style.

Closing Free Will is…And Then He Wrote Meditations. It’s a song that Gil wrote in homage to John Coltrane, and what Gil refers to as his “finest piece A Love Supreme.” What follows is a three minute, impassioned tribute to a true musical legend’s finest work. Although Pieces Of A Man was only Gil’s sophomore album, it’s a hugely accomplished album. Of the eleven tracks on 

Listening back to Free Will, forty-two years after its release, one thing strikes me, that’s how mature an album Free Will is. Gil Scott-Heron was only twenty-three. Already, Gil had written three novels and released three albums. He was, to all intents and purposes,  America’s conscience. 

No subjects are off-limits on Free Will. Gil Scott-Heron tackles them head on. Racism, poverty, inequality, war and ghetto life are tackled head on. That’s not all. Gil wants the black community to strive for a better life. He wants them not to settle for ghetto life. Instead, he wants young black Americans to set their sights high. However, sometimes, Gil unleashes his ire.

Politicians, including the disgraced Nixon regime are in the firing line. Gil worries about civil liberties in No Knock and the way black people are being treated on The King Alfred Plan. It features a worried and angry Gil Scott-Heron. On the title-track Free Will, Gil criticises those who grasped the opportunities the civil rights movement fought for, but never did anything to improve society. Gil’s righteous anger shines through as he dawns the role of  America’s conscience. It’s a role that doesn’t weigh heavy on his shoulders. Instead, it helps him reach even greater heights.

He delivers each of the songs with variously power, passion, emotion, sadness, frustration, anger and confusion. In a way, his youthfulness helps Gil brings the lyrics to life. Gil was a young man and was aware of and possibly, had experienced the inequality and injustice he sings about. 

Fusing everything from jazz, blues, funk, proto-rap and soul, Gil Scott-Heron highlights the social and political problems of the early seventies. Fearlessly, Gil tackles these subjects head on during Free Will, delivering the lyrics with his proto-rap style. With keyboardist Brian Jackson at his side, Gil would become one of the most important artists of his generation. However,  Free will was his final album for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions. 

1972s Free Will, which was recently rereleased by BGP Records, a subsidiary of Ace Records only sold between twenty and thirty thousand albums. This wasn’t enough to trouble neither the US Billboard 200 nor US R&B charts. Free Will did enter the US Jazz charts. Gradually, Gil’s music was finding the audience it so richly deserved.

It may not have enjoyed the commercial success and critical acclaim it deserved, but was later, reappraised by critics.

Somewhat belatedly, critics reappraised  Free Will. It’s now perceived as a culturally important album. Future generations were inspired by Gil Scott-Heron. No wonder. Here  was a man who provided a voice for the disenfranchised. Fearlessly, Gil highlights the social and political problems that blighted America in 1972, and still do. Throughout his life, he encouraged Americans to join together and change America for the better. This pioneering poet and protest singer made a difference politically and socially. The way he did this, was through his poetry, books and music, including Free Will. They’re part of the rich legacy Gil Scott-Heron’s legacy left behind, when he died aged just sixty-two, in 2011. 







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