GIL SCOTT-HERON-AMERICA’S SOCIAL CONSCIENCE: 1970-1980 THE GOLDEN ERA.

Gil Scott-Heron-America’s Social Conscience: 1970-1980 The Golden Era.

After releasing a trio of studio albums on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions between 1970 and 1972, Gil Scott-Heron signed to Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell’s Strata-East Records. By then, Gil Scott-Heron was well on his way to becoming America’s social conscience.

Gil Scott-Heron was a poet, musician, and author who highlighted the social and political problems affecting and blighting American society. He was, to all intents and purposes, America’s social conscience, highlighting the problems of racism, poverty, corruption, inequality and drug addiction on 1970s Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox which was released, 1971s Pieces Of A Man and 1972s Free Will. This was the trio of studio albums that Gil Scott-Heron released for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records. The lyrics were cerebral, witty, scathing and most importantly, honest as Gil Scott-Heron speaks up for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Fearlessly, Gil Scott-Heron highlighted the social and political problems that blighted America. This what he continued to do throughout his long and illustrious career as he released album after album of powerful music. However, when Gil Scott-Heron first met Bob Thiele he was an author  and poet. He had made an appointment with Bob Thiele, to see if he any of his artists could use his poetry.

During the meeting, Gil Scott-Heron recounted how he was born on April Fool’s Day in 1949, which later, he joked become an important day in Chicago’s musical history. That will always be the remembered as the day poet, author, musician and political activist Gil Scott-Heron was born. 

His mother Bobbie Scott-Heron, was an opera singer, who sang with New York’s Oratorio Society. Gil Scott-Heron’s father was Gil Heron, a Jamaican footballer, who at one time, played for Glasgow Celtic Football Club. Sadly, though, Bobbie and Gil’s marriage ended when Gil Scott-Heron was young. 

After this, Gil Scott-Heron was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott, who lived in Jackson, Tennessee. Then when Gil Scott-Heron was just twelve, Lillie Scott died. 

Gil Scott-Heron returned to New York to live with his mother, who was now living in the Bronx. Originally, Gil Scott-Heron 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 read one of Gil Scott-Heron’s essays, and recommended that he received a full scholarship. This proved a poisoned chalice. While the education he was receiving was far superior, Gil Scott-Heron was one of only five black students. He felt alienated and alone. That wasn’t the only problem. There was also a socioeconomic gap, with the other students coming from a much more affluent background. Gil Scott-Heron by comparison, was the son of a single mother and was from a very different background.  It was during this time that Gil Scott-Heron 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 Scott-Heron headed to Lincoln University,

When Gil Scott-Heron was considering which university to enrol at, Langston Hughes recommended Lincoln University, which where he was staying. Gil Scott-Heron took his friend’s advice, and enrolled at Lincoln University. This was where Gil Scott-Heron’s musical career began.

At Lincoln University, Gil Scott-Heron formed his first band, the Black and Blues. Joining Gil Scott-Heron in the band was Langston Hughes. Little did Gil Scott-Heron know that this was the start of a long and illustrious career. However, after two years at Lincoln University, Gil Scott-Heron decided to take time out Lincoln University to write a novel.

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

After watching The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron approached the band and asked: “can I form a band like you guys?” The seed had already been sown. Maybe, making music rather than writing books was the direction that Gil Scott-Heron’s career headed?

Having been impressed and inspired by The Last Poets and now considering a career in music, Gil Scott-Heron had a lot on his mind as he headed back to New York, where he found a new home in Chelsea, Manhattan. This concluded with the publication of Gil Scott-Heron’s book of poetry, Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox by World Publishing. Now Gil Scott-Heron could add poet to his burgeoning CV. Soon, he hoped to add singer and songwriter.

Once he’d settled in to his new apartment in Manhattan,  Gil Scott-Heron decided to make his dream a reality and started looking for a record company. Gil Scott-Heron just so happened to approach a label tailor-made for his music, Flying Dutchman Productions.

The Birth Of  Flying Dutchman Productions.

Following his departure from ABC/Impulse Bob Thiele had decided to found his own label. He was perfectly qualified to do so, having worked with some of the most innovative and creative musicians in the history of jazz over the last few years. During that period, Bob came to the conclusion 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. Instead, their creativity is restricted, and they’re unable to experiment and innovate. For many a musical maverick who had signed to a large record label, the experienced had proved frustrating and unsatisfactory. So when Bob Thiele parted company with Impulse, who he had transformed into one of jazz’s pioneering labels, he founded Flying Dutchman Productions. This was the label that Gil Scott-Heron approached. However, there was a problem.

While Bob wanted to sign Gil Scott-Heron, there was a problem,… funding. The funding that Phillips, the Dutch record label had given Bob Thiele wasn’t going as far as he had hoped. Despite this, when he met Gil Scott-Heron he was impressed by the poet, musician, and author. So much so, that Bob Thiele decided to 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, which featured fourteen songs from the pen of Gil Scott-Heron. Initially, it was claimed that Gil Scott-Heron and two percussionists, David Barnes, Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders, recorded the album live at a night club on the corner of 125 and Lenox. That wasn’t strictly true.

Forty-two years later, one of the best kept secrets in music was no more. It transpired that Small Talk At 125 and Lenox was recorded live in the studio in front of a few invited guests. Taking charge of production was Bob Thiele, who was an experienced producer.

With Bob Thiele at the controls, Gil Scott-Heron recorded an accomplished album that is a mixture of jazz, proto-rap, spoken word poetry and soul. It was released later in 1970, and immediately, comparisons were drawn with the group who had inspired Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets. This was a fair comment to some extent.

When one listen to tracks like the original version The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, plus Brother, Whitey On The Moon, Paint It Black and Who’ll Pay Reparations On My Soul? critics realised that Gil Scott-Heron had taken what The Last Poets had been doing to the next level. This he managed to do with just a trop percussionists accompanying him, on Small Talk At 125th and Lenox, which was a potent and explosive mix of scathing political and social comment.

Although Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox was a groundbreaking and powerful debut album, it didn’t sell in vast quantities. Instead, it sold steadily, and shouldn’t have lost Flying Dutchman Productions money, as they had managed to keep their overheads low. However, Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox slipped under the musical radar, and many record buyers only discovered the album when Gil Scott-Heron released Winter In America and The Bottle in 1975. By then, Gil Scott-Heron had released a trio of albums for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions. 

Pieces Of A Man.

The second of the Flying Dutchman Productions’ trio was Pieces Of A Man, which featured eleven songs, including four written by Gil Scott-Heron. This included The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which made its debut on Small Talk at ‘125th. and Lenox. The other seven songs were penned by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, who would forge a successful songwriting partnership.

Recording of Pieces Of A Man took place on the ‘19th’ and ‘20th’ April 1971, RCA Studios, in New York. This time, Gil Scott-Heron was accompanied by a full band which featured a few well-known names.

When Bob Thiele asked Gil who he’d like to accompany him, jokingly, Gil Scott-Heron said flautist and saxophonist Hubert Laws and bassist Ron Carter. Bob Thiele who know everyone who was everyone in jazz, got them onboard for the recording of Pieces Of A Man. This was Bob Thiele’s way of making Gil Scott-Heron feel at home. Bob Thiele knew that putting together a top class bands 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. The crack band included a rhythm section of drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and guitarist Burt Jones. Brian Jackson played piano and Gil Scott Heron played guitar, piano and sang lead vocals. Producing Pieces Of A Man was Bob Thiele. After a recording season that lasted just two days, 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 what was one of the most important periods in musical, social and political history. 

By 1971, America was struggling with a variety of social problems,  ranging from the Vietnam War, poverty and racism. Gil Scott Heron was using his music to speak for the poor, downtrodden and disenfranchised. Pieces Of A Man was an important album, and one that had the potential to make Americans think about the status quo, and consider change. Sadly, just like Pieces Of A Man passed the mainstream music by, it was a similar case with record buyers. Pieces Of A Man failed to find the audience it deserved.

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. That was as good as it got for Pieces Of A Man. This was somewhat ironic, given the later reappraisal of the album.

When critics reappraised Pieces Of A Man at a later date, they hailed it a classic album. The music was intense, politically charged, innovative and influential. That comes as no surprise, as Pieces Of A Man features some of the best and most powerful songs Gil Scott-Heron wrote during his time at Flying Dutchman Productions. This included The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Save the Children, Lady Day and John Coltrane, Home Is Where The Hatred Is, When You Are Who You Are, I Think I’ll Call It Morning, Pieces Of A Man and Or Down You Fall. They’re part of what was the first classic album of Gil Scott-Heron’s career. Alas, the critics has still to rewrite musical history.

Gil Scott-Heron had released two innovative and influential albums, Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox and Pieces Of A Man, they had passed music lovers by. This was disappointing for Gil Scott-Heron, who would only release one more album for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions, Free Will. However, would it be a case of third time lucky?

Free Will.

For the followup to Pieces Of A Man, Free Will, Gil Scott-Heron had written seven new songs. The other five songs,  Free Will, The Middle Of Your Day, The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues, Speed Kills and Did You Hear What They Said? were collaborations between Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. He played a huge part in the rise and rise of Gil Scott-Heron over the next few years.

Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron had already formed a successful songwriting partnership. However, Brian Jackson was more than a songwriter. He was also a talented multi-instrumentalist who played piano, keyboards flute and bells on Free Will. 

The Free Will sessions took place at RCA Studios, in New York, between the ‘2nd’ and ‘3rd’ March 1972. Just like on Pieces Of A Man, an all-star lineup accompanied Gil Scott-Heron. The rhythm section included drummer Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie, bassist Jerry Jemmott, drummer Pretty Purdie and guitarist David Spinozza. Flautist and saxophonist Hubert Laws, who’d played on Pieces Of A Man, returned, while Brian Jackson played electric piano, flute and bells. Gil Scott-Heron took charge of the lead vocals on Free Will.  Arranging and conducting Free Will was Horace Ott, while Bob Thiele took charge of production. After just two days of lengthy recording sessions, Free Will 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 to 30,000 copies, and reached the US Jazz charts. Despite this, this was a huge disappointment Gil Scott-Heron. 

With keyboardist Brian Jackson at his side, Gil Scott-Heron had fused elements of jazz, blues, funk, proto-rap and soul on Free Will. Fearlessly, he continued to highlight the social and political problems of the early seventies, and tackle controversial subjects and scenarios head on. Gil Scott-Heron delivered the lyrics with his unique and inimitable proto-rap style on Free Will. Among its highlights were Free Will, The Middle Of Your Day, The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues, Speed Kills and Did You Hear What They Said? That took care of side one, which was one of the most cohesive sides of Gil Scott-Heron’s nascent career. It was almost flawless. Then on side, Gil Scott-Heron picks up where he left off on two No Knock and Sex Education: Ghetto Style. It was the third album from musical pioneer Gil Scott-Heron, who would become one of the most important artists of his generation.

Sadly, Free will was his final album for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions. Not long after the release of Free Will, Gil Scott-Heron left Flying Dutchman Productions. 

By then, Gil Scott-Heron’s thoughts were said to have turned to academia, and his unfinished degree. Gil Scott-Heron and his band returned to Washington D.C. which became their home. However, Gil Scott-Heron never came close to enrolling at his former alma mater Lincoln University.

Winter In America.

Not when Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell of Strata-East Records offered Gil Scott-Heron a new recording contract. Having signed to Strata-East Records, Gil Scott-Heron began work on his fourth studio album Winter In America with Brian Jackson who co-produced the album at D&B Sound, in Silver Spring, Maryland. The sessions began on the ‘4th’ and ‘5th’ September and were completed on the ‘15th’ of October of 1973. By then, Gil Scott-Heron had recorded the nine tracks that became Winter In America.

Seven months later, on the ‘5th’ of October 1975, Winter In America was released with Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson receiving equal billing for the first time. Winter In America was released to  widespread critical acclaim with some critics stating that Winter In America was Gil Scott-Heron’s finest album. So much so, that some critics wondered if this was going to be Gil Scott-Heron’s breakthrough album?

At first, this was looking doubtful. Initially, copies of Winter In America were in short supply, as a result of Strata-East Records  independent distribution policy. This meant that many record shops struggled to secure the copies of Winter In America that they needed. Eventually, this problem was resolved and on June ’29th’ 1974, Winter In America entered the US Top Jazz Albums charts.

Little did Gil Scott-Heron realise that this as the start of a forty week run in the US Top Jazz Albums charts, which saw Winter In America eventually reach number six. This was helped by the success of only single released from Winter In America, The Bottle. Helped by an underground following, The Bottle gave Gil Scott-Heron the biggest hit of his career, when it reached number fifteen in the US R&B charts. The success of The Bottle resulted in Winter In America selling 300,000 copies. Incredibly, this wasn’t enough to even reach the lower reaches of the US Billboard 200.  However, Winter In America was the only album Gil Scott-Heron released for Strata-East Records. Clive Davis of Arista came calling, and offered Gil Scott-Heron the opportunity to sign to a major label. 

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

In the space of just a few short years, Gil Scott-Heron’s life had been transformed.  The former poet, author and ‘academic’ had come a long way. Gil Scott-Heron had Bob Thiele to thank for his success. He had believed in him and given him first recording contract. Then when Gil Scott-Heron was considering returning to academia, and decided to move back to Washington with the rest of his band, Bob Thiele didn’t stand in his way. What Bob Thiele never foresaw was Strata-East Records offering Gil Scott-Heron a recording contract. This was enough for Gil Scott-Heron  to turn his back on academia and release the most successful album of his career. This must have been frustrating for Bob Thiele.

Although the three albums that Gil Scott-Heron released on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions  weren’t hugely successful they had sold reasonably well. Bob Thiele wanted to record more albums with Gil Scott-Heron. For Bob Thiele, Gil Scott-Heron was the one that got away. 

By 1974, Bob Thiele had just  signed a new deal with RCA. Part of the deal was that Flying Dutchman Productions released a compilation of tracks from Gil Scott-Heron’s first three albums, 1970s Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox, 1971s Pieces of a Man and 1972s Free Will. This was perfect timing, as Gil Scott-Heron was now officially one of music’s rising stars.

For the Gil Scott-Heron compilation, Bob Thiele spent time choosing eleven tracks from 1970s Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox, 1971s Pieces of a Man and 1972s Free Will, that would eventually become The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. There was no way that Bob Thiele was going to be accused of throwing together a compilation that cashed-in on Gil Scott-Heron’s newfound popularity. Instead, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was a lovingly curated compilation that was compiled by the man who discovered him…Bob Thiele. When he had finalised the track-listing, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was released in late 1974, and for forty-three years has been the perfect introduction to Gil Scott-Heron’s Flying Dutchman Productions’ years.

When The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was released in 1974, it was to widespread critical acclaim and indeed commercial success. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised reached number twenty-one on October the ’12th’ 1974 and spending five weeks on the US Billboard Jazz charts. This meant that Gil Scott-Heron’s Flying Dutchman Records’ years closed with a successful album. By then,  Gil Scott-Heron was preparing to start life at a major label.

The Start Of The Arista Years.

The First Minute Of A New Day.

Clive Davis of Arista came calling, and offered Gil Scott-Heron the opportunity to sign to a major label. This was the start of a relationship that produced nine albums and lasted until 1985.

Gil Scott-Heron’s debut for Arista was The First Minute Of A New Day featured nine new songs. This included Offering, The Liberation Song (Red, Black and Green), Pardon Our Analysis (We Beg Your Pardon) and Alluswe which were written by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson.  They also wrote Must Be Something with Danny Bowens and Bob Adams. Gil Scott-Heron penned Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman, Guerrilla and Winter In America. The other song was Bilal Sunni Ali’s Western Sunrise which were recorded at two studios.

Recording of The First Minute Of A New Day began on June 1975 at New York University and DB Sound Studios, Silverspring, Maryland. Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson took charge of production while The Midnight Band accompanied them on The First Minute Of A New Day. When the recording was completed in July 1974, The First Minute Of A New Day was scheduled for release in January 1975.

Prior to the release of The First Minute Of A New Day, Arista embarked upon a marketing campaign to promoted their latest signings album label debut. When critics heard the album, they were impressed by a carefully crafted album where the production was much slicker than Winter In America, and benefited from the addition of The Midnight Band. The songs  were full of social and political comment and focused on the theme was struggle. Especially social, geographical and environmental oppression. They played their part in The First Minute Of A New Day, which was a powerful album that was released to critical acclaim.

When The First Minute Of A New Day was released in January 1975, it reached number  five in the US Top Jazz Albums charts, eight in the US R&B charts and thirty in the US Billboard 200. Gil Scott-Heron’s music had crossed over and reached the wider audience that Bob Thiele knew it always would.

Just like Winter In America, The First Minute Of A New Day was credited to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. Ironically, The First Minute Of A New Day was the most successful album of Gil Scott-Heron’s recording career. It was a proud moment for the poet, musician, and author who was still America’s social conscience. However, hat Gil Scott-Heron’ didn’t know, was that The First Minute Of A New Day was the most successful album of Gil Scott-Heron’s forty-one year recording career. He would spend the rest of his career trying to replicate the success of The First Minute Of A New Day.

From South Africa To South Carolina.

Having released the most successful album of his career, the pressure was on Gil Scott-Heron to record a followup that replicated the success of The First Minute Of A New Day. That was easier said than done.

For From South Africa To South Carolina, Gil Scott-Heron wrote  Johannesburg, Beginnings (The First Minute Of A New Day), South Carolina (Barnwell) and A Lovely Day, while writing A Toast To The People, The Summer Of ’42. They were joined by Bilal Sunni-Ali of The Midnight Band’s Essex. 

Recording of From South Africa To South Carolina took place at D & B Sound, in Silver Spring, Maryland, with many of the same musicians that featured on The First Minute Of A New Day joining Gil Scott-Heron. Work began in June 1975, with Gil Scott-Heron taking charge of the production. It took two months to record Gil Scott-Heron From South Africa To South Carolina, which was finished in July 1975. Gil Scott-Heron that From South Africa To South Carolina would replicate the success of The First Minute Of A New Day.

Four months later, From South Africa To South Carolina was released accompanied by mixed reviews. While some critics felt that it was another powerful album full of insightful political and social comment, the contrarian Rolling Stone magazine wasn’t convinced. Neither was the “self-styled” dean of rock critics Robert Christgau. This was disappointing for Gil Scott-Heron. 

Especially when From South Africa To South Carolina failed to chart, and didn’t even come close to replicating the success of The First Minute Of A New Day. However, that was never going to be easy as The First Minute Of A New Day was one of Gil Scott-Heron’s finest albums. However, things were about to improved for Gil Scott-Heron.

He was invited to appear on the comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live in December 1975. He sang two songs from his new album From South Africa To South Carolina, Johannesburg and A Lovely Day, which introduced his music to a new audience nationwide. Sadly, this didn’t make an impact on album sales, and Gil Scott-Heron began making plans for his next album.

It’s Your World.

This was It’s Your World which was a double album which was recorded over a four-day period between the ‘1st’ and ‘4th’ of July 1976. Some of the sessions took place in various recording sessions, including  Electric Lady Studios in New York and American Star Studios in Merrifield, Virginia. Other sessions took place at St. Paul’s Mall in Boston, Massachusetts, with Gil Scott-Heron’s backing band The Midnight Band accompanying them. They played their part in what was a remarkable album.

The four sides of It’s Your World were a showcase for the considerable talents of America’s social conscience Gil Scott-Heron. His music was cerebral, thoughtful and incisive music as he dealt the social and political problems affecting America as it bicentennial approached. Gil Scott-Heron delivered ballads gave readings of his poetry while he and his talented band switched between and combined elements of jazz, funk, Latin and proto-rap during what was an impassioned and powerful performance that was uplifting, inspirational and also full of anger, compassion, indignation and wisdom that seemed almost obvious. Even forty-one years later, It’s Your World is just as relevant.

It’s Your World was scheduled for release in November 1976, and found favour with the majority of critics. They hailed the album a powerful and potent album that was a return to form from Gil Scott-Heron. However, other critics were still to be convinced by Gil Scott-Heron and their reviews ranged from favourable to mixed. Some of these critics still seemed unwilling to give Gil Scott-Heron’s music a chance. This was a great shame.

When It’s Your World was released in November 1976, it was more successful than From South Africa To South Carolina but still failed to chart. Still, Gil Scott-Heron hadn’t come close to replicating the success of The First Minute Of A New Day.

Bridges.

Seven years after releasing his debut album Small Talk At 125th and Lenox in 1970, Gil Scott-Heron working on what was the eighth album of his career, Bridges. Just like his two previous albums, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson received equal billing, on an album they hoped would reach the charts. 

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s two previous albums had failed to chart, and they were under pressure to come up with a successful album. This time around, Gil Scott-Heron wrote seven of the nine tracks, including Hello Sunday! Hello Road!, Song Of The Wind, Under The Hammer, We Almost Lost Detroit, Tuskeegee #626, Delta Man (Where I’m Coming From) and 95 South (All Of The Places We’ve Been). Gil Scott-Heron also wrote Racetrack In France and Vildgolia (Deaf, Dumb and Blind) with Brian Jackson. These tracks were recorded during the first half of 1977, and featured nine new songs.

Taking charge of production on Bridges were Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. They were joined in the studio by members of The Midnight Band, on another powerful album of music that was full of social and political comment.

Prior to the release of Bridges, critics hailed the album as one of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s finest hours. Especially We Almost Lost Detroit which documented the story of the nuclear meltdown at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station near Michigan, in 1966. Little did Gil Scott-Heron realise that We Almost Lost Detroit would become one of his most popular songs.

When Bridges was released in September 1977, it reached 130 in the US Billboard 200 and sixteen in the US Jazz albums charts. After two albums that had failed to chart, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson were back in the charts. This was a relief for the pair as their thoughts turned to their next album, and the last of the seventies, Secrets.

Secrets.

In April 1978, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson entered the TONTO studio in Santa Monica, California, with an all-star band that included Harvey Mason, Greg Phillinganes, Leon Williams and vocalists Julia Waters, Maxine Waters Waddell and Marti McCall. They joined Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson who written nine new tracks. 

Gil Scott-Heron wrote Angel Dust, Cane, Better Days Ahead, Angola, Louisiana and Show Bizness. The Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson songwriting partnership wrote Third World Revolution and Three Miles Down, and also wrote Madison Avenue with Brenda Morocco. Brian Jackson contributed A Prayer For Everybody/To Be Free. These songs were recorded between April and June 1978 and became Secrets. 

With Secrets complete, the album was released in September 1978. Before that, critics had their say on the album. While there weren’t as many hooks on Secrets as there had been on Bridges, the music was just as powerful and focused on the social and political problems on Angola, Louisiana and Third World Revolution. However, on Show Bizness Gil Scott-Heron reflected on the trials and tribulations of his newfound fame. Other songs dealt with  injustice and drug addiction on Angel Dust. Secrets closed with the hopeful A Prayer For Everybody/To Be Free. It was well received by critics, with some calling it a fitting followup to Bridges.

On the release of Secrets in September 1978, it reached sixty-one on the US Billboard 200, forty-five on the US R&B charts and eleven on the US Jazz charts. Secrets was the second consecutive Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album to chart since they had signed to Arista. Could they make it three in a row?

1980.

Despite the success of Bridges, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson didn’t return with a new album until 1980 in…1980. It was well worth the wait, but unlike Bridges and Secrets, was written mostly by Gil Scott-Heron.

For 1980, Gil Scott-Heron wrote seven of the eight songs on his tenth album. That was apart from Corners which Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson wrote. They also co-produced 1980 with Malcolm Cecil. 

Recording of 1980 took place at TONTO studio in Santa Monica, California between August and October 1979. Joining Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson were drummer Harvey Mason, guitarist Ed Brady and Mario Henderson, flautist Carl Cornwell and trombonist Bill Watrous. Just like Bridges, backing vocalists Julia Waters, Maxine Waters Waddell and Marti McCall returned. They would play their part in an album that featured elements of funk, jazz, jazz-funk and proto-rap which  would prove popular with critics and record buyers. 

Just like Bridges, 1980 was well received by critics who welcomed another carefully crafted album. It featured the anti-nuclear song Shut ‘Um and Alien where Gil Scott-Heron documented the plight of the illegal Mexican immigrants in California. On Push Comes To Shove and Willing Gil Scott-Heron describes how he dealt with the pressure of life. 1980 featured a thoughtful Gil Scott-Heron who seemed to be feeling alienated disillusioned, as he looked back to his past. Closing 1980 was Late Last Night, a song that Gil Scott-Heron wrote when he woke up one nights with an idea for a song, and had to convince members of the hotel staff to let him use the piano in hotel’s lounge. Meanwhile, Gil Scott-Heron was worried he would lose melody to the song that became Late Last Night which was inspired by Gil Scott-Heron’s experience of touring and writing music. This closed what was another successful album for Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson.

Upon the release of 1980 in late 1980, the album reached eighty-two in the US Billboard 200, twenty-two in the US R&B charts and seven in the US Jazz charts. This was the third consecutive  Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album that had charted. They were enjoying the most successful period of their career.

Although Gil-Scott Heron was far from an overnight success, ever since his early days Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions he had  release album after album of carefully crafted music full of social and political comment. This continued after his departure from Flying Dutchman Productions with the release of  Winter In America on Strata-East, and at Arista with  The First Minute Of A New Day, which became the most successful album of Gil Scott-Heron’s career. However, replicating the success of The First Minute Of A New Day wasn’t going to be easy.

Neither From South Africa To South Carolina nor It’s Your Day charted, which was disappointing for Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. Just like the previous albums he had released since Flying Dutchman Productions, From South Africa To South Carolina and It’s Your Day were powerful albums as Gil Scott-Heron continued in his role of America’s social conscience. However, despite the quality of the music, neither album sold in great quantities.

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s fortunes improved on  Bridges, Secrets and 1980, which brought to an end a ten-year period where America’s social conscience released the best music of his forty-one year career. He wrote, sang and produced powerful songs that often, were full of social and political comment, and other times, found in a reflective mood. Sometimes, he was reflecting  on his newfound fame, other times he spoke of the problems that everyone had to deal with. As a result, many people could relate to the music Gil Scott-Heron had released since he left Flying Dutchman Productions. That had been the case throughout his ten-year recording career, which saw Gil Scott-Heron release ten albums between 1970 and 1980.  

Looking back at Gil Scott-Heron’s forty-one year career with the benefit of hindsight, he released his best music between 1970 and 1980. During this golden period, Gil Scott-Heron could do no wrong. Having signed for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions, he released his debut album Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox in 1970, and followed this up with Pieces of a Man in 1971 and Free Will in 1972. This triumvirate of albums feature some of the best music of Gil Scott-Heron’s career. However, for Gil Scott-Heron there was life after Flying Dutchman Productions.

After leaving Flying Dutchman Productions, Gil Scott-Heron signed to Strata-East, and released Winter In America It was the first album to be credited to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, and is one of their finest albums. Winter In America has more in common with the albums Gil Scott-Heron released on Flying Dutchman Productions. After signing to Arista, Gil Scott-Heron’s music changed stylistically.

While his lyrics were just as hard-hitting, powerful and poignant, the production became much slicker with bigger bands and backing vocalists accompanying Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. This found favour with record buyers, especially on The First Minute Of A New Day, which is the finest albums Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson released at Arista. Other notable albums were Bridges and Secrets, which feature the best of Gil Scott-Heron’s Arista years.

The triumvirate of albums Gil Scott-Heron released for Flying Dutchman Production, Winter In America and The First Minute Of A New Day, Bridges and Secrets showcases one of the most talented singer and songwriters of his generation as he blossoms and flourishes during what was a golden period for Gil Scott-Heron.

He blossomed at Flying Dutchman Production, when Bob Thiele gave Gil Scott-Heron a platform and the freedom to record and release music that he believed in. This was the start of the rise and rise of Gil Scott-Heron.

Soon, was well on his way to becoming America’s social conscience, as he provided a voice for those who had none. Hs lyrics were cerebral, witty, scathing and most importantly, honest as Gil Scott-Heron spoke up for the poor, downtrodden and disenfranchised. Fearlessly, Gil Scott-Heron highlighted the social and political problems that blighted America between 1970 and 1980 using his unique, imitable and emotive proto-rap and soulful styles on the albums he recorded at Flying Dutchman Records, Strata-East and Arista.  This includes Small Talk At ‘125th’ and Lenox , Pieces Of A Man, Free Will and and later, Winter In America, The First Minute Of A New Day, Bridges and Secrets. These albums contain some of the most important, powerful, poignant and cerebral music of Gil Scott-Heron’s career. Over forty years later, and Gil Scott-Heron’s music is timeless and is still relevant today, as the man who was once America’s social conscience continues to influence and inspire a new generation of musicians.

Gil Scott-Heron-America’s Social Conscience: 1970-1980 The Golden Era.

4 Comments

  1. Exhaustive bio, thanks, too easy to forget artists of his calibre and ambition!

    • Hi Dave,

      Glad that you enjoyed the article. Sadly, artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Terry Callier and Donny Hathaway who had something important and interposing to say are now being overlooked. Ironically, much of Gil Scott-Heron’s music is still relevant today. Especially the music he made during the first ten years of his carer. That to me was his golden period.

      Regards,
      Derek.

      • Don’t rock the boat seems to be the mantra, alas!

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  1. GIL SCOTT-HERON-AMERICA’S SOCIAL CONSCIENCE: 1970-1980 THE GOLDEN ERA. — dereksmusicblog | O LADO ESCURO DA LUA

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