CULT CLASSIC: GIL SCOTT-HERON-PIECES OF A MAN.
Cult Classic: Gil Scott-Heron- Pieces Of A Man.
Just a year after the release of his 1970 debut album Small Talk At 125 and Lenox, Gil Scott-Heron returned with his landmark album Pieces Of A Man which was his second collaboration with musician Brian Jackson. Together they created a fusion of jazz, blues and soul music, highlighted the social and political problems of the early seventies.
Racism, poverty, corruption, inequality and drug addiction featured in Gil’s lyrics to Pieces Of A Man. Fearlessly, Gil tackled these subjects head on, delivering the lyrics with his proto-rap style. Pieces Of A Man was an album that would go on to influence several generations of music lovers. Among them, were several generations of hip hop artists.
Each of them, owe Gil Scott-Heron a debt of gratitude. He was, after all, the Godfather of hip hop, having invented rap. It wasn’t just hip hoppers who’ve been inspired by Gil Scott-Heron.
From the day Gil released Pieces Of A Man in 1970, this inspired several generations. It inspired and politicised them. Having opened their eyes to the injustice around them, they began to right wrongs. That was all thanks to Gil Scott-Heron’s landmark album Pieces Of A Man. It features one of Gil’s best known tracks, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was Gil-Scott-Heron’s finest hour. His lyrics are cerebral, witty, scathing and most importantly, honest. Remarkably, he was only twenty-one.
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 between him and other students. They 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.
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 Gil, 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.
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.
Joining Ron in the rhythm section were 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 in1972, 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. That was still to come. Before that, I’ll tell you about Pieces Of A Man.
Opening Pieces Of A Man is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a much misunderstood song. When Gil wrote the song, it was a comment on the times. He was frustrated that rather than bring about change, people were watching television. Nothing would be achieved by sitting watching television. People had to change. Only then, could they make a difference. The song which featured on Small Talk At 125 and Lenox is transformed. Gone is the understated sound. Ron Carter’s bass and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie drums providing the pulsating heartbeat. Hubert Laws’ flute provides the accompaniment to Gil’s scathing, cynical vocal. It weaves above his vocal, which is full of anger and frustration, before he fires a parting shot that: “the revolution will be no re-run brothers, the revolution will be live.” These words ended one of the most important songs in musical history.
Chiming guitars, rhythm section, flute and percussion provide a backdrop to Gil’s vocal on Save The Children. The mellow, laid-back arrangement is the perfect backdrop to Gil’s vocal. He pleas” we must do something to Save The Children.” Hope fills Gils’s voice that together, they’ll be able to make things better for the generation to follow. A much covered song, Gil’s version is the definitive take. Why? That’s down to the arrangement and Gil’s heartfelt vocal.
If anyone asks you how music makes you feel, play them Lady Day And John Coltrane. Gil articulates this perfectly. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in your life, music will always make you feel better. That’s the case from the opening bars, where the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. Meanwhile, Brian Jackson delivers a masterclass on keyboards. This is crucial to the song’s success. So is Gil’s urgent, emotive jazz-tinged vocal. He brings the lyrics to life, in this paean to power of music.
From the get-go, Home Is Where The Hatred has a cinematic quality. That’s down to the lyrics. They come to life as Gil delivers them with frustration, anger and power. Ironically, later in life, Gil succumbed to the addiction he sings about. Behind him his band kick loose. Ron Carter’s bass probes, drums and guitars add drama. Burt Jones unleashes a soaring, crystalline guitar solo. Again, Brian Jackson’s keyboard playing plays. They seem to raise their game, as Gil unleashes a vocal powerhouse where emotion and frustration are omnipresent.
Chirping guitars and braying saxophone answer Gil’s call on When You Are Who You Are. Hubert Law switches from flute to saxophone and in the process, plays a starring role. Meanwhile, the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. Gil sings this song to a woman whose trying to impress him. His message to he is, when someone’s happy being themself. Later, Burt Jones lays down some jazzy licks. Then when the saxophone takes charge, Burt gets funky. As for Gil, he ad libs and encourages his band as they head to a jazzy crescendo.
I Think I’ll Call It Morning has the same languid, laid-back sound as Save The Children. Key to this is Brian Jackson, who has switched to piano. His piano is at the heart of the arrangement to this feel-good song. Here, Gil looking at “this world’s madness,” is inspired by nature. Brian’s clever chord changes add to the poignancy of the lyrics. The piano is panned left and the bass right. This allows Gil’s vocal to play a starring role, as he delivers some of the best and most beautiful lyrics on Pieces Of A Man.
Pieces Of A Man has a wistful, old school, jazzy sound. That’s down to the standup bass and piano. They meander across the arrangement, while Gil delivers a vocal full of sadness and pathos. When Gil sings about: “sweeping up the remnants of a letter,” it’s a metaphor for a father’s pride being swept up by his wife after being made redundant. What’s left are the “Pieces Of A Man.” Quite simply, a poignant and moving song that’s just as relevant today, as in 1971.
A Sign Of The Ages sees a continuation of the old school jazzy sound. Just standup bass and piano accompany Gil, who asks the big question: “why am I here?” He delivers the lyrics with a combination of power, passion, emotion and confusion. As for Brian Jackson, his playing is confident and assured. So is Gil’s vocal. That’s why it’s hard to believe Gil was only twenty-two when he recorded this track. Listening to this fusion of blues and jazz, he sounds much older and worldly.
Or Down You Fall sees Gil sing about not wanting your family and friends to see your weaknesses. Gil unleashes a vocal that’s best described as soul-baring. It’s akin to a cathartic confession. Powering the arrangement along are the two artists Gil wanted to play on Pieces Of A Man. Ron Carter’s bass and Hubert Laws flute play crucial roles as Gil lays bare his soul for all to see.
A jaunty arrangement where the piano and rhythm combine opens The Needle’s Eye. This is a reference to the biblical quotation: “it’s easier for a rich man to enter heaven, than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” Gil quotes this during the track. Just like other tracks, the lyrics are full of social comment. War, and money spent on war anger Gil. Frustration, anger and sadness fills his voice. As for the arrangement, Brian Jackson’s piano plays an important role. He plays powerfully and flamboyantly. Flourishes of piano accompany Gil’s vocal as he delivers lyrics full of social comment.
Closing Pieces Of A Man is the nine minute epic The Prisoner. As the arrangement unfolds, it’s as if the arrangement is heading in the direction of free jazz. Percussion, bowed bass and drum combine. They give way to flourishes of Brian Jackson’s piano and a plucked bass. Gil’s vocal is dramatic and emotive, as he delivers the lyrics about a man “trapped by fear.” He sings” “help me I’m The Prisoner, I need somebody to listen to me.” The character in the song is trapped by their place in society. They’re trapped by inequality and injustice. With a thunderous drum for company, Gil brings the lyrics to life. It’s as of he can empathise with The Prisoner and wants to give him a voice.
Although Pieces Of A Man was only Gil’s sophomore album, it’s a hugely accomplished album. Of the eleven tracks on Pieces Of A Man, there’s absolutely no filler. Each and every one of the eleven tracks have one thing in common, their quality. Considering Gil was only twenty-two when he recorded Pieces Of A Man, this is even more remarkable.
When you hear Gil’s lyrics it’s hard to believe that a twenty-two old wrote them. Similarly, Gil’s voice is much more mature. 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, rock and soul, Gil Scott-Heron highlights the social and political problems of the early seventies. Racism, poverty, corruption, inequality and drug addiction featured in Gil’s lyrics to Pieces Of A Man. Fearlessly, Gil tackled these subjects head on, 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, he only released one further albums for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions.
This was 1972s Free Will. However, the finest album of Gil Scott-Heron’s career was Pieces Of A Man which may not have enjoyed the commercial success and critical acclaim it deserved, but was later, reappraised by critics.
Somewhat belatedly, critics realised that Pieces Of A Man was a classic album. It passed by unnoticed upon its release, but a generation later, it’s one of the most important albums Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions released. This genre-melting album, Pieces Of A Man launched the career of Gil Scott-Heron. His career lasted right through until 2010, the year before his death. During his post Flying Dutchman period, Gil released another twelve albums. However, he’ll always be remembered for one album, Pieces Of A Man.
Pieces Of A Man saw Gil Scott-Heron provide a voice for the disenfranchised. Fearlessly, Gil highlights the social and political problems that blighted America. He encouraged Americans to join together and change America for the better. This pioneering poet and protest singer made a difference politically. Gil made people aware of the problems people were facing and urged them to take action. That’s why Pieces Of A Man is Gil-Scott-Heron’s political and social Magnus Opus and the most important part of his rich musical legacy.
Cult Classic: Gil Scott-Heron- Pieces Of A Man.