The troubled life of Gil Scott Heron has faded to black. Gil Scott Heron’s life was more than a “B” movie.
I met Gil during his days at Arista in the early 80′s. The tall lanky spoken word artist was on the Arista roster along with Aretha Franklin, Patrice Rushen, Phyllis Hyman and of course the incomparable Whitney Houston. During this time, Gil who was living in Chocolate City had come to a cross road in his life. It was the decade of the electronic music. Studio 54, was the happening place and rap was in its’ infancy. MTV had emerged and BET was also on the scene slowly killing the radio star.
Cocaine was the drug of choice within the entertainment industry. The rich and pretty who partied like it was 1999 at Studio 54 were not strangers to powdered nose candy. Cocaine would eventually seduce Gil, taking him down the deep and dark dead end street of no return.
Ronald Reagan was President, and Gil revealed his feelings for the “B” Movie actor in the following lyrics: “acted like an actor…Hollyweird. Acted like a liberal. Acted like General Franco when he acted like governor of California, then he acted like a republican” in a cut entitled “B” Movie. That track was not only poetic, but it was prophetic.
When you look back, Gil’s vision was astounding. Perhaps his vision of the world was too much for him to take sober and therefore he decided to take the road that drove him to drugs.
Unfortunately, Gil Scott Heron had spent much of the last two decades of his life battling drug addiction that lead him in and out of prison for possession and parole violations.
Born in Chicago on April 1 1949, Gil Scott Heron was named after his father, Gilbert Heron, a Jamaican who had settled in America. Gilbert Heron was also a poet. However, his prowess at soccer brought him to the attention of talent scouts from Scotland. In the early 1950s Gilbert senior played soccer professionally for Celtic and Third Lanark, earning the nickname “the Black Arrow”, before returning to Chicago. It was there that he met Gil’s mother, Bobbie Scott, a librarian and an accomplished singer who had once performed with the New York Oratorial Society.
Gil’s parents separated when he was two, and he was sent to live with Lillie Scott, his maternal grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee. Scott-Heron would credit his grandmother with being one of the primary influences on his life: “[She] raised me to not sit around and wait for people to guess what’s on your mind — I was gonna have to say it.”
Cultivating his interest in music and literature, she bought him a second-hand piano from a local funeral parlor. She also introduced him to the writings of the Harlem Renaissance novelist and poet Langston Hughes, who utilized the rhythms of jazz in his poetry and who became a major influence.
When Gil was 12 his grandmother died, and he moved to New York to be reunited with his mother, who brought up her son on her own. On the recommendation of his high school English teacher, Gil won a scholarship to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school. Afterwards he would matriculate to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Langston Hughes had once been a student at the predominantly black University.
In his second year at Lincoln, he was given leave of absence to write a novel. Entitled the Vulture (1970), it was a thriller about ghetto life. He wrote the novel while working as a clerk at a dry cleaners. Upon graduation he published a second novel, The Nigger Factory (1971). That novel detailed campus unrest that was taking place in America.
By now Scott-Heron had begun performing his poetry in coffee houses and jazz clubs, where he was approached by the jazz producer Bob Thiele who, as head of the Impulse label, had recorded such artists as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as being the co-writer, with George David Weiss, of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
Thiele signed Scott-Heron to his own Flying Dutchman label, and released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a live recording of one of Scott-Heron’s club performances. The follow-up Pieces of Man brought him together on record for the first time with Brian Jackson, a keyboard-player, flautist and composer whom he had met at Lincoln University, and who would become his principal collaborator on nine albums.
With Jackson, Scott-Heron refined an intoxicating hybrid of jazz, Latin and Afro idioms that established him in the vanguard of black American music in the 1970s. The success of a single version of The Bottle in 1974 led to his being signed to a major label, Arista. He enjoyed further chart success in 1976 with Johannesburg and, in 1978, with the anti-drug song Angel Dust. Gil penned these lyrics for angel Dust: “Please, children would you listen, Just ain’t where it’s at. You won’t remember what you’re missin’, but down some dead end streets, there ain’t no turnin’ back.”
Not heeding his own words, Gil eventually found himself down that dead end street strung out on crack.
In the mid 80′s Arista released him from the label. Gil would not record for 11 years. Spirits was his 14th album’ which dealt with the grueling hell of drug addiction,
Mr. Heron had s huge fan base in D.C. where he performed regularly at Blues Alley in Georgetown. However, while he continued to tour, he became notoriously unreliable in showing up for his gigs.
At the beginning of his drug use, many of us who knew and cared about him tried to no avail to get him off that dead end street before he went too far.
Having a relative who was a substance abuser, I knew the only person who could save Gil was Gil.
As he slid down further, people still reached out to pull him out of the drug abyss. Monique de Latour, a New Zealander photographer who met Scott-Heron in 1995 and lived with him for several years had hoped to shock him out of his addiction by photographing him when he was comatose on drugs. Monique would hang the pictures on the walls. However, Gil refused to look at them.
In 2000 Scott-Heron was sentenced to 18 to 24 months of in-patient rehabilitation for possession of cocaine and two crack pipes, but given leave to complete a European tour. After failing even to turn up at a subsequent court hearing he was sentenced to between one and three years in prison. Released on parole, in 2003 he was again charged with possession of a controlled substance after cocaine he had hidden in the lining of his bag showed up on an airport x-ray. In 2006 he 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 rehabilitation center. The reason given for the violation of his plea deal was that the clinic refused to supply Scott-Heron with HIV medication. This led to the presumption that he was HIV positive.
Gil Scott Heron died on the afternoon of May 27, 2011, at St. Luke’s Hospital, New York City, after becoming sick on his return from a European trip.
The prophetic poet was married to the actress Brenda Sykes, with whom he had a daughter named Gia. Following here father and grandfather, Gia Scott Heron is also a poet.
Above is Gil’s “B” Movie. Take a look and see if you agree that it’s a timeless track which is so applicable today.
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Tags: Aretha Franklin, Arista, B Movie, BET, Blues Alley, Bob Thiele, Bobbie Scott, Brenda Sykes, Brian Jackson, D.C., Georgetown, Gia Scott Heron, Gil Scott Heron, Gilbert Heron, HIV, Langston Hughes, Lillie Scott, Lincoln University, MTV, Patrice Rushen, Phyllis Hyman, Ronald Reagan, Studio 54, Washington, Whitney Houston