I was inside a Cyber Café when I learned of the passing of Gil Scott-Heron. I was surfing the net and accidentally ran across the story on National Public Radio’s site. I immediately informed the person I was with, “Look, Gil is Dead”; they were the first words out of my mouth. I must admit that it came as no surprise that he had met his demise. Most of us knew it was just a matter of time before we would lose him. His battle with substance abuse and alcoholism had been on Front Street for many years.
My mind flashed back to my first meeting with Scott-Heron in Toronto 1976, and then seeing him open up for Steve Wonder in Montréal in 1980. I was privileged to see him and the Midnight Band perform at the El Macombo, and I interviewed him for the first time around the time of the 1976 Summer Olympics.
That interview was conducted on Charles St. in front of a roomful of Scott-Heron’s crew. Parts of the interview were broadcast that very night on (Bill) Payne’s Place on CHIN–AM Radio; he had been playing Scott-Heron’s music to death. At our first meeting, we were interrupted by a visit from Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael would later change his name to Kwame Ture.
However, many in the movement knew him as Chaka Zulu at that time. I can remember Scott-Heron’s entourage castigating Ture when he mentioned that he had just come from McDonald’s, having had a bite to eat. He attempted to justify his actions, saying it was a necessity due to time constraints.
Scott-Heron’s work was the talk of Africans in particular, and progressives in general, in North America and the world. The album, The First Minute of a New Day by Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson, and the Midnight Band, had been released in January 1975 on Arista Records.
The First Minute of a New Day was the follow up to Winter in America.
The Midnight Band was an all-star ensemble featuring: Gil Scott-Heron on vocals, piano, electric piano, and guitar; Brian Jackson on synthesizer, keyboards, flute, and vocals; Bilal Sunni Ali on flute, harmonica, and saxophone; Danny Bowens on bass; Eddie Knowles on
percussion and conga; Barnett Williams also on percussion; Victor Brown on percussion and vocals; Charlie Saunders on congas and drums; and Bob Adams and Victor Bowens on tambourines, vocals, and bells.
The promo material Arista Records put out highlighted the fact that Scott-Heron was the son of a Jamaican professional soccer player, Gil Heron, who had made his mark in Scotland. When I raised the question of his father, I was shocked by Scott-Heron who firmly told me, “The Scott’s raised me.” I would learn later that at the time of our interview, he had not yet met his father. Years after that I would discover that Gil had reached 26 years of age before they would finally meet. He sang about this on the Bridges album on the track, “Hello Sunday, Hello Road.”
Nevertheless, on the night of Scott-Heron’s first Toronto appearance, I did meet several members of his family on his father’s side.
Gil Scott Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley developed a serious relationship in the 1970s. In fact, Wonder and Bob Marley and The Wailers scheduled a joint tour; unfortunately, Marley became too ill to perform.
Scott-Heron and his crew were picked to replace Marley and the Wailers. I was assigned by the Toronto Star to interview Stevie Wonder. Little did I know that this exclusive interview would lead to my being fired by Canada’s largest newspaper! However, that is a story for another time.
When I arrived in Montréal for the interview and checked into my hotel room, I turned on the radio and discovered that Wonder and Scott-Heron’s concert was being promoted by Dick Griffey of Solar Records. Richard “Dick” Griffey (16 NOV 1938 – 24 SEP 2010) was an African-American record producer and promoter who had founded SOLAR Records, (an acronym for Sound of Los Angeles Records), which followed Motown and Philadelphia International Records during the 1970s and 1980s. As a concert promoter, Griffey arranged bookings for artists including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five as well as Stevie Wonder.
Before the concert Scott-Heron would introduce me to his wife, the actress from the television series Room 222, as well as the film Cleopatra Jones, Brenda Sykes. I would find out, once again years later, that Sykes is a cousin of my Aunt Rose who is based in Louisiana. One of the last times I saw Scott-Heron he laughed and said, “I guess you and I are cousins.”
Scott Heron covered the waterfront: he dealt with race, class, gender, and the environment. “We Almost Lost Detroit” had nothing to do with a race riot. It was about nuclear power. It was based on a 1975 book by John G. Fuller, which presented a history of Fermi 1, America's first commercial breeder reactor, with an emphasis on the 1966 partial nuclear meltdown.
In the song Scott-Heron raised the question, “...and what would Karen Silkwood say if she was still alive?” Silkwood was a Euro-American labor union activist and chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. Her job was making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She died under mysterious circumstances, after investigating claims of irregularities and wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plant.
Chairman Mao maintained that there was no contradiction between being a patriot and an internationalist. I think this applies to Scott-Heron. Remember “Liberation Song (The Red, Black and Green)”? He could both sing about the death of Silkwood and call for liberation of South Africa.
I can still remember Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) coming up behind Scott-Heron and blindfolding him. Scott-Heron never flinched, even when he turned around and saw that it was Ture. That event took place in Washington D.C. at a Black Music Association convention. Ture always praised Scott-Heron’s classic, “Johannesburg”; in fact, it was my honor to present Scott-Heron with a Biko-Rodney-Malcolm Award for refusing to perform in Apartheid South Africa. The presentation took place at the Bamboo Club in Toronto.
I don’t appreciate how the Corporate dailies in Toronto dealt with the passing of Scott-Heron. Despite the fact that there are many excellent black writers in this city, and that Scott-Heron has family still living in this city, most of the dailies carried wire stories.
As Bob Brown, a close comrade of Ture wrote me in an email, “Thanks for remembering and respecting Gil; who even at the lowest points in his life, was much better and more noble than most of us.”
Norman (Otis) Richmond
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