Excerpted from Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man by Marcus Baram. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
In August 1980, Stevie Wonder announced that he would be using his concert tour for his chart-topping Hotter Than July album to raise support for making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Civil rights groups had proposed this initiative for several years, but it never attracted enough public support to overcome congressional inertia or the opposition of conservative lawmakers. Stevie was planning a rally on the Mall in Washington, DC, in January to pressure Congress into making the date a holiday. Gil had seen the news on 20/20, during Barbara Walters’s interview with Stevie, and he was looking forward to seeing the tour when it came through DC. Instead, Gil got a phone call from Clive Wasson, a promoter. Wasson said that Stevie wanted Gil to join him on tour briefly to replace Bob Marley, who had a prior commitment to play with the Commodores on the same nights as some of Stevie’s concerts.
When Gil joined the tour in Houston, he immediately got a taste of Stevie’s infectious spirit. Walking into the cavernous Summit sports arena on a hot day in November, trying not to get lost, he heard someone call out, “Aries,” a nickname that only one person used for Gil. There was Stevie in his distinctive cornrows and sunglasses, up in the sound booth. “Come on up here, Aries!” When Gil expressed surprise that Stevie had spotted him, the star smiled. “We felt your vibes, Aries.” The blind soul singer’s ability to spot Gil became a constant prank on the tour. Once, Gil even tried sneaking up on him in his dressing room, shushing all of Stevie’s entourage, but the singer still managed to sense Gil’s presence. Whether through his sixth sense or getting advance notice from his headset-wearing brother, Calvin, Stevie always managed to nail Gil.
Gil and Stevie developed a smooth show, with Gil and the band performing at 8:05 for an hour, opening for Stevie and Wonderlove, his backup band. Then Gil would emerge at 11:30 to join Wonder for his finale, “Master Blaster” and “Happy Birthday,” Stevie’s tribute to Dr. King.
Gil’s band wasn’t always prepared for the tour’s fast pace and sudden changes. They almost missed a show in Baton Rouge when they spent an hour at Houston Airport looking for guitarist Ed Brady. Gil ran from terminal to terminal before finding Brady hunched over a video arcade playing Space Invaders. To make up for lost time, producer Malcolm Cecil gunned the car down the highway, until they were pulled over by a Louisiana state patrolman. As they waited for the trooper to approach their car, Malcolm, the only white man in the car, told the band, “Don’t say a word, guys.” Then, in what Gil calls an “Oscar-winning performance,” Cecil rolled down the window, played up his British accent, and complained about all the delays he was having while trying to get the “African boxing team” to the Centroplex in Baton Rouge. The patrolman ended up apologizing to them and escorting the band, with sirens wailing and lights flashing, all the way to the stadium.
Later that night, Gil was summoned to Stevie Wonder’s hotel suite, where the singer was sitting in a back bedroom. He told Gil that Bob Marley’s cancer had worsened and he had entered New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering clinic. Wonder was concerned—and under pressure from his record company, Motown, to find another big name to join the tour. Stevie wanted Gil, and though Stevie was one of the biggest stars in the music world, he had had to fight his label to get Gil on the tour in the first place. The executives at Motown had wanted a more popular opening group, and had suggested some of their chart-topping stars such as the Commodores and the Dazz Band. Either out of modesty or insecurity, Gil said he agreed with the label, telling Wonder that a bigger name might be better at packing the arena and explaining that his upcoming new album, Real Eyes, would probably not fuel enough advertising to promote such a big tour.
But Wonder insisted on Gil and his band. On November 2, 1980, he announced in Dallas that the tour and rally in DC would continue as planned, with Gil and the Amnesia Express along for the ride. Much of Gil’s lyrics resonated with Wonder, who had experienced his own growth in political awareness over the previous decades. He felt that Gil was the right person to help him inspire support for honoring Dr. King with a national holiday. Two nights later, the two of them joined many African Americans in reacting with shock—“like a brief contact with an open circuit”—at the news of Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter. Their campaign for a national holiday had suddenly become much harder.
With Reagan’s election and the risk that a decade of progress could be undone by a conservative president, the timing couldn’t have been better for Gil’s next performance: a night of poetry and music on the campus of Kent State University, the campus that had shifted the peace movement into “overdrive” after the shooting of four demonstrators by the National Guard in 1970. Gil’s words that night presaged much of what he later included in his epic song “B Movie,” which skewers Reagan and the country that elected him. As always, Gil provided some context that night, explaining Reagan’s shift from Democratic liberal during the McCarthy era to conservative Republican during the 1960s and ’70s, when “there was very little difference between himself and Attila the Hun.” Gil enjoyed the audience: students, professors, and informed locals who appreciated his critiques and his sarcasm. Gil told the audience that he had mixed feelings about Reagan’s election— sorry for the state of the country but excited about the prospects for his own career: just as Nixon became the ultimate bête noire for Gil and much of the country, serving as a perfect target in some of his memorable songs, from “H2O Gate Blues” to “Bicentennial Blues,” Reagan might have even more potential.
Back on tour with Stevie a few days after the election, Gil was experiencing a mix of emotions about his presence onstage with a real superstar. It was exhilarating for him, but it also brought up old doubts about whether he deserved to join such a talented genius on such a major tour. After arriving two hours late at the show in Montreal on November 7, racing to the Forum with Brenda and Gia in a cab, Gil wrote a poem that described his wonderment at being an “ex-country hick” who made it big.
The next stop was the highlight of the concert tour: Madison Square Garden, where the energy of New York was pumped up higher by the presence of someone who, at the time, was the biggest pop star on the planet, Michael Jackson. Gil had always struggled with the requisites of fame, often preferring to jam in small venues or read poetry to a student union at a small black college. And he obviously wasn’t interested in chart success or doing what was necessary to generate sales. In many ways, he felt like the kid who had been invited to the movie premiere, the outsider who had been granted inner access but didn’t really belong. Still, like most people, he got a buzz from meeting famous people, such as Langston Hughes and Muhammad Ali.
And though his musical instincts veered in a different direction, he had a keen appreciation for pop talent, from his days in high school humming songs by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. He was in awe of Stevie’s humanity and soul—“the extraordinary became commonplace”—and he admired the songwriter’s talent for turning out instant hits. But nothing prepared him for the magic of Michael Jackson. All day long, the crew had been buzzing about Jackson’s arrival, and when he came out for “Master Blaster,” the Prince of Pop did not disappoint. When Wonder introduced his “special guest,” Jackson glided onstage to join him and Gil, like a “trick of the light,” while the crowd roared in a frenzy. During the song’s chorus, Gil vainly tried to keep up with Jackson, but his voice couldn’t get that high. “It felt like reaching for water with a butterfly net,” he writes with candor in his memoir. Eventually, Gil handed Jackson the microphone and retreated to the side of the stage while Wonder jammed with Jackson, who twirled “like a boneless ice skater.”
Scott-Heron and Dr. Martin Luther King’s Death
Though Gil felt artistically insecure to be in the presence of such stars, the critics felt the opposite: that Wonder gave a lackluster performance and should have been trying to emulate his opening act. The New York Times’s Robert Palmer praised Gil for giving a powerful performance, comparing him to Bob Marley as a pop tunesmith who was politically conscious and “transcends his material as a spokesman, oral historian and moral exemplar.” They both “have more important things on their minds, and on their tongues, than the writing and singing of silly love songs.”
The tour went to Washington, DC, around Thanksgiving in 1980, and the band was looking forward to seeing old friends and familiar faces. Gil stopped in to see Bruce Little’s sister at her house in Landover, Maryland, giving her money for a special catering request: to cook a special Thanksgiving dinner for Stevie and him and their bands. A few nights later, the dinner (turkey and candied yams and greens and dessert) was laid out at the old Maverick Room in DC. When Stevie arrived with his entourage, the boisterous group was doing the Rock, the hot dance at that moment, and Gil joined in, getting into a line and kicking his feet out, a huge smile stretched across his face.
Less than two weeks later, on December 8 in Oakland, Gil and Stevie experienced a poignant moment that seemed to mark the end of the 1960s for once and for all. When Gil arrived at the arena, he saw Stevie at the bottom of the backstage stairs. His voice was so quiet and somber that Gil couldn’t hear him at first. “Some psycho, some crazy person, shot John Lennon. And I’m wondering how to handle it.” Gil was stunned: “I got that same feeling I’d felt when I heard that Dr. King or someone else was killed; that sense of a certain part of you being drained away, a loss of self.”
Wonder was trying to figure out how to tell the audience: in an era before cell phones and Twitter and e-mail, nobody else in the area had heard the news of the 10:30 shooting in New York. Gil told Stevie to wait until the end of the show, “Hell, ain’t nothin’ they can do about it.” When Stevie finally made the announcement, he spoke with a tremor in his voice. The audience fell quiet. “There was stunned silence and then cries of anguish, “Oh no, it can’t be,” “Oh my God, this can’t be,” remembers Arista promotions manager Bruce Wheeler, who was right in front of the stage with his wife, Kolleen. In his eulogy, Wonder demonstrated his humanity and compassion, giving the audience a look inside his own heart, “where all the insanity and madness of this world really hurt and enraged you.”
The crowd was in mourning. “It sort of deteriorated into mass wailing,” says Wheeler. “And Kolleen and I headed immediately for the backstage and went back to Gil’s dressing room. Everyone in the room was blown away. We were both crying and we hugged. “This can’t be happening,” said Gil. The experience also made Gil even more committed to the campaign for King’s holiday, lending that quest legitimacy and substance. In fact, a poem included in his memoir explicitly links Lennon’s song “Imagine” to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was an emotionally tumultuous month—just weeks after Lennon’s killing, Arista released the band’s new album, Real Eyes. For the album cover, Gil used the most personal image to appear on any of his records: a photo of him leaning his forehead against baby Gia, clearly in love with his adorable daughter. The album features one of his favorite songs, “Your Daddy Loves You,” an unabashed display of parental affection. As always, Gil couldn’t help being honest, telling a sleeping Gia that “me and your mama had some problems” and assuring her that he loves her.
Along with the title track, the album is more tender and grounded in an R&B sensibility than his previous records. It has its share of political tracks, including “Train from Washington,” which takes aim at the government’s failure to help the working class, and “Not Needed,” a moving look at the empty life of a factory worker forced to retire early.
The character in the song has worked on the railroad his entire life and now, at age fifty-five or sixty-five, he’s being told that he’s no longer needed. Without that job and that knowledge that he needs to do something, the rust sets in. “The only thing that really kept him going was that he was active and he was doing something, and all of a sudden he’s retired, and he has time on his hands and he finds that his life is deteriorating… that is particularly painful with our older people, one of the more significant ideas even though it didn’t attract the same kind of attention. It was a very important piece to me and I had to do it.”
The album stands out as one of the few cases in which Gil opened up about the ups and downs of his love life. Though he loved Brenda, he had a hard time fulfilling his role as the dutiful husband. In addition to “Your Daddy Loves You” and its mention of marital troubles, he skewers his own ego and image as a ladies’ man in “Legend in His Own Mind”:
You know he had had more romances than L.A.’s got stars
He had had more romances than Detroit’s got cars
He’s a, a legend in his own mind and God’s gift to women
On a day God wasn’t giving up a thing…
The album got decent reviews, and though it lacked a hit single, sales picked up due to Gil’s appearance with Stevie Wonder on the Hotter Than July tour and the album hit No. 12 on the jazz charts.
The tour with Stevie culminated on a cold, breezy morning, on January 15, 1981, when the two men stood onstage before fifty thousand people gathered for a Rally for Peace on the National Mall. It was the same spot where Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech eighteen years earlier. They joined the crowd in chanting “Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday!” and singing Stevie’s “Happy Birthday” song. In his remarks, Stevie moved the crowd to tears when he said, “Let our hearts beat to the rhythm of this march for life. But how, in fact, can our hearts beat to the rhythm of our march for life if our soul cannot sing out to the sound of love. How can we sing out love, if our lips do not embrace the taste of peace and harmony and unity? But how can our lips embrace these great feelings, if our hands do not reach out and intermingle into a melting pot of one.”
Gil was moved by the rally, seeing tens of thousands of his brothers and sisters put their voices behind an important movement. But in five days, Reagan would be inaugurated at the other end of the Mall. To move forward, the country had to recognize those who before them had fought the brave fight, he wrote in his memoir. “Why would the next one of us feel that he or she should make the effort, marshal the strength, and somehow fortify him or herself against the opposition that always seemed stronger… if even a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize was ignored where those efforts for peace had done the most good?”
It would take another two years before President Reagan finally signed a holiday into law, and it wasn’t until 2000 that all fifty states officially recognized the day.