In this excerpt from his book on legendary soul singer Gil Scott-Heron, Marcus Baram recounts Scott-Heron's crucial time touring with Stevie Wonder.
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.”