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.
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.
Marcus Baram is Managing Editor at International Business Times and a former news editor at the New York Observer, The Wall Street Journal, and Huffington Post. He has also worked at the New York Daily News and ABC News, and has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, Vibe, The Village Voice, and the New York Post. Gil-Scott Heron: Pieces of a Man is his first book. A life-long fan, Baram knew Gil Scott-Heron and they were discussing collaborating on a memoir before he died.