Gil Scott Heron Bluesologist for the ages
It was 1974 in Philadelphia. I was the noon anchor and ABC affiliate’s unofficial entertainment reporter. A pleasant diversion from the usual assignments like mob stings, SEPTA strikes, fires and murders.
I sat at a table at Just Jazz nightclub with two girlfriends, flanked by the legendary Teddy Pendergrass and some of the club regulars. Just Jazz had booked giants like Dizzy Gilespie, Coltrane, and Billy Ekstine. But the rules could be bent to accommodate popular Philly talent of most genre: The Three Degrees; Melba Moore, Cleavon Little; Patti LaBelle; The Spinners; and the OJ’s. It was cool, hot, and groovy.
Gil Scott-Heron was about to make his Philly debut for the album The Revolution Will Not Be Televised .The song had been released in 1970. It wasn’t new but its message was still salient.
It was not a glorious time for Black and Brown people. Just ten years earlier, (1964) Philadelphia had been the scene of three days of hardcore rioting, looting and burning after an incident in the inner-city of North Philly. The assassinations of John F Kennedy in 1963, Martin Luther King in 1968 and Robert Kennedy in that same year also weighed heavily on the minds of hopeful people of color and concerned civil rights leaders. Hope was fading.
Earlier that day, Gil rehearsed at Just Jazz. He didn’t need much time. A walk around a nine by 12 foot stage, a look around the back, a sound check and a consult with the setup crew took fifteen minutes. He was a pro. HE was cool, relaxed, appropriately friendly. and kept most of his answers succinct. When he talked about music, his stories flowed as effortlessly as one would expect from a great poet. He was a genuine griot whose words emerged like a custom woven tapestry with meaningful messages in every thread. But he also knew when to stop and reflect. Sometimes he became subtly Socratic so my questions were often countered with a “What do you think?” or “I’m not sure I would say that. How about you?”
Scott-Heron had been on the scene for a long time but his name began to take root with the recording of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. He was accompanied by Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barns on percussion and vocals. On that album, he dealt with the shallow tone of television (I think he saw it as a gift and a curse) and the duplicity of some would-be Black revolutionaries, as well as the struggles of inner-city residents to which white middle-class folks turned a blind eye.
In the liner notes, Scott-Heron acknowledged Richie Havens, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Jose Feliciano, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Malcom X, Huey Newton, Nina Simone and the pianist who would become his long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson.
How ironic that almost four decades later, the situation does not seem to have changed. Scott-Heron’s song compares racial tensions in the US with those in apartheid-era South Africa, implying that the US was not too far ahead in race relations. Today, it seems worse, as if the clock has been turned backward. “Making America Great Again” sounds more like code for Making America White Again.
My cameraman got some outstanding footage, including superb outtakes. The content was provocative to say the least. Gil was outspoken about his drug use, his views on White America, suppression, lost leaders, and sometimes a glimmer of hope, however dim. I should have known then my General Manager was going to object to some of the content but that’s what editing is for. Maybe Scott-Heron was just too deep and intellectual for the news “officials” I had to answer to. He was definitely a complex man whose music was thoughtful satire, a mix of blues and poetry and what some would later refer to as the beginning of hip hop. But Gil considered himself different from all these descriptions and coined his own moniker of “bluesologist.”
This would be a first for the evening news–a young, intelligent and savvy Black man who sported an unconventionally ethnic “look” (his fro was wider and higher than Angela Davis’) and spoke out about America’s race problem with songs like “Whitey On The Moon.” The race riots of 1964 received biased publicity, usually below the fold of the newspaper. On television, the footage was looped–the same Black people breaking storefront windows with crowbars and carrying “liberated” items from White-owned stores in shopping carts or on their backs. It was wrong but it was a long time coming.
In 1970s Philadelphia, despite its overtly polite and liberal appearance and aura, racial issues were not dinner table topics. It wasn’t, shall we say, polite conversation. I was taught that everyone was a human being. The color of a person’s skin was not significant. Whether my parents did me a service or disservice in that regard is a subject for another blog.
I sat down with Gil to get his perspective on those trying times and how he expressed it on his album, Pieces of A Man.
You knew right away he was angry but it was a cool defiance, laced with sardonic smiles and shakes of his head as if to say “Don’t ask me to understand it for you. I just write and sing what it is to me.” His face was filled with angelic calm but his eyes spoke of irreversible resentment and rage. Malcom X had been assassinated in 1965 and Gil was still angry about that.
“What about things that make you happy?” I asked.
He frowned briefly but then a glimmer of a smile gave way to “Living in Chelsea.” He said his home was close to those of Richie Havens and Julius Lester and other talented artists. It was inspiring to him.
It was probably the most informative and enlightening interview I had done for the station. But my audience would never see it. Somehow, the reel was “misplaced.” Back in the day, it was film and hand-splicing. Editing technology like AVID was just coming on the scene. Reporters reported, sound men held the boom mic, and editors edited. Today, most local news reporters have to do it all, carrying their own cameras and doing their own editing.
I checked on the status of the piece in the editing room around 3:00.
“Can’t find it” Tommy (we’ll call him that) said without making eye contact. I knew he was hedging.
“What does that mean?” I asked. Tommy shrugged. “The cuts you wanted. Not here.”
“So you spliced it and lost it?”
Tommy looked at me apologetically. “I never had a chance to get to it” he winced. It’s just gone.” I realized he was following orders. Gil was just too much for Philadelphia conservatives to digest. My GM obviously thought the piece would not go over well with a predominantly White audience. It was like convincing my White friends some years later that they really should watch Roots and hearing them protest that it wasn’t something they wanted to re-live. As if they had lived it at all.
When I saw Gil that night at Just Jazz (after a standing ovation for his hour and a half set) I apologized that the piece had not aired. He did not seem surprised or upset. He just chuckled and shook his head. “The music never dies,” he said.
I was more upset about the whole thing than he was. “This is a racist thing, you know that, right? They didn’t want that shit on the air. It was just too… Black.”
He said quietly, “Sister, remember this. It’s not about color, it’s about class.” I’ll never forget those words because they still ring true today.
Miraculously, the missing reel appeared on my desk the following day but, the window of opportunity had slipped away. A quick run-through revealed that most of the film had been damaged.
Scott Heron’s work is timeless. Just read the lyrics for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and make note of its relevance today. Better still, hear Gil at https://youtu.be/qGaoXAwl9kw.
The people and products you’ll see on that YouTube video may not be familiar but the message is the same. “The world is too much with us,” said William Wordsworth. “Late and soon; getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours.”
But as Gil would say “What does it mean to you?” That’s what’s important.. Gil being the prophet that he was, may have seen beyond today. Maybe he meant there will be no TV when the real revolution arrives. Maybe there will be no devices at all. At least, none that we can see.
Gil Scott-Heron – April 1, 1949 -May 27, 2011
You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials. Because the revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in 4 parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary. The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia. The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal. The revolution will not get rid of the nubs. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.
There will be no pictures of you and Willie May pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run, or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance. NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32 or report from 29 districts. The revolution will not be televised.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay. There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process. There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving for just the proper occasion.
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and women will not care if Dick finally gets down with Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day. The revolution will not be televised.
There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose. The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth. The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will not put you in the driver’s seat. The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be not re-run brothers; The revolution will be live.