Saturday, May 28, 2011

Some Thoughts On Gil Scott-Heron

Late December of 1975, comedian Richard Pryor landed on television as host of the new show "Saturday Night Live" and producers wisely brought in musician Gil Scott-Heron to be the guest musician for that episode. Pryor and Scott-Heron were mighty dangerous men in the mid-70s for television, whether it was late night or not.

I learned many years afterwards that for the first time, NBC put a delay of seven seconds on their broadcast as the execs were just plain scared of what Pryor might say or do - but he was pretty well behaved. And as much as Pryor made me laugh, it was Gil Scott-Heron who really grabbed my attention that night. He died yesterday at the age of 62, but I've never forgotten his unique musical mix of jazz and funk and poetry. He was a true original, hailed in recent years as one of the artists who created hop-hop music.

Being a wee young white boy in middle Tennessee in that long-ago time of 1975, there just wasn't much exposure to non-white culture. I think it was that same December that I received as a Christmas gift the Richard Pryor comedy album "Was It Something I Said?" Naive wee white boy me, I slipped the record onto the family console stereo that Christmas morning and nearly broke the record and the record player a few seconds later trying to stop the record as fast as I could, since Pryor's 'f-bombs' pummeled the room like live artillery fire.

Much later that night, alone in my room, I laughed so hard listening to the record. But it was sometime during that month of December I bought Gil Scott-Heron's album "First Minute of A New Day". It had to be that month, as my normal music outlets in my small town would never, ever, ever have stocked that record - the music outlets available in that long-ago time were a few bins of records to be found in two grocery stores in town, which usually were stocking Jim Nabors and Johnny Cash as 'cutting edge' music. So it must have been on a Christmas shopping spree in nearby (well a 200 mile round trip for the family) Nashville. A new fancy thing called a "mall" had opened recently there and they had honest-to-pete stores which sold nothing but records.

I still own that copy of "First Minute of a New Day" although for much of my youth in Tennessee, it stayed one of those I played alone, in my room, when no one else was around, like Pryor's record. I'm pretty sure I was the only person with either a Scott-Heron or Pryor record in about a 50-mile radius. But his music left giant impressions on so many others for years to come. Kanye West and Eminem, among many others, have been holding him in high esteem for years.

Political, satiric, jazzy, funky, and very personal, his words and songs have stayed with me over the years too. The last 10 years saw many hard times - jail for drug possession and in and out of treatment programs, he seemed to be just emerging again with last year's release of his first studio album in 16 years, "I'm New Here". And reading of his life today, I learned he spend a few years as a kid living in Jackson, Tennessee. I'd bet there isn't much note of in Jackson, sadly.

But now he's gone and if you've never heard him, I hope you'll take a few minutes and listen to some of the songs from "First Minute of a New Day" offered below (maybe hit YouTube for another one from that album called "Pardon My Analysis (We Beg Your Pardon)" which is a spoken-word piece about Richard Nixon, some very funny stuff).

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