Gil Scott-Heron the seminal author, poet, and musician died at the age of 62 on May 27 of undisclosed causes at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York’s Manhattan borough. A funeral service was scheduled for 8:30 am, at the Riverside Church, with a public viewing in the evening from 6 to 9 pm at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home at Madison Avenue and 81st Street. Scott-Heron is survived by his wife, Blaxploitation actress Brenda Sykes, and their daughter Gia Scott-Heron. His ground breaking use of spoken word and biting commentary on the social and political disparities of the 1970s were a precursor for generations of socially conscious Hip Hop performers, earning him such appellations as “the Black Bob Dylan,” and the “Godfather of Rap.”
Scott-Heron was born on April Fool’s Day 1949, the product of a marriage between a Jamaican soccer star of note who earned the distinction of becoming the first Black man to play for Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic Football Club, and a librarian and English teacher who sang during her off hours with the New York Oratorio Society, the venerated classical music institution.
His formative years were spent in Tennessee, where he endured the rigors of that state’s initial steps towards desegregation while establishing a musical foundation steeped in the gospel music fostered by his grandmother. Those years were infused with blues broadcasts from local radio station WDIA. As a teenager, he reunited with his mother and moved to New York City, where his writing skills gained him entry into the elite Fieldston School, whose alumni include Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander Jr., actress Joy Bryant, movie mogul and DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the World War II Manhattan Project and father of the atomic bomb.
Scott-Heron’s Afro-centric leanings led him to Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, and the dominant creative partner of his career, Brian Jackson. Under the guidance of iconic jazz producer Bob Thiele, he launched his recording career with the 1970 work “Small Talk at 125th and Lennox,” featuring the landmark tune “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Over the next decade, Scott-Heron, Jackson, and their “Midnight Band” shepherded by legendary music executive Clive Davis, achieved commercial and critical success with such titles as “Angel Dust,” “The Bottle,” “Johannesburg,” and “Home is Where the Hatred Is.”
The fusion of jazz, funk and rock they produced provided an elegant cushion for Scott-Heron’s idiosyncratic vocals, resulting in an accessible music manifesting the confusion, cynicism, and insecurity of society’s marginalized segments.
The dissolution of that partnership signaled the beginnings of the downward spiral of Scott-Heron’s personal and professional life. Throughout the 1980s, he toiled in obscurity, recording and touring sporadically with his name popping up in the media occasionally as the result of narcotics convictions and parole violations. These reports were punctuated by rumors of drug addiction and/or HIV infection, encouraged by infrequent interviews suggesting that Scott-Heron’s constant companion was a propane torch to facilitate a crack dependence.
During the last three years of his life, he enjoyed a reprieve of sorts and apparently overcame his physical and emotional issues to embark on a series of successful performances in 2008 and 2009. These were followed by the release of his first studio album in more than a decade, 2010’s “I’m New Here” (on XL Recordings).
Perhaps the most critical recent and lasting tribute to Scott-Heron’s musical legacy was the utilization or “sampling” of his work by significant contemporary artists including CeCe Peniston, Dr. Dre, Mos Def, and Kanye West, who had previously referenced his musical inspiration’s substance abuse history in 2005’s cut “Crack Music.”
West’s latest incorporation of the Gil Scott-Heron catalog buoyed the track “Who Will Survive in America?” which was part of the 2010’s platinum chart topper “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”