I have been a devotee of Gil Scott-Heron since some time in the early 1980s. Although not a household name in the UK or the US, he was and even after his death is, a major influence on musicians. I think the first record that grabbed my attention was ‘Re-Ron‘. That would have been around the time of Reagan’s campaign for a second term in office. ‘Re-Ron’ is not particularly representative of GSH’s oeuvre, as I later came to discover, but it got me crate digging to find more vinyl nuggets.
Many people know the often misunderstood proto-rap poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and I guess it’s the key reason why GSH is often called ‘The Godfather Of Rap’. GSH was more than that. Much, much more.
I saw Gil Scott-Heron perform pretty much every time he came to London. The first time I saw him was at the Artists Against Apartheid concert on Clapham Common in June 1986. Check out the bill for what was one of the best one-day festivals I’ve ever been to. The event was referenced in the newspapers the next day but only in connection with the downfall of one of pop’s biggest stars of the time Boy George, but that’s another story. I saw GSH at many venues over the years, but my favourite was always the Jazz Café in Camden Town.
One particular performance at the Jazz Café in the mid to late 1990’s, I can’t remember exactly when, and although I’ve tried to remember from checking old ticket stubs, I can’t be precise. GSH was on top form as I recall, sitting centre stage at his suitcase Fender Rhodes piano. The Amnesia Express line up included Ron Holloway, Larry McDonald, Glen Turner, and one or two others that I can’t quite recall for certain – one of the reasons for committing this story to ‘paper’ is to stop me from forgetting the rest of it! The repertoire at that time centred on GSH’s back catalogue, and would generally end with an audience participation on the famous (OK, I realise it’s not universally famous but it should be), ‘Johannesburg’.
About midway through the set, Gil was introducing his next song – ‘Lady Day And John Coltrane’. He said that as he was getting older he needed a little help to sing this particular song and asked for assistance from a member of the audience. He called for a volunteer. I was standing quite near the stage – the Jazz Café is after all an intimate venue. I looked at my friends and asked them if I should do it. I didn’t really need to ask permission, and in a split second I was scrambling up onto the stage to rapturous cheers and applause. Straight away my heart was jumping out of my chest and Gil asked my name and introduced me to the crowd. Lady Day and John Coltrane was a song I knew – but I’d never consciously learned the lyrics.
Before I knew it a microphone was placed in my hand and I positioned myself behind Gil at the Fender Rhodes. Gil continued to introduce the song, and Larry McDonald, obviously sensing my fear, just said, “Do you know the words?” Shit, did I know the words? I said I thought I knew them. Larry’s quick retort was, “Well you got up here”. Those words hit me like a brick in the face. I was all at once completely sober. I looked at the audience, it felt like all eyes were on me. I was on stage in front of a packed house, about to perform with one of my long-time musical influences and heroes. Did I really know the words to the song?
Then we were off. Gil counted-in and the band kicked in. I know my music and knew the intro. I swallowed hard and drew breath for the first line and right on cue came in with ‘Ever feel kinda down and out and dunno just what to do…’ Gil just stopped everything to great laughter from the band and the audience. “Hang on there Simon, I’ll tell you when to come in!” I’d walked into the trap set for me to intentionally mess up. Gil was a great showman and he did this in such a way to allow me to be a total clown – this was entertainment and I was the foil for a probably well-worn routine where he and the band made fun of the willing amateur who had braved the stage for three minutes of glory.
Gil called the band together to restart the song. The intro again and Gil came in with…
“Ever feel kind of down and out you don’t know just what to do?
Living all of your days in darkness let the sun shine through”
Then he called me in and I took the second half of the verse.
“Ever feel that somehow, somewhere, you lost your way?
And if you don’t get help quick you won’t make it through the day?
Then Gil came back in to join me with the chorus.
“Could you call on Lady Day? Could you call on John Coltrane?
Now, ‘cause they’ll, they’ll wash your troubles, your troubles, your troubles, your troubles away!”
The audience had erupted as soon as I sang the first line. The crowd were clearly amazed that I appeared to know what I was doing. I was now on fire! Gil started the second verse in the same way. This time I was ready. I was going to enjoy the experience. In my mind, the crowd were already on my side. It was time to perform. And so, from somewhere came the confidence and the capability. I strode the stage, performing as if it were my last day on this planet – much to the obvious surprise of keyboard player Glen Turner, who smiled at me encouragingly. I was in my element. This was ‘dream come true’ time, And I was delivering on that opportunity.
After the second chorus, the band went into an instrumental break. I now had a few minutes to come to terms with what was happening to me and get my composure for the final verse. The band went into a series of solos, and it hit me. One thing audiences don’t realise is that although music sounds good from your place in front of the stage, you cannot begin to imagine what it sounds and feels like to be part of the magic. To be in the middle of such a tour de force. Because ‘magic’ is the only word for it. I was floating, out-of-body, for what seemed like about ten minutes, as the band grooved on. I had time to realise that this would be one of the moments I would treasure until the end of my days.
The band came out of the instrumental and started the introductory bars of the final verse. Gil told me to take it – the whole thing – just me – and the band. I gave everything I had. Gil came back in on the chorus, and then on the chorus repeats I started to rhythmically scat around Gil, me now standing at his side, him looking across to me with a look of complete surprise – just who did I think I was! The song came to its climactic end. The crowd went berserk. Of course, I did not want to leave the stage. I made sure I shook hands with every member of the band – after all – we now had a musician’s bond! I was standing with Gil with my hand on his shoulder. It was AMAZING!
I left the stage a very different person to the nervous man who’d scrambled up ten minutes earlier. As I went back to my place in the audience, back slaps, handshaking, shouts of ‘respect’, I found my friends. They were in complete shock. What had they witnessed?
Gil, in his humorous way, thanked me and asked if he could join me when I was next playing in town. I’ll take that! The show continued and the band carried on playing for a while before taking a break. As I walked to the bar, I was the star. Everyone knew me – “Hey Simon, tell me, was that a setup?” someone said. A setup? If only they knew! I went to the bar and the barmaid said, “What can I get you, Simon?’ Surreal. The band came back, the show continued and when it came for time to leave, I was still as high as the balcony.
I walked downstairs to the toilet, still being recognised with smiles and “nice ones”. I went to collect my coat. The cloakroom attendant handed me my jacket. “You’ve got a lovely voice” she said, in a way that made me feel that I was in some kind of dream.
Walking out into the cool, fresh, late-night Camden air, I didn’t want the night to end. I didn’t want to go to sleep. For a few minutes, I was King of the world. Thank you Gil Scott-Heron. Next morning, I was back at work.
Have you ever had a similar experience to this? Have you ever met your heroes? Did they live up to your expectations? Have you ever surprised yourself?
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