Usually my Top 10 lists (believe it or not) are only published after a period of contemplation and editing. But I just discovered the news of Gil Scott-Heron’s passing and want to put this one together (and out into the blog-o-sphere) immediately for all those like me who in this moment are compelled to reflect on his legacy. I discovered Gil in college when I was getting into music with spoken word and I have subsequently found him to be a huge inspiration for his poetic words, the gravitas of his spoken word, the endearing sincerity of his singing, the courage and clarity of his social messages and lots and lots of great music (much of it produced in tandem with keyboard great Brian Jackson). Here, then, are 10 favorites among the many great songs he produced, presented in chronological order because I don’t want the responsibility of choosing favorites among them!
1 ) “Whitey on the Moon” from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox
Before “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (and long before rap music) this song laid out (in stripped-down form) much of Gil’s influential approach to social commentary to a beat. I’ve met numerous “whiteys” (especially those too young to have experienced the level of racism that Gil did) who find this song rather upsetting, as well it should.
2 ) “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” from Pieces of a Man
While I don’t know if I can say if this is my favorite song of Gil’s (it’s easily Top 10), it’s hard to debate that it’s his most influential. For many of my generation and younger, some historical awareness is needed to catch all the era-specific cultural references (I was in that sense fortunate to have grown up with significantly older siblings who had exposed me to all that stuff), but the message is clear regardless, as is the music, featuring Ron Carter (on electric bass), Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie.
3 ) “The Needle’s Eye” from Pieces of a Man
If I were making a Top 10 list of the most underappreciated R&B tunes of all-time, this would be at or near the top. It is incredibly catchy, and the lyrics (about the costs of nonconformity) are moving. Maybe he wasn’t marketed as a pop star, maybe his voice was just too quirky, I don’t know, but I could listen to this one over and over . . . and sometimes I do!
4 ) “Did You Hear What They Said” from Free Will
The horrors of war and racism are combined on this gut-wrenchingly touching song. The quirks of Gil’s voice add emotional depth to the delivery, as does the blues-drenched flute of Hubert Laws.
5 ) “Winter In America” from Winter In America
This is perhaps one of the most poignantly bleak songs written in the 1970s about the state of our country. Check out the stripped-down version too, with just Gil’s voice and Brian Jackson’s electric piano, which is particularly haunting.
6 ) “The Liberation Song (Red, Black And Green)” from Midnight Band: the First Minute of a New Day
Liberation from oppression has perhaps never been as manically funky as on this soul-meets-Latin manifesto of freedom for all people.
7 ) “Johannesburg” from From South Africa to South Carolina
Before it was hip to discuss apartheid in a song (not that it ever became that hip), Gil’s social responsibility took him in that direction on this infectious but scathing tune.
8 ) “Let Me See Your I.D.” (with Artists United Against Apartheid) from Sun City
Gil already had a track record of anti-apartheid work at this point, and his contributions are key to the success of this piece, working alongside a diverse cast ranging from Grandmaster Melle Mel to Peter Wolf (of J. Geils Band fame) to Miles Davis.
9 ) “Work For Peace” from Spirits
The title pretty much says it all, and it features typically incisive Gil. This one makes the cut in a neck-and-neck race with the more-heralded “Message to the Messengers” from the same album, in which he preaches responsibility to the rappers who have built (or, one might say, diverged) from his innovations.
10 ) “The Crutch” from I’m New Here
This whole album, Gil’s last, is remarkably potent, full of haunting atmospheres, heartbreaking lyrics. It seems appropriate (perhaps even necessary) to include at least one of his numerous great songs addressing addiction, something with which Gil struggled through much of his life. Here’s hoping he is at peace now.