Ron Carter Reflects on Gil Scott-Heron
The legendary bassist on the sessions that became "Pieces of a Man"
I didn’t know Gil Scott-Heron when I got the call to play with him. They just told me that this guy was coming in, this poet, and he wanted to record, but he would only record if I was available. I said, “The guy’s got a band already. Why would he want to do that?” But they said, “No, those are the conditions. He wants you for the record.” So I said OK and I met him and we made the record with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” That song was a template for his work, but his other songs are equally important, in that they’re pointed and there’s a great deal of intellectual logic involved.
I thought he was great with wordology, his concept of how spoken word can work if you have the right words in a row. He was also dealing with topics that were not being dealt with. No one was putting those issues to music. You had the usual angry poet and the soapbox guy down on the corner with his point of view, but this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone who was able to voice those sentiments in rhymes that were really meaningful.
It wasn’t like hip-hop. Hip-hop has another concept; it’s all about beats and rhythm rather than music in and of itself. With Gil, I knew that if enough people heard him they might be affected by what he was doing. Before him, you had Bob Dylan and folk songs, and you had blues songs, and they all had an effect on the public. But his words were a lot more severe in their attempts to make the public aware of society’s ills. Still, he was a nice guy; he wasn’t an angry man. He was a shy guy who had this great knack for bringing to the bandstand the political issues of the day—and not sounding hostile in the process.
I didn’t discuss the content with Gil, though. I went in and they already had the parts written out for me to play—lead sheets, not really arrangements. My job was to make it sound like I belonged in that band; that’s my view at any recording session. My place was strictly in the confines of microphones and studio gear. I never knew him outside of that environment.
After the sessions I did with Gil for that album, I never saw him anymore. I never played live with him. I wish I could have maintained contact with him. He was clearly a special guy.
[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]
Originally published in April 2012