Gil Scott-Heron’s first studio album Pieces of a Man was released in 1971. Scott-Heron had previously released a live album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970 which was well received by the music critics. He had also published a novel and a volume of poetry earlier.
The success of his live album gave Scott-Heron an opportunity to release Pieces of a Man. Bob Thiele, the producer and head of Flying Dutchman records was able to bring in legends of the Jazz world – Ron Carter (bass), Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (drums), Hubert Laws (flute, sax), and Johnny Pate (conductor). Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator Brian Jackson was on the piano. While Scott-Heron wrote the first four songs, he co-wrote the other songs with Jackson.
The album begins with “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” While the same song was featured on his first album, here it is recorded with a full band. It is a proto-rap song with a funky rhythm which heaps satire and criticism on black people who wanted change but were unwilling to go through the painful struggle for change and also on the consumerist culture preached to American homes by television. Scott-Heron uses simple humorous language to convey an ever-relevant message to black Americans on the street that revolution must start within us. It is a metaphor for gradual social, cultural, and political change rather than the violent overnight event that most people associate revolutions with. When everyone would be out protesting on streets, who will be there to watch television? Scott-Heron says, “The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat, The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, The revolution will be live.” It was part of the growing trend of anger and frustration being expressed at this time by Bob Marley & the Wailers in Jamaica, artists from South Africa, Nigeria & India who created protest literature/music against the corruption & violence of existing social and political orders. It resonates even today and is considered to be of the top twenty political protest songs ever. I could also relate it to Mahatma Gandhi’s message to the masses “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Save the Children” is an earnest plea to parents to “save” the next generation from the troubled world that they will soon inherit. Scott-Heron has seen that the world was cruel to their ancestors and is sure that it will be cruel to their offspring too. He conveys the message with a degree of tenderness, well supported by Hubert Law on flute.
“Lady Day and John Coltrane” is Scott-Heron’s acknowledgment of the two Jazz deities whom he adored – Billie Holiday & John Coltrane. It is a fast paced jazz-funk song which advises the listener to wash their troubles away for a while by listening to their great jazz compositions.
Next, we come to “Home is Where the Hatred Is” which is one of the best songs by Scott-Heron. It speaks from the point of view of a drug addict (Junkie). Scott-Heron is able to convey the feelings of pain, defeat and hopelessness felt by a junkie and the conflict at home with other family members who can’t understand his or her feelings. The song prophesies the drug problems that were to befall Scott-Heron and entire black American community later in the 70’s & 80’s.
“Pieces of a Man,” the title song, is a somber, heartbreaking account of a black American father who is laid off from his job and sees his aspirations, dreams, and hopes destroyed. It pushes him into poverty, crime and finally prison. You can feel Scott-Heron’s love for the common black American people who after suffering from various economic, social & political exclusions have still tried to play by “normal/white” rules and have failed.
“I Think I will Call it Morning” is an excellent composition full of warmth and optimism. Scott-Heron sings “Why should I survive on sadness?… Why should I subscribe to this world’s madness? Knowing that I’ve got to live on…. I know there ain’t no sense in crying…”
Pieces of a Man did better than Scott-Heron’s first album, and its sales and reputation have only increased over the years. It is now retrospectively recognized as a genuine classic for its political awareness, poetic lyrics, and musical combination of soul, blues, jazz, and funk.
Gil Scott-Heron together with Jackson and other great Jazz musicians who performed on this album have given us a quality album which is tough & real, avoids cliché and is still accessible. Scott-Heron could never become a pop star due to the radical unflinching way he exposed the hypocrisy & contradictions inherent in American democracy. I would highly recommend this album to all listeners as bold, wide ranging and soulful music which has inspired countless Hip Hop and rap artists over the years.
Trivia – Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron led the nationwide campaign to declare Black Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday as a federal holiday and after years of struggle, President Reagan approved it in 1983.