Friday, March 5, 2010

Gil Scott-Heron

I got these Gil Scott-Heron records signed after a recent gig at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York City. I was delighted to see Gil perform, which is something that I would not have thought possible just a short while ago when Gil was going through more difficult times. I'd like to say Gil's performance was an unqualified success, but a combination of factors made this evening as frustrating as it was entertaining. I should start off by saying that I don't like B.B. King's for several reasons: 1. You need to arrive early (i.e., around dinner time) to get a decent seat, which means that you inevitably shell out more money for their outrageously priced food and drinks ($9 for a beer and $17 for a burger). 2. After the show, everyone is herded out of the club to make room for an unrelated show by a different performer. 3. They seat too many people at the tables, so it's nearly impossible to stretch your legs, much less get up and visit the bathroom. 4. The staff seats you instead of allowing you to find your own seat.

Arriving to the stage 45 minutes late, Gil sat at an organ and mostly performed solo, except towards the end when he was backed by a couple of guest musicians: a woman on electric piano and some guy on harmonica. I can think of at least fifty other instruments I would choose to compliment an organ before I would select another keyboard and a harmonica, of all things. On the positive side, Gil had a commanding stage presence and the same instantly-recognizable voice, though his speech was sometimes slurred. The highlight of the evening for me was hearing Gil sing his own blues composition "Blue Collar" as a tribute to B.B. King. I don't consider Gil a blues singer, but he's as credible as anyone I have ever heard sing the blues in live performance. These particular words resonated with me, especially given Gil's recent stint in New York State prison:

I was down in Kansas City where even the blues sell by the pound
I been down in New York City and that ain't no place to be down
I been been lookin' at the faces of children and you see we're lookin' for higher ground
And you can't name where we ain't been down.

Immediately after the show, the B.B. Kings staff began prodding the audience to leave, so they could make way for the next show--some kind of DJ event that absolutely no one on the premises had come to see. When I politely inquired as to whether Gil would be coming out, a member of the staff said something to the effect of "He's not allowed to. Everyone has to leave." I don't think this woman had any clue who Gil Scott-Heron was and it was obvious that she would not be treating him with the respect that he deserves, should he decide to venture out of the back stage area and into the venue. At this point, I decided it was too much trouble to linger any longer and I left, feeling angry with the staff and swearing to myself that I would never return to B.B. Kings.

When I got out to the street, something kept me from heading for the subway right away and I wandered around Times Square. Fifteen minutes later, I found myself back in front of the venue where, coincidentally, Richie Havens was standing around smiling for pictures for the few folks who recognized him. He wasn't performing that evening and I wondered if perhaps he had come by to say hello to Gil, but I never found out. In the midst of the excitement surrounding Richie Havens, I decided to discreetly go back into the club and see if I could find Gil. I walked back into the seating area and sure enough, there he was, signing autographs for two young girls who may not have known exactly who he was. Unfortunately, standing right next to Gil and breathing down his neck was the same obnoxious woman still trying to clear the floor for the next show that no one around had come to see. I hurriedly asked Gil if he would sign my records, while at the same time the exasperated staff member announced that Gil could sign my records, but after that, everyone had to leave. Given the rushed situation, it was impossible to have any kind of meaningful exchange with Gil, but I did manage to get his autograph and I think he was pleased to sign something other than bar napkins and ticket stubs.

I think both of these albums have visually striking and provocative covers, though I like the design of the Reflections cover best. Looking at the two autographs, I prefer the less-complicated signature on the Moving Target record to the one that looks like some kind of weird math problem on the Reflections cover. The fact that the nicer autograph is on the wrong record is my own fault. I was distracted by the rude B.B. Kings staff and I accidentally handed Gil the Reflections cover to sign first. After I saw that he dated it, I politely asked if he could simply sign the second one without adding a date. Had I handed him the Moving Target cover first, I could have gotten the nicer autograph on the Reflections record. This isn't that big a deal, but it's worth pointing out.


  1. Which was worse, this harmonica performance or the guy at the Freight Room who did the sound board who used to play along?

  2. The guy in the Freight Room was far more annoying. Had this guy also been the soundman, that would be a different story.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this amazing story. It's ashame that BB King's does not how to treat legends. I'm glad that you were finally able to get Gil's autograph. I was touched by the lyrics that you included in your post that describe Gil's decent from his soaring success in the 70s.

  4. Yeah, I think those lyrics have taken on new meaning in light of what he went through in the '00s. Fortunately, he seems to be doing much better now.

  5. BB Kings is a problematic venue. On the one hand, if you get there super early and are willing to drop a couple of hundred dollars, then you can sit very close to some great performers.

    At the same time, I think the whole scene can be weird for the musicians, because they are playing to essentially a dinner crowd of rich people (along with a handful of folks like us who probably have no business spending the money we have in there). It works for some performers, depending on their repertoire, but not so much for others.

    Of course, some performers obviously prefer the setup; for all of the venues in NYC, they return there time and time again. It's an easy gig, not too late at night, and the guarantees from the expensive, small venue match the medium sized joints I'm sure. In other cases, dealing with lesser known 'legends of their own time,'--often the folks who play there-- a lot of those performers probably could not fill a larger place, whereas they might be able to pack them in BB Kings. What is the seating, 300 people? 400?

    Nice story on the autographs; it serves as a lesson-- don't walk away, walk around the block and come back! We did that up at Smith Ridge to snag Ralph Stanley's autograph, but it didn't quite work out for us...

  6. Most of the same folks who used to play the Bottom Line now play BB Kings. I wish I still had the option to see them at the Bottom Line, but evidently they didn't have as lucrative a business model as BB Kings, so they closed. BB Kings' capacity is 500 and the Bottom Line was 400.

  7. Mike, once you've secured an autograph, how do you preserve your record? How does the vinyl acquire a new worth beyond the sentimental? Just curious.

  8. All of my records are stored in 3 mil polyethylene bags, signed and unsigned alike. I have my favorite autographed records in standard album frames, but I don't go through the trouble (or expense) of matting them. I suppose if I ever acquired a really valuable autograph like Dylan or Elvis or Sinatra, I would get it framed properly, so that the image doesn't touch the glass. The signed records I own really aren't worth that much beyond the sentimental -- a non-personalized signature of a popular artist might increase the value of a $5 record to $25. That's not a whole lot of money, especially when you factor in the expenses of acquiring the autograph in the first place.

  9. Goes to show how much Gil's body of work means to us in a big way. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story too bad you didn't get a chance to engage with him. I'm sure he would've appreciated that. BB Kings suck big time! I wish it was a better venure plus autograph meet/greet session with our legends.

    Check out his birthday tribute mix on Who’s that Lady Music Show blogspot. Share this link

    Peace and love, everyone

    Lady E.

  10. Hi Lady E.,

    Thanks for your nice post and for sending me that link. I really enjoyed reading you own tribute to Gil. I've been reading a lot about Gil this past weekend with his unfortunate passing. I'm going to miss him.

    I couldn't get the audio to work on the birthday tribute, but I'll check back later.

    Take care,