Upon receiving production assistance from legendary producer, Bob Thiele, Scott-Heron released his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, on Flying Dutchman Records. The songs gave an insightful glimpse into the harsh realities that America, and in particular Black America, was facing at the start of the 1970s, as well as introducing the world to Scott-Heron’s spellbinding baritone voice. Due to the unexpected success of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Scott-Heron was given the opportunity to release his second album, Pieces of a Man. This would be the first time Brian Jackson featured prominently as a collaborator. His next album, Free Will, was released in the late summer of 1972, and it was the last studio album he recorded for Flying Dutchman Records.
During this juncture, Scott-Heron finished his Master’s Degree from John Hopkins University and began teaching at Federal City College [now The University of the District of Columbia] in Washington, DC. As he and Jackson began their search for a new studio to record in, their creative compass led them to a studio, not far from Howard University’s campus, in Silver Spring, Maryland. While Scott-Heron was teaching, he continued recording fresh music with Jackson. Their next recording effort proved to be their most successful work to date.
After a dispute with Flying Dutchman Records, Scott-Heron left for the artist-friendly label Strata-East Records in 1973. Shortly thereafter, Winter in America was released in May 1974 by Strata-East Records. It was the first album to feature Brian Jackson’s name on the album cover. The lead and only single, “The Bottle,” propelled the tandem to achieve unknown commercial success. Along with his previous offerings, this album showcased an eclectic mixture of blues, jazz, and soul music. “The Bottle” would peak at #15 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #6 on the Billboard Jazz Albums Chart. As a result, this entire album was given the distinction of being one of the first rap albums in the history of music, alongside the works of The Watts Prophets and The Last Poets.
To get a better insight into this classic, @Okayplayer spoke with Brian Jackson about the intricacies behind its construction.
What was your and Gil’s mindset going into the making of this record?
We were looking to expand our skills as writers because that was primarily what we saw ourselves as — songwriters. We were looking to expand our skills as songwriters and to try our hand at producing. Like I said, we had this ambitious idea to do something kind of like what we were calling a novel, a musical, a musical novel. That was our main impetus. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have many hopes of having a label pick it up. We were just fortunate. After we completed the album, we found that there was a label that was offering musicians 85% of the gross earnings from the sales of the album, if they would just bring in the product, and Strata-East would do the rest.
It was started by two musicians [Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell] who understood the grief and pain of producing an album and not seeing anything from it. That was our mindset. We thought, “Man, we don’t want to get ripped off. We don’t want anybody to take our publishing.” That was a huge thing. We did the math, and we figured that even if we sold a thousand records, we would make more money selling a thousand records than selling 10,000 through a record company, and being paid pennies on the dollar. That was our impetus to maintain control of our own art and our resources.
When you were deciding on your names being put on the album for the first time, was that a joint decision?
Well, it was something that we both wanted. It wasn’t quite easy. When we were doing Winter in America, we could have called it whatever we wanted to call it. We could have called it Lone Ranger and Tonto, it didn’t make any difference. When we were recording under the Flying Dutchman deal that was only with Gil, so there was nothing to be said about that. That contract had already gone through. And with Arista, Clive Davis was not interested in signing anybody but Gil. As a major concession, he put my name on it, but I wasn’t part of the contract. But that was a major concession of his to Gil’s request that we both be credited as the artist. We did everything. We were a duo. There was no other fair way to portray who that music was coming from.
Were there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories during the making of the record?
An interesting thing about “The Bottle” was that a friend of ours, Tony Green, who I had met while he was playing with Pharoah Sanders in D.C, almost had an accident. I’ll tell you how I met him. We were watching a show in D.C. where Rashaan Roland Kirk and Pharoah were playing. Pharoah, I think was closing, and Tony Green was playing the drums on Pharoah’s set. I was standing off to the side when I saw that Tony’s drum throne kind of unhinged itself and was about to slide off from the top part. Somehow, the cushion part of the throne had dislodged itself, and Tony was almost standing up. I realized that, and I said to myself, “This guy is getting ready to crash to the ground and not in a good way,” because the stage was up high, and he was right at the back of the stage. I just ran up behind him, and I grabbed the seat and I told him, “Just jump up for a second,” and he picked up on what I was doing, and he raised himself up a little bit, and I shoved the seat back up underneath him. That’s how we became friends [laughs].
We hung out a lot. We were hanging out with some of the same people. We would run into each other. So, it just happened that when we were recording Winter in America, he was there. When we were doing “The Bottle,” he was there and we had just gotten Bob [Adams] and Danny [Bowen] to come in and do their parts. Tony and Jose [Williams] were in the studio together, and at the end part when Gil is saying, ‘Look around on any corner/if you see someone looking like a goner/it’s gonna be me,’ we felt like it needed something. Jose and Tony came up with the drum part. I think it’s on the fourth beat, and Tony would hit the tom-tom. It propelled the rhythm forward. He overdubbed that. That was Tony’s contribution, and if you ask him, he would still tell you about that [laughs].
We had a couple of good people around us. They helped to keep us sane and keep us focused, doing something we had never done before and never anticipated having to do, but it was great. A fast food restaurant named Carl’s Jr. was around there. I used to run over to Carl’s Jr., and they used to have these hot fudge sundaes. I used to go over there and get one of those. It was one of the reasons why I used to love to record over there because there was a Carl’s Jr. not too far away from there. I used to go get that hot fudge sundae and run back to the studio and get ready to work for the rest of the night.
Let’s delve into some of the other songs from the record and the making of them: “Your Daddy Loves You,” “H2Ogate Blues,” “Peace Go with You, Brother,” “Back Home,” and “Song for Bobby Smith.”
On “Peace Go with You, Brother,” like I said before, the majority of the time the music came first. When I played that song, Gil asked, “What were you thinking about?” This was our usual methodology. I responded, “Well, it’s about unity, basically. It’s about unity.” He thought about it, and he started writing his lyrics and the lyrics were all about unity, but from a totally different angle. The lyrics were talking about the issues that separate us, rather than just saying, “We need to be together,” which is what the opening dialogue and opening chant are saying, ‘Now, more than ever/all the family must be together.’ That’s already been said, but that came as an afterthought to kind of strengthen the message. The message in “Peace Go with You, Brother” was about how these things, these events and changes in our lives seem to be taking us apart.
When we become better educated, and we have better positions and better stations in life, many of us tended to shy away from the community that we came from, that we rose out of to achieve these successes as professionals. In the second verse, we started talking about how we argue among ourselves so much and that we distance ourselves because we disagree on things, rather than understanding that it is possible to agree to disagree, without destroying the relationship that you have, especially within your family. The last verse states very simply, all your children and my children are going to have to pay for our mistakes someday, so that’s why this song is called “Peace Go with You Brother,” and in parenthesis, it says (As-Salaam-Alaikum) because you know my children or your children will have to pay for our mistakes someday, so when I see you, let peace guide your way.
It’s all about reconciling our differences so that we can move forward, because the only way a successful change can come about is, if we all agree on what that change is. In order for us to agree on what that change is, we have to agree on a lot of other things first.
Yes, the small things.
Yes, we have to agree that we’re in the same position and that we have each other’s best interest in mind. These are things that we’ve had much difficulty with over the years still. Making that was an emotional song, and in the end, we decided to put that very ethereal piece where Gil and I sung the backgrounds. The fact that was the opening of the album, set the tenor for the album. We wanted to make sure that came first, so that it was understood that was what the overriding concept was going to be.
You mentioned “H2Ogate Blues.” [Laughs] Well, it was the times that we were living in, and some of our more tongue-in-cheek pieces were always set to standard blues changes. For instance, the first time we did that was “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” on the album, Free Will. ‘I know you think you’re cool just because you’re getting two welfare checks.’ That was the initial beginning of how that went, and it was straight blues. So, we decided that we were going to do a sequel to “Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” but for the Nixon administration. That was the original premise and that’s why it was the same style of blues. As you listened to it, it basically was the same blues, except now it wasn’t focused on poor people’s schemes to get ahead, or to change their conditions or whatever, it was focusing on the administration being just as ghetto.
The Nixon administration was being ghetto by breaking into the Watergate office to steal records from Daniel Ellsberg and then to get caught at it [laughs]. Then to lie about it and to hide the tapes that proved he did it, and then to ultimately resign, along with the other myriad of other transgressions of his Vice President Spiro Agnew. The list went on and on. Bob Haldeman, John Dean, and John Mitchell. To us, this was really funny because it was a Washington insider version of “Get Out of the Ghetto Blues”. That’s how we saw it and it was the joke, because the same scams like getting two welfare checks, was the same kind of deal.
What about “Your Daddy Loves You?”
“Your Daddy Loves You” was kind of the same thing. What happened was that was a piece from the original “Supernatural Corner” thing. It was tied into how the protagonist had come home from Vietnam and was having mental problems, which caused friction within his relationship with his family and his woman, the mother of his child. I had been playing a lot of flute, obviously, then I started playing the saxophone. I really wanted to play the sax, but I got a saxophone with a really cheap neck strap, and it ended up severing one of the suprascapular nerves in my shoulder to the point that I was no longer able to raise my left arm above my shoulder, and once I realized that, I had to stop hanging things around my neck, which meant I couldn’t play the sax anymore. But I was just getting the fingering of it and everything, and I said to myself, “I’m not giving this up,” so I got a flute. I started getting good at the flute. I was being influenced and inspired by Hubert Laws, so we recorded flute on both of those Flying Dutchman albums. It made me really want to continue because it was a unique sound to have that in our music. That was a typical example of a song that Gil and I could do anywhere by ourselves. There were a couple of songs like that and that was definitely one of them.
Was this song a special one for someone in Gil’s life?
Okay. I’m glad you asked that question. I was just about to bring that up. Because Gil had no children at that time. It would have been maybe another seven, eight years before Gil had a daughter. It was not about anybody in particular. It was in service of the story that we were constructing. The fact that he was able to portray so vividly the feelings of a father in that situation, going through conflict with the child’s mother and being painfully aware of the fact that he may not be there for her at some point because of it, spoke to Gil’s ability to tap into the feelings of people who had been in situations like that.
Situations that he might not have necessarily been in himself at that moment. Same with “The Bottle.” He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he could relate to it. He could relate to the feelings. He could put himself inside of someone else’s shoes. The same with “Home is Where the Hatred Is.” See, he wasn’t a junkie when he wrote that, but he was able to access the anxiety and the shame of having to be seen by people you care about and be judged by people that matter to you, which is why I ended up doing it on my album. Because, at that time, when Gil was having a problem with drugs, it was kind of like my way of saying, “Don’t judge him.”
How about “Song for Bobby Smith” and “Back Home?”
On “Song for Bobby Smith,” I was fooling around playing with the chords and a friend of Gil’s, who had a little boy, came over to visit. We were all sitting around in the living room, when I started playing the song, and as Gil said in the song itself, as he was setting it up, the four-year-old boy was into the whole thing with the instruments and everything. He asked, “What are you doing?” We replied, “We are writing a song.” We played it for him, and he said, “Write this song for me,” and his name was Bobby Smith.
We wrote the song for him, and it was all about promise and hope. When we looked into his eyes, we could see all of that. We could see how he wanted to expand and learn and grow. His enthusiasm for life and creativity just inspired us, and it became “Song for Bobby Smith.”
And “Back Home” was again about the theme of simplicity and innocence and how things were so much simpler. Gil spent a lot of time down South as a young boy. He had some experience with how simple things could be for a young boy in the South, even though it wasn’t necessarily ideal under any circumstances for a young Black boy in the South. But there were a lot of good parts to it, too. There were those days when you could have some type of a treat, or have a pecan pie that your grandma made and sit on the stoop and have a cold lemonade or an ice cream cone or just run around the neighborhood, you know what I mean? Once again, it was all about the contrast between the simplicity of youth and how America was beginning to make even the simplest things complex.
And life itself. I can’t blame it all on America, because when you grow up, life does become more complex, but added to that layer was the whole layer of control, the whole layer of what was happening to all of us through the engineering of consent and mass revenue and Wall Street picking us apart; the government agencies and surveillance and war.
Do you see any parallels from what was going on in the world at the time you recorded this album to the political and social climate today?
No, I don’t see any parallels. It’s the same thing. There are no parallels. It’s just a continuation. If anything, it’s gotten more intense. The same elements are in play as were in play those years ago, except maybe it might be a bit more difficult to change things now because we’ve let it go so far, and we have allowed it to become so ingrained within our everyday lives.
The surveillance and the lack of privacy, the invasion of privacy, the disrespect for our own liberty and for our own lives, for our own free will, in fact. The commodification of every feeling and every emotion and every thought that we have. It’s not a parallel, unfortunately. It’s just a continuation and an augmentation of that continuation.
Yes, I agree. As you look back on the making of this album, what are your feelings about being involved with the making of it and collaborating with your longtime friend?
I feel that it was probably at the time where we had the greatest amount of creative freedom. We were doing this for ourselves and by ourselves. We had a lot of help along the way from people like Tony Green, Jose Williams, and Dan Henderson, who was our manager at the time, and Danny [Bowen] and Bob [Adams] and our friends who listened to it and critiqued it. We had a lot of help along the way, and of course Strata-East, coming along and saving the day by being able to pick it up and distribute it. Now in this day and age, there is no big thing to produce your own music and put it out. Back then, when budgets were crazy, man, people were getting hundreds of thousands of dollars to do albums and studios used a roll of tape. A roll of 2-inch tape cost almost over $200. The engineer that you hired to do a project with cost between $100 and $200 an hour.
Those costs can add up quickly.
Then you also had the recording cost of the studio. We had to rent the studio, and if we needed equipment, we had to rent the equipment. So, it was impossible to do an album for less than $50,000. People look at that now and say well that’s crazy because I can sit in my house and do an album right now. I can sit in my apartment and do an album with equipment that parallels the equipment that we were spending tens of thousands of dollars for. We were just lucky that we found a solution. We found this brother in Silver Spring, Maryland, who was willing to work with us, who believed in us, and gave everything that he had and the benefit of his experience, to help us follow our dream. So, I have deep respect for Jose Williams, and it was great opportunity for us.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.