‘Winter in America’ Co-Producer Brian Jackson Reflects On Gil Scott-Heron, “The Bottle” & Creating A Classic [Interview]
Winter in America is recognized as one of the most prominent examples of early rap thanks to Brian Jackson’s work with Gil Scott-Heron.
Gil Scott-Heron’s recording journey begins in Chester County, Pennsylvania at Lincoln University in 1969. Following in the footsteps of his idol Langston Hughes, Scott-Heron made the decision to attend the famous HBCU. Here, he would meet his long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, and begin crafting socially and politically conscious and Afrocentric material that solidified the two as a prolific duo for the next decade. Within the same year, Scott-Heron took a leave of absence from college life to focus on writing two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. A year later, The Vulture was published, and he launched his recording career.
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.
Okayplayer: Where did you get the inspiration to create an album like Winter in America?
Brian Jackson: For me, it all started when I read 1984 by George Orwell. After reading that book, I looked up and I said, “Wait a minute. This is not really science fiction or the future. This is happening now.” It’s just that we don’t really talk about it that much or a lot of people didn’t realize it. It wasn’t in everybody’s faces the way it is now.
OKP: That’s right.
BJ: In fact, I’d relish going back to 1984 at this point. That’s when [Ronald] Reagan was president, so you know that’s saying a lot right there.
OKP: Yes, it is. 1984 was around the time that crack just suddenly appeared in inner cities throughout the United States.
BJ: Yes, it just suddenly appeared. Speaking of Winter in America, inside of the original jacket cover there was a collage that a woman by the name of Peggy Harris did. It included images from the song that we originally intended to put on this album that we didn’t have a name for yet. Actually, we did have a name for it. It was going to be called “Supernatural Corner.” It was about a Vietnam vet who came back home from the war. To make a long story short, he ended up in dire straits and had some mental problems. It was like an audiobook. We were trying to make a novel. With Gil being a novelist and me being a musician, we wanted to try and do a musical novel. It was just really depressing.
We scrapped the idea and just took some of the best songs from it. The best of the songs ended up being on Winter in America. When you look at that collage, it had scenes from all the songs on the original album and even some of the ones that made it onto the album like “A Very Special Time”. There was an image of a little girl in a pink dress that goes along with the lyrics, and I think, a guy sitting around in a wrinkled suit to go along with the lyrics “The Bottle”. There was “Rivers of My Fathers,” and there was an image of some African brothers on a boat going down a river. One of the other images was an image of a disheveled man sitting on a corner. That was “Supernatural Corner”. That was the original title of the album. The reason that I bring that up right now is, when you mentioned crack suddenly coming into our community, that story was broken in the San Jose Mercury News. At the time, the editor-in-chief of that publication was a brother by the name of Jay Harris. Jay is the son of Peggy Harris, the woman who did that collage.
BJ: She was the one who, after listening to the album, and by that time we had renamed it Winter in America, said, “Why did you name it that? Why did you name it Winter in America?” Well, we explained the concept to her. She said, “Yes, but you don’t have a song on the album called “Winter in America”. We were like, “Yes, that’s true. We didn’t really think about that.” She said, “Well, who does albums where the title isn’t one of the tracks on the album?” We said, “Yes, you’re right.” Then she said, “Well, make sure that you do a song called “Winter in America” on the next one to make up for it.” [Laughs] We did. We came up with one, so that “Winter in America,” the orphan child of the actual album, appeared on the next album.
OKP: Yes, “The First Minute of a New Day”.
BJ: That’s right.
OKP: I want to go back a little bit to the beginning. When and where did you first meet Gil Scott-Heron?
BJ: I met Gil in 1969. It was my freshman year at Lincoln University. I had been sorely disappointed by the curriculum which I had anticipated to be way more Afrocentric than it was at the university. It was an HBCU. I found out that I was being taught “the classics” without any reference to any American classical musicians such as: Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, or any creative, great composers, even Scott Joplin. Also, none of the writers like Countee Cullen or Langston Hughes or W.E.B. Du Bois or any of the writers and people who helped shape American culture and American literature, Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright or anybody. We were looking for somebody.
Being in a black university, I thought that should’ve been happening. Kwame Nkrumah went there. Thurgood Marshall went there. Oscar Brown, Jr. went there.
I was sorely disappointed by all of that and ended up spending most of my time in the piano practice room. It just so happened that one day I was in there and a young student, well, not as young as me, he was a junior, came in and asked me if I wanted to be part of a talent show. I said, “Yes. If it involves playing music, I’m down.” He was doing a song called “God Bless the Child.” He was looking for somebody to do it in the arrangement of the ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ version. I knew that arrangement, so I was on. Then, it came to be that he was going to do two songs.
The other song that he was going to do was a song called “Where Can a Man Find Peace”. He wanted to introduce me to the writer of that piece and it happened to be Gil. We just hit it off from there and decided that I had the tunes and he had the lyrics. It was a no-brainer. We began to write constantly and consistently and put together a band. I think it was 10 pieces. We had five singers, a flute player, a drummer, and a bass player. We called ourselves Black & Blues. [Laughs] That was the precursor to The Midnight Band.
OKP: When you started working on the first record together, what was your vision for it? Was it more of Gil’s vision or was it a partnership?
BJ: Yes, when we were writing, as Gil would have you know, the music always came first. Then the music dictated the feel of the lyrics and the tone of the message. What we knew was that we wanted to write good songs. That was number one. Number two, we didn’t want to write songs that anybody else would write. I didn’t say could write, but would write. What we saw were people writing songs about unrelated love, unrequited love, and trying to get in somebody’s pants. There were plenty of songs like that. We saw that we couldn’t really add much to that dialogue and conversation.
BJ: We looked elsewhere, and what we came up with was the fact that we were young black men living in America, which was a frustrating and a frightening experience. We did what we knew best. We decided that we would write about that. We were lucky to have been able to do that first album, because originally, Bob Thiele, the head of Flying Dutchman Records, was basically interested in spoken word. It was cheap and plentiful.
He was able to get people such as journalists Pete Hamill and Carl Rowan to speak on record and to have music sometimes behind them or not. Pete Hamill’s Massacre at My Lai was a classic. He was looking for Gil to do the same thing reciting his poetry. It was Gil’s idea to take it in the direction of The Last Poets who we were enraptured by. It pointed the way toward to what we felt could happen in black poetry and in music. So — he did Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. So, instead of just having and reciting his poetry, he did it to the beats of African drumming.
While all that was happening, we were writing tunes left and right every day. We would sit down and compose. We had quite a stockpile of material, and we thought it would really be nice if we could record some of that stuff, too. He went to Bob Thiele, and he asked him if he could do something like that. Bob said, “Well, that’s another level of recording. I’m not sure. Let me say this to be fair. If your poetry album does okay, then I’ll take a listen to what you guys have written.” We went up to his office, and we played a few songs for him like “Pieces of a Man,” “I Think I’ll Call It Morning,” “The Prisoner,” and I think we played “A Toast to the People”. He asked, “Okay, so who do you want on the album?” That was the beginning and we went from there. That would’ve been our first album, Pieces of a Man. He hired Ron Carter, Bernard Purdie, and Hubert Laws. I was able to bring in my high school buddy, Burt Jones, who ended up playing on Saturday Night Live. As a young teenager, he was already playing in bands with Wilson Pickett.
We met again in college. It was a weird story because we used to ride the bus every day to high school in Brooklyn. In high school, neither one of us had any idea that we were musicians. I just happened to run into him on the campus of Lincoln University playing guitar and leading a band. I told him, “Man, I never knew you played guitar.” He replied, “I never knew you played piano.” We got together. I was the pianist in that band, and we used to do our student mixers on Saturday night and Friday night. [Laughs] I brought him along on that album. It was a great thing.
OKP: How many songs do you think you guys wrote in the lead up to that record?
BJ: I would say we had probably about a dozen, maybe 20 songs. We had already written the first two albums worth of material. We were still going at it. By the time we stretched out and did the Arista deal, I don’t think we finished off loading the stuff that we wrote at Lincoln until From South Africa to South Carolina.
OKP: Okay. That’s quite a stretch.
BJ: Yes, it was what we used to do.
OKP: You guys started out on Flying Dutchman, correct?
BJ: Flying Dutchman, yes.
OKP: In combination with RCA.
BJ: That’s right. We recorded at RCA Studios on 1850 Broadway in New York City. It was dubbed “the studio.” That was history. You could feel the vibration in the walls of all the great musicians who had recorded there. I’m sure John Coltrane recorded in that room. It certainly felt like it. It was a huge empty space and could be configured in any type or different ways with the movable walls and stuff that they had in there. You could have put a whole orchestra in there, if necessary.
OKP: With the Winter in America album, you guys moved from Flying Dutchman to Strata-East. What was that process like?