New York City, 1970. Gil Scott-Heron leans in the doorway of a nightclub at 125th & Lenox in Harlem. He lights a cigarette while a cop eyes his afro with quiet suspicion. Scott-Heron has just recorded ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ in front of a small jazz club audience – a recording that would one day be described as ‘a volcanic upheaval of intellectualism and social critique’. It would go on to influence hip-hop pioneers, such as Public Enemy and NWA.
Over 3,000 miles away, a cold Atlantic wind hits Scotland’s west coast and rolls on to the south side of Glasgow. A stadium sits derelict; sweeping concrete terraces lie empty; the grass reaches ankle height and broken glass covers the main stand. Only a few years before, in 1954, 45,000 spectators had packed these stands to watch Third Lanark play Rangers in the Scottish Cup. However, the club folded in 1967 after being purchased by an unscrupulous property developer. Third Lanark and their ground – Cathkin Park – once famous are now little more than a pub quiz answer.
As unbelievable as it sounds, one man has a part to play in the history of both of these events. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1922, Gil Heron was both the father of pioneering poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron and one of the first black players to play in Britain.
After spending his youth in Kingston, Gil Heron enlisted for the Canadian Royal Air Force, moving to Canada in the process. While in the air force, Heron showed his talents at boxing and athletics – but it was football where the young Jamaican really excelled, impressing as a quick centre forward.
From the air force, Heron moved to Detroit, then something of a buzzing cultural centre for black America. There, Heron showed an interest in jazz and poetry and was said to wear zoot suits – showing flashes of the creative mind that his son would possess years later.
It was also in Detroit that Gil Heron met Bobbie Scott, a singer in a local club. In 1949, the couple found out Bobbie was pregnant and Gil Scott-Heron arrived later that year. While in Detroit, Gil Heron played for the Detroit Corinthians and the Detroit Wolverines and was the top scorer in the 1946 North American Soccer Football League.
In 1951, while Glasgow Celtic were on a North American tour, Gil Heron was spotted by a scout and signed for the club, becoming the first Afro-Caribbean, and possibly the first black, player to wear the famous green and white hoops. With some excitement Heron made the trip over to Scotland. He wouldn’t see his son for another 23 years.
By all accounts, Heron was a big hit with the Parkhead faithful. He was described as a ‘tremendous box-office attraction’, while the Glasgow Herald speculated that his debut against Morton on 18 August 1951 might cause a ‘possible drift of neutral followers of football [to Celtic Park] to see the novelty of a coloured player leading the Celtic attack’. Despite, the unfortunate and outdated wording of The Herald’s football correspondent, there is no evidence that Heron received any derogatory treatment from the Scottish fans. Indeed, he was a smash hit on his debut, scoring after 35 minutes with a long range shot in front of 40,000. Such performances quickly led to Heron earning the nickname ‘The Black Arrow’ among the Celtic support.
Heron’s second game for Celtic came against Third Lanark in the League Cup at Cathkin Park, a ground he would later play at in the red and white of the Hi-Hi. Although Celtic won 1-0, The Herald’s match report recalls that it was a dull game, marred by the rainy conditions. The Herald also noted that ‘little was seen of Heron, who had difficulty in working up speed on the slippery turn and too often ran into offside traps… towards the close, however, he showed his ability with a fast run up the left wing and a low-cross, but the opportunity was lost because he had outpaced the other Celtic Forwards.’
Gil Heron’s third game came against Airdrie where he scored another wonder strike from 25 yards out. The match report stated that the Celtic crowd ‘applauded the effort which was as fine as has been seen on the ground for many a day’. Sadly, Heron’s appearances dried up and he found himself in the reserves. It was suggested at the time that he didn’t have the physicality required for Scottish football, with Celtic manager Jimmy McGrory suggesting that he ‘needed a little brushing up when the heavy ground came.’ It has also been suggested that Celtic’s established strikers took a disliking to Heron, not out of any unsavoury racial motivations, but rather because they were worried that he would take their places in the team.
Whatever the reason, Heron was relegated to the reserves where he scored 15 goals, before being released at the end of the season. He left just a matter of days before a certain Jock Stein signed for the club.
From Celtic, Heron moved the short distance over the Clyde from Parkhead to Cathkin Park, signing for Third Lanark on a free transfer. Heron’s first game came in the group stages of the League Cup in a 4-2 defeat to Falkirk on 9 August 1952, with Heron scoring two goals. He got another goal and an assist in a 3-0 away win to Queen of the South in his second game, also in the League Cup. Heron grabbed two more in his fifth game; this time at home to Queen of the South.
Heron’s goals saw Third Lanark qualify for the Quarter Finals in impressive style, where they met Rangers over two legs. The first, at Ibrox in front of 50,000 spectators was, according to the match report, a ‘dreary display’, with Heron along with the other forwards being described as ‘slipshod and crude’. Nevertheless, Third Lanark had managed to escape Ibrox with a draw to take back to Cathkin. They were only a win away from the League Cup Semi Final.
42,000 turned up to Cathkin Park to watch Heron and his teammates take on Rangers. Sadly, Third Lanark’s forwards were to underperform again. They were beaten 2-0, with the Glasgow Herald stating that the ‘forwards were woefully weak’, although they did note that ‘Heron showed at least some semblance of surmounting the obstacle [of Rangers’ defence]’.
Despite scoring 5 goals in 7 games during Third Lanark’s unsuccessful League Cup run, his career at Cathkin was over. He fell out of favour at Third Lanark and was released at the end of the season, eventually joining Kidderminster Harriers, who were playing in a regional Birmingham league at the time, before moving back to Detroit Corinthians.
Heron always looked back on his time in Scotland fondly. The young Gil Scott-Heron was regaled with stories of his Dad’s footballing prowess by his mother when he was a child, and the elder Heron always kept an eye on the Celtic results, right up until his death in 2008. Gil Heron even wrote a poem recalling the great players he played against and with in Scotland, showing off some of the talent he passed down to his son.
‘I’ll remember all the great ones / those that I have seen. / Those who I have played with / who wore the white and green.’
So maybe, as Gil Scott-Heron stood there on that Harlem night in 1970, filled with the energy of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, he thought of his then estranged Dad who’d filled the terraces of Cathkin Park that now lay empty and overgrown. Maybe the red and white shirts of Third Lanark passed through his mind as he strolled back into the 125th & Lenox club, the night Hip Hop was born.