Gil Heron – When The Flying Arrow Landed In Scotland

“When Miles was on the jukebox
And Monk was on the air
Gil crossed the ocean to the other side
To play for Celtic with a noble stride”

Ironically, for someone with a son far more famous than himself, Gil Heron was himself immortalised in song, in Michael Marra’s ‘Flight of the Heron’. Being namechecked alongside two of the most famous jazz artists of any era certainly suggests the Jamaican had a certain gravity.

While Heron’s spell with Scottish giants Celtic wasn’t as sterling as one might expect with first-team opportunities very limited, he is still regarded with more fondness than many other players with more game time and a better scoring record. And as Marra noted in his 2012 song, he was a pioneer: the first black player to sign for Celtic and the first to play in Scotland for decades. He was a dandy with a colourful personality in a sport in which the players of the time were rarely dashing or daring off the pitch.

The striker was discovered when Celtic toured the United States and Canada in the summer of 1951. The management team heard stories of a local scoring sensation while they stayed in Detroit and sought him out. He was invited to a trial in Scotland – in which he scored twice – and so impressed that Celtic immediately signed him up on a one-year contract.

It’s easy to see why the player was keen to move. Heron might’ve been the North American Professional Soccer League’s top scorer in 1946, yet he received significantly less pay than higher-profile white players, nor was he asked to undertake the promotional work for the league that white players were offered. Moving to Chicago and the Sparta club in 1947, he had met and married Bobbie Scott. Their son, Gil Scott-Heron, was born on the 1st April 1949 but the young Gil would not grow up knowing his father.

In his 2012 autobiography, ‘The Last Holiday – A Memoir,’ the soul-rap influencer recalled being told stories of his father’s battles on the football pitches of Chicago because of how good he was. 

“Opponents tried to deliberately injure him with tackles, even when he didn’t have the ball. His skills would offend the opposition, often leaving them feeling foolish and flailing, victims of Gil’s fancy footwork.” 

The treatment meted out to Heron says his son, as told to him by his mother, wasn’t just because he would leave them flat-footed. “There were scoundrels in places like Skokie, a suburb of Chicago then inhabited primarily by Europeans, who treated soccer like an ethnic heirloom.”

It might seem illogical for someone to move to a hotbed of sectarianism and anti-Irish racism that was the west coast of Scotland, but it was an obvious move for Heron. As Scott-Heron recalled it was a chance he couldn’t turn down.

“My father decided to do what he always wanted to do: play football full time, at the highest level, against the best players. It was, for him, the chance of a lifetime, the chance to play for one of the most famous teams in the British Isles. It was an opportunity to see who he was and what he was, to avoid sliding through fits of old age and animosity and spasms of ‘I coulda been a contender’ that no one believed.”

But he paid the price as the move to Scotland destroyed Gil and Bobbie’s marriage and while Gil sought his dream, Bobbie stayed in Detroit to bring up the young Gil. While he wasn’t the first person of colour to try to make his mark at Parkhead, Heron was the first to sign. In 1936 Indian star Mohammed Salim impressed in two reserve games for Celtic, but declined a permanent contract and opted instead to return to Calcutta. The first black player in Scottish football was British Guiana-born Andrew Watson, the captain of Queen’s Park in the 1880s.

Upon arrival in Scotland, Heron was thrown in for his debut against Morton in a League Cup tie; the Jamaican adding Celtic’s second goal in a 2-0 win with a 20-yard first-half strike. A match report was particularly impressed by his performance and suggested big things for Heron.

“The big Jamaican centre-forward enjoyed a most promising debut in the League Cup tie, and if he makes the progress reasonably possible on this display, he may become a tremendous box-office attraction in Scottish football.”

Inevitably, the Scottish media soon dubbed him the Black Arrow. Heron’s second appearance for the first team came against Third Lanark at Cathkin Park where he failed to spark, but he kept his place for the following midweek home fixture against Airdrie and scored his second goal for the club. But despite this encouraging start, he often found himself in the reserve side.

In February 1952 Heron was called up by the Jamaican Football Association to take part in a series of challenge matches against a Caribbean All-Stars select and he scored four goals in the three matches he played. Back in Europe he continued to languish in the Celtic reserves. The media suggested he couldn’t adapt to the poor weather conditions, but he had competition for his place in the form of John McPhail, the Celtic captain and a true club hero. When McPhail suffered several injuries around this time, Heron didn’t impress enough on his run-outs to challenge him long term for the centre-forward shirt.

There is some suggestion he may have been his own worst enemy. Against Stirling Albion reserves he was sent off for brawling with an opponent. The Celtic chairman Bob Kelly, didn’t take kindly to such indiscipline and suspended and fined the striker over the incident. The 1950s Celtic side was a shadow of the one that had won so many domestic trophies in the pre-war years, including the Empire Cup in 1938. The manager, former legendary striker Jimmy McGrory, was weak, the chairman dictatorial and cliques were common. Those cliques could also have hindered him and Celtic historian Tom Campbell has suggested that McPhail and Charlie Tully were instrumental in shunning him, with McGrory unable to control such influences in the dressing room.

Celtic finished the 1951-52 season in a lowly ninth place in the League and failed to win any of the three cup competitions on offer. At the end of the season Heron was informed that his one-year contract would not be renewed. How much the incident against Stirling contributed to that decision is unknown, but Kelly would dismiss players for serious misconduct regardless of their stature. Heron left having played only one match in the League and a further four in the League Cup. He played just once after September of 1951 in a league match against Partick Thistle.

Having fallen for a local woman called Margaret Frize, Heron didn’t want to leave Scotland so, in the summer, he focused on playing cricket and at the start of the new football season signed with Third Lanark, then still a formidable force in the Scottish game. Despite scoring five times in seven games, this move didn’t work out either so he headed south to join Kidderminster Harriers. When he was made available for transfer there in March 1954, he returned to Detroit with Margaret.

The Jamaican may have only played a handful of games, but he remains part of Celtic FC folklore and not merely because of his skin colour and the novelty that represented in 1950s Scotland. He was a natty, individualistic dresser who wore zoot suits, trilby hats and yellow shoes; a keen photographer, a published poet and a decent cricketer. It’s easy to see how he would attract a lot of attention in Glasgow at the time.

In a newspaper article Heron wrote headlined ‘As I See Celtic’ the writer-footballer included some poetry about his time at Parkhead.

“Beat the banners of the Green
The finest team I’ve ever seen
Keep the cup and never yield
Race them, chase them
Off the field.”

After his parents’ divorce, the young Scott-Heron moved to Lincoln, Tennessee to live with his grandmother, Lily Scott, a civil rights activist and musician. She bought him his first piano and introduced him to the work of the Harlem Renaissance novelist and jazz poet Langston Hughes. Scott-Heron won a place at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he met the flute player Brian Jackson. The pair would become significant musical collaborators. During his second year at university in 1968, Scott-Heron dropped out to write a novel, a murder mystery titled The Vulture. When it was published in 1970 he made a decision that would significantly affect his life by releasing an album of a spoken word performance entitled ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox’.

The following year he released an album of soul, jazz, funk and proto-rap, called ‘Pieces of a Man’ which included one of his best known tracks called ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised,’ alongside other notable tracks such as ‘Home Is Where the Hatred Is’. A 1974 collaboration with Jackson – ‘Winter In America’ – which included his foremost take on social ills, simply titled ‘The Bottle’. Throughout his 40-year career, Scott-Heron delivered a militant commentary not only on the African-American experience, but on wider social injustice and political hypocrisy.

When Gil Scott-Heron played live in Scotland, there was usually a smattering of Celtic tops on show. That, perhaps, is the finest tribute an artist could receive. In fact, despite not growing up on the same continent as his father, the artistic Gil couldn’t escape his father’s stint in Scotland. While playing three Scottish shows in the 1970s, Scott-Heron recounted how the media seemed more interested in his father’s footballing connections than his music.

Met at the train station, he was handed a front page featuring a story about him which included a picture of Gil Senior and was warned he should be prepared to talk about ‘soccer’ to the media.

“The promoter told me the combination of elements on this (TV) show would be a Scottish orgasm; there would be talk about soccer, nostalgia about soccer, and living evidence that they would never allow their racism to interfere with soccer.”

On his way to the studio Scott-Heron bought a Celtic scarf and a Rangers hat, and wore both on the show. After Michael Marra recorded his track, the Scottish journalist Gerry Hassan visited the artist in Harlem to deliver it personally; he wrote that Heron was so moved by the song he replied in a hand-written note handed to Hassan that he wanted to record it himself. If Scott-Heron did record a version of ‘Flight of the Heron,’ it has, so far, failed to make it onto record.

As the second half of the chorus in Marra’s song goes, the dashing forward is now seen as a trailblazer.

“The arrow flew, he’s flying yet
His aim is true so we don’t forget
What it means when his name we hear
The hopes and dreams of every pioneer.”

The Heron family retain a connection with Celtic and in August 2019 three of his grandchildren were guests of honour at the Champions League game against CFR Cluj. “I remember Scotland was the furthest he had ever travelled so he was really excited to be this far away,” said one. “We remember he would tell you about the cold or that it would rain all the time – and he wasn’t ready for that. Then he would just say he was so excited to wake up and be part of a cool club.” Gil Heron died on 27 November 2008 in Detroit, aged 87. Gil Scott-Heron passed away just two-and-a-half years later at the age of 62.

CRAIG STEPHEN

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