THE NOBLE STRIDE – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons

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“My father still keeps up with what Celtic are doing. You Scottish folk always mention that my Dad played for Celtic, it’s a blessing from the spirits! Like that’s two things that Scottish folks love the most; music and football and they got one representative from each of those from my family!” – Gil Scott-Heron, 2008

 

 

When the influential African-American singer and writer Gil Scott-Heron died in May 2011, Chuck D of the legendary hip-hop act Public Enemy put this message out on Twitter:

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Rappers Eminem, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Kanye West queued up to pay tribute to the man referred to as ‘the Godfather of Rap’. Ghostface Killah from the Wu-Tang Clan wrote: “Salute Gil Scott-Heron for his wisdom and poetry! May he rest in paradise.”

Paradise was something his father knew all about . . .

 

Rewind 60 years. Celtic Park, 18th August 1951. Celtic take the field against Morton in the League Cup before a 40,000 crowd. The star attraction is a new centre-forward fresh from Jamaica by way of Detroit. That summer Celtic had toured the United States and in Detroit they heard stories of a scoring sensation. Celtic Chairman Bob Kelly told the Daily Record: “We never saw him play but the word about him was so good that I invited him over to have a test. He satisfied and thus he was signed.” The Jamaican also satisfied in the game against Morton, living up to the pre-match hype. Despite having an early goal disallowed he added Celtic’s second in a straightforward 2-0 victory in the 35th minute with a 20 yard strike past Jimmy Cowan, the Scotland goalkeeper – grabbed the headlines with an all-round impressive display.

 

It wasn’t just his ability that was making the news – his race was a major talking point. A Daily Express matchreport said: “Make no mistake about it, Celtic have struck a black bonanza in Giles Heron”. In no time at all he had been conferred with the nicknames The Black Arrow and The Black Flash by the Scottish media and fans.

 

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For Gilbert St Elmo Heron this chance to play for Celtic was an opportunity that he simply could not let pass. Yet, he was considered a footballing pioneer even before he became the first Afro-Caribbean to play the game professionally in Scotland. Gil, often referred to as Gillie (and incorrectly as Giles), had been the first black man to play professional soccer in his adopted home of the United States and, playing for the Detroit Wolverines in 1946, was the top goal scorer in US pro football. Being top scorer didn’t translate into top earner however – the endemic racism in American society at the time meant that Gil’s pay was a quarter of the higher-profile white players in the North American Professional Soccer League.

 

ImageGil in his Detroit Wolverines jersey: ‘Top pro scorer  Gil Heron weighs 160 pounds, is unmarried, has five brothers who also play soccer.  He is rated the No.1 offensive start inthe North American League.’

 

His success in Detroit led to him moving to Chicago to join the leading club Sparta in 1947. While in Chicago he met Bobbie Scott from Tennessee and within a year they were married – with a baby on the way. The son would become a musical pioneer, named after the footballing father but also in recognition of his mother’s family, and was born on 1st April 1949: Gil Scott-Heron. In his 2012 autobiography he recalled being told stories of his father’s battles on the football pitches of Chicago: “His skills would offend the opposition, often leaving them feeling foolish and flailing, victims of Gil’s fancy footwork. There were scoundrels in places like Skokie, a suburb of Chicago then inhabited primarily by Europeans, who treated soccer like an ethnic heirloom. My mother talked about incidents when opposing players had felt forced to foul, going for his legs instead of the ball, not trying to tackle him but to injure; these were red flags to his temper.”

 

Gil  and his temper were no strangers, as Celtic would later discover. While in Chicago he was suspended after being sent off in a game against Hansa, a German-American club, for retaliating against an abusive centre-half. He loved football though, having played since his youth in Kingston. As a 13 year old in 1935 he had been caught removing a regulation football from a store without paying for it. Four years later he left Jamaica for Michigan with his mother and brothers, also football mad: on one occasion four of the Heron boys turned out in the same game for Detroit Corinthians. Football was in Gil’s blood.

 

ImageGil, 1947, Detroit Wolverines

 

It had also made him a name in Black America. In 1947 he was the subject of a flattering profile in Ebony magazine (still the thought-leader on race issues in the States today) which highlighted his significance as the first professional black soccer player. The article noted his key attributes: “ball-control, agility and deception rather than his speed that makes him the great soccer player he is now.” The three-page spread paid the huge compliment of referring to Gil as ‘the Babe Ruth of soccer’: the baseball legend was America’s greatest sporting hero of that generation.

 

Later in 1976, visiting the headquarters of Johnson Publishing in downtown Chicago for an interview, Gil Scott-Heron met John Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and said: “I just came through to see if I could get a write-up in Ebony like the one you did for my father.” Johnson, unaware of the family link, led him on a search through the basement archive where together they recovered a copy of the 29 year old magazine, to the son’s great excitement.

 

Despite his goals, Gil received little publicity in the mainstream press nor was he asked to undertake the promotional work for the league that white players were offered. This might explain the significant decision that Gillie took in 1951.

 

After making contact following their return from the USA tour, Celtic had sent Gil a tourist ticket for the ship SS Columbia which was due to depart from Montreal on 24th July 1951. There was no guarantee of an extended stay in Scotland though. The invitation was simply to take part in the traditional pre-season public trial where the Celtic playing staff were separated into “greens” and “whites.” If he impressed, then he might be offered a professional contract – or re-join the Columbia on its return voyage.

 

It was a life-changing decision for all three Herons, as the son later described in his autobiography: “My mother and father separated when I was one and half years old, when Celtic, in Glasgow, Scotland, offered him a formal contract. My father decided to take an opportunity to do what he always wanted to do: play football fulltime, 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. That sort of thing can even make you doubt yourself, doubt what you know, doubt what you would have sworn if anyone was willing to listen. To play with Celtic was also a Jackie Robinson-like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of Blacks.”

 

For Gil Scott-Heron to describe Celtic’s offer as a “Jackie Robinson-like invitation” is especially significant. In 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers made Robinson the first African-American to play professional baseball in the modern era, effectively ending racial segregation in America’s most popular sport and boosting the nascent Civil Rights movement.

 

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While there was no formal segregation between the races in British sport, only a handful of non-whites had ever appeared in the professional ranks of football. This helped explain the fascination and fuss over Gil Heron’s appearance in the Hoops in 1951. For his son to adopt the stance he does is very forgiving as the decision to board that ship to play for Celtic effectively destroyed his parents’ marriage – and their own relationship.

 

Gil and Bobbie’s marriage was effectively condemned by his performance in the public trial on August 4th 1951: he scored two goals and was offered a one-year contract to become a Celtic player. Gil was staying in Scotland.

 

The club’s decision to offer a professional contract to a black player was a public demonstration that there was no colour bar at Celtic Park. In 1936 the Indian footballer Mohammed Salim had dazzled supporters in a couple of reserve games for Celtic but declined an offer from the club of a permanent contract, preferring to return to Calcutta where he was part of the successful Mohammedan Sporting Club. The only previous black player in Scottish football was Demerara-born Andrew Watson, a captain of Queen’s Park in the 1880s, who won the Scottish Cup and also captained Scotland to victory over England in 1881. Scotland, and the United Kingdom, had a relatively small black population in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

ImageAndrew Watson, centre rear, of Queen’s Park and Scotland fame

 

Things had moved on in post-war Britain though. The ship Windrush had arrived in England from the West Indies in June 1948 and heralded the start of an immigration boom. Race was very much a live issue when Gil Heron docked in Southampton to get the train to Glasgow in 1951. For Celtic Chairman Bob Kelly there were only positives in signing the Jamaican and he told the Glasgow Herald that he expected there would be a “drift of neutral followers of football to the novelty of a coloured player leading the Celtic attack.”

 

Gil’s successful debut against Morton made the news well beyond Celtic Park. The Chicago Tribune used the headline ‘Detroit Negro Scores Goal in Glasgow Debut’ and the New York Times reported that ‘US Player Helps Celtic down Morton in Glasgow Soccer, 2-0’ while a Canadian paper noted his nickname of ‘Black Flash’. New York’s biggest-selling black newspaper Amsterdam News also reported his debut: “Another milestone in sports democracy passed here last Saturday as a Negro for the first time played as a member of a big league Scottish Soccer team . . . Heron is not only the first Negro to play in big time Scottish soccer but also the first American to make the grade. This makes his feat doubly significant.” The Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore claimed that fans in Scotland had been “thrilled and astonished at the brilliance of a coloured American soccer star Gil Heron of Detroit.”

 

 

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Gil playing in front of the old Jungle enclosure at Celtic Park

 

As his fame grew Gil gave an interview in the Daily Record under the banner ‘Gilbert, The Broth of a Boy from Detroit’. Reporting that he was “the greatest thing seen at Celtic Park since goalposts arrived” the positive profile confirmed that he was a keen photographer who, if things didn’t work out, would happily return to his previous job as a “60 dollar a week painter in a Detroit motor plant”. Gil’s early observations of Scottish society may have raised an eyebrow or two from Record readers. He couldn’t understand why Glasgow “drops dead at 9pm” just when Detroit’s nightlife coming alive while he considered the Glasgow girls as pretty as anywhere else, but “they dress up to please their grandmothers and nobody else.”

 

Gil found friends in the Celtlic dressing room and Sean Fallon especially helped show him around his adopted city.  The Jamaican was known for his colourful attire as well as his enjoyment of the nightlife.  Charlie Tully recalled how he would turn out in a memorable pair of “yella shoes” when hitting the streets with his Celtic buddies.

 

On the field of play, Gil followed up his goal-scoring debut in the League Cup with a midweek game for the reserves against Hibs before re-joining the first team for a largely forgettable performance a week later against Third Lanark at rain-soaked Cathkin Park. One newspaper reported “Little was seen of Heron who had difficulty working up speed on the slippery turf and too often ran into offside traps.” He kept his place in the front-line for the midweek fixture against Airdrie at home four days later and, before a crowd of 25,000, impressed as he’d done on debut at Celtic Park. Celtic took an early lead through Jimmy Walsh and monopolised the play with Gil having two attempts that almost came off. It was third time lucky in the thirty seventh minute, as the Glasgow Herald reported: “the centre-forward took a pass from Baillie about midfield and side-stepping Dingwall on his run through released a tremendous shot from 25 yards which beat Fraser all ends up. The crowd applauded an effort which was as fine as has been seen on the ground for many a day.”

 

There were no more goals in the second half although Gil “revelled in the forward play and had another great try which Fraser saved at the foot of the post.” Fraser was the second internationally-capped keeper that Gil had beaten in his first fortnight with Celtic. The ‘Black Arrow’ was flying.

 

Gil retained his place in the first-team when they travelled to Greenock to play Morton on 1st September 1951. Celtic went down to a shock 2-0 defeat in a game marred by crowd trouble including pitch invasions; a third goal would have knocked Celtic out of the League Cup. The Evening Times’ view was that the Celtic forwards weren’t playing as a line and the return of the experienced John McPhail, whose goal had decided the Scottish Cup final in Celtic’s favour back in May, was “eagerly anticipated.”

 

ImageEnjoying a Scottish summer – Gil and Celtic team-mates Roy Milne, Alex Boden, Jimmy Mallan, Sean Fallon & Johnny Bonnar visit Largs in 1951 with partners

 

Gil was back in the reserves where he stayed until, with McPhail dropped after a ‘mystery’ trip to New York, he led the line against Partick Thistle at home in the league on 1st December. “Gil Heron received tremendous vocal support” reported the Daily Record. “He tried hard with little luck.” Celtic ran out 2-1 winners in the absence of McPhail and Tully but Gil didn’t score, and failed to impress. This was a missed opportunity. Celtic’s league performances had been poor and they were lying in ninth position. Monday’s Evening Times commented on Celtic’s options at centre-forward and inside-left: “In the matter of suitable reserves they are ill off in those positions.” The following week McPhail was restored to the front-line and Jim Lafferty, just signed from junior team Arthurlie and playing at centre-forward, scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over St. Mirren. It was back to the reserves and out of the limelight for Celtic’s Jamaican.

 

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Things did not improve after the new year for Celtic’s lacklustre first team. A first round exit from the Scottish Cup in February was followed by a further drop in the League placings to 13th. And yet, despite having scored 15 goals in 15 matches for the reserves, Gil still wasn’t recalled to the first team. He was still wanted though. In February he was called up by the Jamaican FA alongside Lindy Delaphena of title-chasing Sunderland – the first professional Jamaican footballer in England – to take part in a series of challenge matches against a Caribbean All-Stars select. More headlines followed – “Heron is coming to prop soccer XI” reported Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper on 12th February. The series of four games proved popular, drawing in a combined attendance of over 70,000, and Gil scored 4 goals in the three matches he played. It had proved a successful homecoming for the Jamaican bhoy.

 

On his return to Scotland though he continued to languish in the Celtic reserves. There were lazy suggestions in the media that he couldn’t adapt to the poor weather conditions (contradicted by his scoring record in the first and second elevens) and there has been speculation since that being in competition for a place with John McPhail, an established first-teamer close to Jock Weir and Charlie Tully, didn’t help Gil’s cause. This argument has been made by Celtic historian Tom Campbell who claims that a previous centre-forward signing in 1948, Leslie Johnston from Clyde, was frozen out in favour of McPhail who also had friends among Scotland’s sport-writers (and later became a football writer himself). The influential columnist Waverley in the Daily Record had stated after one match that “Heron’s place is in the reserves” and that “The sooner McPhail is back in the Celtic team, the better for Celtic’s prospects.”

 

There may be an element of truth in these explanations but events on January 2nd 1952 could also explain why Gil Heron never found favour with the Celtic management team again. Playing against Stirling Albion reserves that day, Gil was sent off for brawling with an opponent. In addition to being suspended for a week he was also fined a week’s wages by the club. The Celtic Chairman, Bob Kelly, was a strict disciplinarian who frowned severely on such misconduct. During his reign players including Pat Crerand, Mike Jackson and Bertie Auld were sold by Celtic after falling foul of the Chairman, usually for indiscipline. It seems likely that the on-pitch brawl put paid to Gil’s chances of playing in Celtic’s first team again.

 

Celtic ultimately finished season 1951-2 in 9th place in the League with no silverware to show. In May Gil Heron was told that his one-year contract would not be renewed: the dream was over. He told one newspaper: “I may go home. I wouldn’t get the same thrill from another club.” He enjoyed life in Scotland though and was in no rush to return to the States and abandon his career in professional football. There was another important reason for staying put: Gil had fallen for a local woman, 23 year-old Margaret Frize.

 

ImageCrest of Poloc Cricket Club

 

 

Gil didn’t sit still that summer. As with most Jamaicans he had a fondness for cricket and he joined other West Indians in the ranks of Poloc Cricket Club in the city’s south side and was back in the papers again (“Footballer Gil Forces A Cricket Draw”). With the new football season dawning he was signed up by Third Lanark (“Hi-Hi-Hi for Heron” said one headline) and got off to a flier with two goals on his debut, yet within a couple of months he fell out of favour there too. The summer of 1953 saw him head to Paisley with his cricket bat to pay for Ferguslie. He was picked up again by another club for season 1953-4 – but had to cross the border to join non-league Kidderminster Harriers in the English Midlands. The pattern repeated itself: a bright start before being relegated to the reserves. Financial problems caused the club to get rid of its few professional players and Gil was transfer-listed in March 1954. The adventure was finally over – the footballing pioneer returned home to Detroit in July.

 

Scotland was never far from Gil Heron’s heart though. Margaret Frize crossed the Atlantic to join Gil the following year and, after the divorce from Bobbie was formalised, they married. This would not have been an easy decision for either of them: in the USA in the 1950s inter-racial marriage was outlawed in more than half of the country’s states. Not in Michigan though and it was there, in Detroit, that Gil and Margaret married and lived together, going on to have three children. Gil returned to the Ford Motor plant and to amateur photography but his love for the beautiful game never waned – he was a referee in the Motor City area for many years. He lived until the grand old age of 86 when he passed away in December 2008.

 

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21 year old Gil Scott-Heron, at the time of the release of his first album ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox’, 1970

 

After his father left for Scotland, Gil Scott-Heron was initially raised by his grandmother in Tennessee and then, following her death, was brought up by his mother in New York before leaving for college. His first album ‘Small Talk at 125th & Lenox’ had been released in 1970 when he was 20 years old and already a published poet and writer. One of his earliest songs, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, remains the most influential. His fusion of jazz, blues and soul with partner Brian Jackson took music in a new direction. ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’ is a homage to two African-American musical icons whose status he came close to emulating.

 

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Equally important though was the political and social dimension to Gil Scott-Heron’s work. ‘The Bottle’ and ‘Johannesburg’ voiced his concerns about addiction and apartheid. He confronted race issues repeatedly with songs such as ‘Whitey On the Moon’ and ‘From South Caroline to South Africa’ and, sporting one of the best afros in the music business, was considered a militant at a time when Black Consciousness was at its peak.

 

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Scott-Heron supported Stevie Wonder on tour as part of the successful campaign to have Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a public holiday in the States. With songs such as ‘B Movie’ and ‘Raygun’ he confronted the right-wing values of the Reagan Presidency head-on in the 1980s. His recording career suffered as he fell victim to drug and alcohol addictions, being jailed intermittently between 2001 and 2006, yet he made a triumphant and unexpected come-back in 2010 with the album ‘I’m New Here’ which was released to critical acclaim, reflecting his standing as a pioneer of rap music and hip hop. It was a mantle he was never entirely comfortable with, telling a journalist once “I don’t know if I can take the blame for that.” After a European tour promoting the new album he died in May 2011, aged 62.

 

ImageMasterblasters:  Stevie Wonder and Gil in concert

Backstage, after a concert in Detroit in 1975, Gil Scott-Heron was approached by a young woman he’d never met before. Gayle Heron took him home and introduced him to her father – his father. “Gil Scott-Heron, this is Gilbert St. Elmo Heron” she said, by way of re-introduction. A quarter of a century had passed since father and son had seen each other. It was an awkward meeting, as described by the son in the song ‘Hello Sunday, Hello Road’ two years later. But it was a beginning. The son developed a relationship with Gayle and his brothers Denis (who became his road manager) and Kenny and a relationship of sorts with his father and Margaret. The two Gilberts were never close but they remained in contact and developed a strong respect for each other – and their individual achievements.

 

ImageThe Pioneering Herons – father and son, backstage in Detroit, 1993

 

The connection between father, son, Celtic and Scotland was re-ignited when Michael Marra, the accomplished Dundee musician and songwriter, wrote the song ‘Flight of the Heron’ about Gil and the impact of his time at Celtic Park. Scottish football and its characters were a regular feature in Michael Marra’s songbook. The tribute to Gil is a beautiful, inspiring song laced with wonderful imagery which Michael later recorded with the band The Hazey Janes (in which his daughter and son play) in 2012 and released on the EP ‘Houseroom’. That was to be Michael’s final release as he passed away in October that year.

 

 

ImageThe inimitable Michael Marra – the ‘Bard of Lochee’

 

In 2008 the Scottish writer Gerry Hassan visited Gil Scott-Heron in his Harlem apartment and played a demo version of ‘Flight of the Heron’. He recalled how they were both almost moved to tears by the experience: “I had the privilege of experiencing Gil hearing for the first time this magical Michael Marra song – and as it hit just under its first minute – realise that this track was touching Gil’s heart! It was a wonderful set of moments, and it made me realise that in many respects as men and performers, Gil and Michael, shared many similarities, being soft, wonderful men, who could both do with a bit of support in their lives, but I imagined had a lot of love.”

 

The first thing Gil did after hearing the song was write a note of gratitude to Michael for the tribute. He also declared the intention to cover the song himself. He never did. Time ultimately ran out on him, his father and the song’s author. Yet we have been left with an enduring musical testament to a true footballing pioneer . . . ‘Drawn by the flame of the beautiful game, here was a brother who could not stay home’

 

 

The Flight of the Heron by Michael Marra

When Duke was in the Lebanon

Grooving for the Human Race

Gil flew high in the Western sky

On a mission full of style and grace

 

From Jamaica to the Kingston Bridge

He was inclined to roam

Drawn by the flame of the beautiful game

Here was a brother who could not stay home

 

Higher

Raise the bar higher

He made his way across the sea

So that all men could brothers be

 

When Miles was in the juke box

and Monk was on the air

He crossed the ocean to the other side

To play for Celtic with the noble stride

 

The Arrow flew, he’s flying yet

His aim was true so we don’t forget

What it means when his name we hear

The hopes and dreams of every pioneer

 

 

Higher

Raise the bar higher

He made his way across the sea

So that all men could brothers be

 


Lyrics – copyright Michael Marra

 

 Thank you to Michael’s wife Peggy for permission to re-publish the lyrics with the article.

 

 

To listen to the song on The Hazey Janes YouTube channel, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xprRxNVs_cY&feature=youtu.be

Thank you to The Hazey Janes for making the song available to hear online

 

Houseroom-Front-Cover-293x300

To purchase the album Houseroom which contains ‘Flight of the Heron’ click here: http://www.propermusic.com/product-details/Michael-Marra-and-The-Hazey-Janes-Houseroom-133127

 

The Hazey Janes have a new album out: http://thehazeyjanes.com/?page_id=2

 

‘He made his way across the sea

So that all men could brothers be’

– – – – – – – – –

 

If you enjoyed reading this piece you’ll likely enjoy Issue 1 of The Shamrock fanzine – with features on the Celtic Brake Clubs, Paul McStay, Early Escapades of the Celts, The 5 Ages of Celtic, Cinema Paradiso and Cliftonville 1984.

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Issue 2 out: December 2014

Sham Issue 1 front cover  SMALL

 

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With articles on  the legendary Alec McNair (known througout his two decades in the first team as ‘The Icicle’),  The Madness of Sir Bob Kelly,  Ajax ’82 and the magic of Champagne Charlie, the Celtic Chronicles, the Rise and Fall of the Brake Clubs and The Berserking – a musical masterpiece born from the ashes of Celtic’s most despairing European performance.  And those are just for starters . . .

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6 thoughts on “THE NOBLE STRIDE – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons”

  1. Gil Scott Heron & his dad had a tighter, familial connection to Scotland. Gil and I share a great great grandfather, Alexander WoodburnHeron of Wigtown. He became a rich plantation owner in Jamaica but returned frequently to Scotland. My great grandmother was born in Scotland on one such trip. His children both legitimate and illegitimate were educated in the UK. My great granny’s brother was at med school in Glasgow. She and her sisters (and their mother, hersel daughter of a slave snd her master) were on 1871 census at school in Pevensey. Other children were sent to training ships in Birkenhead.

  2. Thanks Sarah – the Heron family history makes for fascinating reading. Are there any online links/forums that you can provide for further information?

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