After half a century, Jimmy Scott gets his due
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., May 29, 2002) – If it hadn’t been for the death of a dear friend in 1991, Jimmy Scott might still be wallowing in the semi-obscurity where he languished for the better part of the previous 30 years.
When Scott sang at the memorial service in New York for legendary r&b songwriter Doc Pomus, the audience was full of music-business types who had assumed that the once-famous jazz singer was dead or forgotten.
Among those in the audience astonished to find that Scott was alive and well and in great voice were record executive Seymour Stein, who signed Scott immediately afterward to a five-record deal at Sire Records; Lou Reed, who invited Scott to sing on his album, “Magic and Loss,” a meditation on mortality inspired in part by Pomus’s death; and Mac Rebennack, who like Scott was a singer whose career straddled the line between r&b and jazz and who had seen his own ups and downs over the years.
Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, and Jimmy Scott will join forces tomorrow night at 7 at Mass MoCA (662-2111) for the opening concert of the summer season, which will be held outdoors in Courtyard D. In case of rain, the concert will be held inside in the Hunter Center.
Scott, who for much of his career was known as “Little” Jimmy Scott, first gained a modicum of renown as a singer with Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker in the late-1940s and early-‘50s. Although he made some hit records early on that skirted the divide between jazz and soul music, a series of mishaps, some venal, some not, kept Scott from enjoying the sort of success for which he seemed destined early on.
For one, Scott’s unearthly soprano voice – the result of a hereditary hormonal deficiency called Kallmann’s Syndrome – led more than one record label to credit his vocal contributions to someone other than Scott -- often a woman. Secondly, Scott, like so many others of his generation, was the victim of an exploitative record company executive who seemingly did whatever he could to hurt Scott’s career.
As shown in “Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew,” a brand-new documentary that debuted a few weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, Scott was no stranger to misfortune. One of ten siblings who often sang together in church to the accompaniment of their mother’s piano, Scott has seemingly channeled a lifetime of pain and sadness – including the abandonment of his family by his father and the death of his mother in a car accident when Scott was 13 – into his poignant vocals, perhaps none moreso than his chilling version of the old spiritual, “Motherless Child.”
After his mother’s death, Scott and his siblings were separated and sent to various foster homes. But as he explains in the film, Scott soon found a replacement family in show business, touring with traveling acts, first on the vaudeville circuit, and later with legitimate jazz performers like Lionel Hampton and others.
By 1955, Scott was being groomed for stardom at Savoy Records, and he recorded a string of notable hits including “When Did You Leave Heaven?” But his biggest breakthrough came in 1962, when Ray Charles produced “Falling in Love Is Wonderful.” The album, widely considered one of the great jazz vocal albums of all time, was going to make Scott a household name, until the head of Savoy bluffed Tangerine Records into withdrawing the record for fear that Savoy held the exclusive rights to producing Scott.
From that time on, Scott had trouble getting his records properly distributed, and for the most part he stayed in his home town of Cleveland, working a day job as a shipping clerk and playing local gigs at area nightclubs.
“I never gave up,” said Scott in a recent phone interview, speaking from his home in Cleveland. “I didn’t make the big professional money, but I had the consistency of the work. And I learned something about the music.
“People can’t determine the destiny of music. I don’t believe in that, because you’ve got many songs in music that were written ages ago and they still project the beauty of the story. It’s still there, and still has a place in life today.
“So I never believed in the discontinuance of my work. You always hope someone comes along and recognizes you, but that’s all part of the business.”
Fortunately for Scott, several people came along in the early-‘90s, when a whole new generation of listeners were introduced to his unique voice and style for the very first time. Scott credits Lou Reed and filmmaker David Lynch – who used Scott in his movie, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” -- for helping to bring Scott before a young, appreciative audience.
“They were very important, because the kids did not have an opportunity to hear the music I had done before,” he said. “Lou Reed and David Lynch brought attention to me, and helped me touch bases with the youth and the younger musicians.” Alongside the typical standards that comprise much of his repertoire, producers in the 1990s like Craig Street and Tommy LiPuma had Scott record songs by the likes of David Byrne, Bob Dylan, Prince and Elton John.
“It’s nice to do the songs that the pop singers sing, and do them with some credit,” said Scott. “It brings about unity amongst the young and old.”
As for his unique vocal style and phrasing -- with long, drawn out lines that end in vibrato-laden, wavery pitches -- Scott says it’s just the way he feels and hears the music.
“If you have the sincerity for it, you want to express it in the best manner,” he said. “That’s the thing I’ve done all my life. It’s not like I sat down and learned how to time it.
“That was always the way I illustrated the story. I learned it from older entertainers. They knew they were telling a story, and they wanted to make it acceptable. I noticed that in the older musicians and singers and entertainers, how they put interest into what they did.”
“Listening to Jimmy is like having a performing heart,” Lou Reed wrote in the liner notes to Scott’s album, “Holding Back the Years.” Reed perhaps summed up Scott’s artistry best when he said, “The experience of life and the art of expression sing through Jimmy and make us partners in his incredible passion. He has the voice of an angel and can break your heart.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 31, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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