“As singers, we all deal in pain,” said Ray Charles. “We’re all trying to push the pain through the music and make it sound pretty. Jimmy Scott has more pain and prettiness in his voice than any singer anywhere.” When Scott died on June 12th, he left an extraordinary legacy of both broken dreams and artistic fulfillment.
He triumphed, he fell and ultimately he triumphed again.
At 25 he was singing with the wildly popular Lionel Hampton band billed as Little Jimmy Scott. His hit, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” became a favorite of beboppers like Dexter Gordon, his Hampton bandmate. “He sang like no one else,” said Gordon. “Ahead of the beat. Behind the beat. In a haunting high-pitched voice that was neither male nor female but both at the same time.”
“As jazz singers, we were out there,” said Betty Carter, Hampton’s female vocalist who often shared the stage with Scott in the early 1950s. “While I was scatting, Jimmy was singing these desperate love songs with such depth of feeling women would openly weep. No wonder he was adored by Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Big Maybelle – and me. Later on, Nancy Wilson modeled her career on his style.”
“I loved his style,” said Marvin Gaye, “as did all the early do-woppers like Harvey Fuqua and his Moonglows. Certain singers – take Johnnie Ray with his big hit ‘Cry’ – openly copied him. And then you have groups like the Four Seasons, led by Frankie Valli, who completely bought into the Jimmy Scott aesthetic. Frankie is a hardcore Scott disciple.”
Kallmann syndrome, a condition that halted Jimmy’s hormonal growth, left him with an alto voice that remained unchanged.
“Some thought he was a woman in drag,” said Gordon. “He caught hell for being different – not just as a singer, but as a person on the planet. Yet I never saw him anything but positive, cheerful and ready to roll to the next gig with a smile on his face. Jimmy Scott was one brave motherfucker.”
After Hampton, he hooked up with Savoy, the leading bop label. He sat in with Charlie Parker – another Jimmy Scott fan – and cut a series of classic records that went unnoticed.
In the early sixties, Ray Charles, so taken with Scott, signed him to his Tangerine label and produced the great masterpiece, Falling In Love Is Wonderful.
“Ray advanced me $2,500,” Jimmy told me, “which was ten times more than I was getting from Savoy. He hired the best jazz arrangers in Hollywood – Gerald Wilson and Mary Paich – and let me pick out the ten love songs I thought best suited my voice. Ray played piano behind me on every track. When we were through, Ray said, ‘Jimmy, this is it, baby. This record is gonna get you recognition you deserve.”
It didn’t. In fact, the record was locked in the vault for 40 years before Rhino put it out in 2002. In 1962, the year it was recorded, Savoy claimed to have Scott under contract and prevented its release.
Jimmy returned to his hometown of Cleveland where he worked in a retirement home as a nurse’s aid as well as an elevator operator at the downtown Sheraton. He recorded an occasional record for obscure labels, worked periodically at local clubs, but mostly languished in obscurity.
“His mood stayed sweet,” said his sister Nadine. “Sweetness is such an essential element of my brother’s character that no obstacle or hardship ever changed him. His love of life and people remained constant.”
It wasn’t until the Nineties when, championed by songwriter Doc Pomus and rocker Lou Reed, that he found a major label – Sire – and a major producer – Tommy LiPuma – who signed him for a major release, All The Way. At 67, he enjoyed a resurgence, playing major jazz clubs in the U.S., Europe and Japan. He made a guest appearance on the TV series Twin Peaks, sang a song on the soundtrack of the film Philadelphia and cut a series of brilliant albums for Milestone/Fantasy. The National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts declared him a Living Jazz Legend.
At 78, he married for the fifth time. “Jeanie McCarthy,” said Jimmy, referring to his new wife, “is the love of my life. She’s the only woman who really understands me, my music, and my heart. It took me a long time to find my soul mate, but thank God I found her before I moved to the other side of time.”
At the conclusion of my 2002 biography, Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott, I wrote about his sense of time. “He can take his time, even control his time, by relinquishing control. He surrenders to the moment. Hearing him, we can do the same. His is an art based on the emotional truth that accompanies vulnerability. Such truth endures.”
David Ritz’s current book is Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James. Later this year his collaboration with Joe Perry, Rocks, will be released, as well as Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, written with Tavis Smiley; and Respect: The Biography of Aretha Franklin.