By Greg Haymes
The great jazz singer Jimmy Scott died at his Las Vegas home last Thursday (June 12). He was 88 years old.
Scott was heartbreak personified. A jazz ballad singer without peer, he maintained his delicate, ethereal voice of an angel almost to the end. And despite a lifetime of hard luck and disappointment, he remained almost impossibly optimistic.
During a 2003 interview prior to a scheduled benefit concert at the Palace Theatre (which was subsequently cancelled), Scott explained, “Of course, you’ve got to really love the music. So many singers just do it because there’s a show to be done. No, for me it has a little more value than that. For me, it’s all about good music and what that music is projecting. Is it projecting good or happiness? Is it awakening the soul of a man? That’s what’s important.
“After all these years … 60-some years … my goodness, if I didn’t get anything more out of it than just the glamour, I’d be lost.”
Scott’s life was less than idyllic, but somehow he has managed to translate his tragedies into music. The third of ten children, he was diagnosed at an early age with Kallman’s Syndrome, a rare hormonal deficiency which prevented the onset of puberty and restricted his growth. Consequently, his voice never changed, remaining an eerie, androgynous soprano/alto his whole life.
At the age of 13, his mother was killed in an automobile accident, and he and his brothers and sisters were scattered across various foster homes.
Scott first stepped into the national spotlight more than years years ago, when he recorded his most famous song, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” with Lionel Hampton’s big band. In 1950, the record stayed on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart for six weeks, climbing as high as No. 6. Credited simply to “Lionel Hampton, Vocal with Orchestra,” the recording was to be Scott’s only hit.
His solo career was beset by more bad luck, bad management and bad record company contracts. In what seemed certain to finally launch his big comeback, Scott recorded the lushly romantic album, Falling in Love Is Wonderful in 1963 for Ray Charles’ new label, Tangerine.
But Scott’s former label, Savoy Records, claimed that he was still under contract to them, and the album was pulled from shelves almost immediately. One of the most sought-after recordings of all-time by jazz fans, the album was finally re-released in 2002 in a limited edition on the Rhino Handmade label.
“Well, it was 39 years that they held that up,” Scott said with more resignation than anger. “And it was all on a bluff. On a bluff, man. Savoy had no contract with me … nothing. But they scared everyone else off because there weren’t a lot of folks who knew all the technicalities of show business law back then. Savoy put the bluff on and got away with it.”
The contract dispute derailed Scott’s career again. And although he continued to sing on occasion, he found work in a variety of jobs from dishwasher to shipping clerk to convalescent home nurse.
“Hey, what are you gonna do? Sit down and cry? Tell me about it,” Scott said with surprising matter-of-factness. “That sort of thing goes on in life. OK, I’ve experienced it, but hopefully some of these other younger singers and musicians will learn from it so they don’t have to go through it themselves.”
Scott’s musical comeback finally began in earnest when record executive Seymour Stein heard him sing at the funeral of famed songwriter Doc Pomus back in 1991. “The next day, this cat from Warners comes over with a contract,” Scott recalled “It was like Doc’s hand reaching out from the grave to give me another chance.”
The result was the stunning CD All the Way, and Scott’s star began to rise.
Lou Reed hired him for his Magic and Loss album and subsequent tour. David Lynch hired him to sing on his “Twin Peaks” television series and the soundtrack of his ’92 movie, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” He popped up on the soundtracks for “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Rage in Harlem.” Madonna put him in the video for her 1994 hit, “Secret.” Ethan Hawke cast him as a horse-race hustler in his film, “Chelsea Walls.”
Scott recorded a couple of more album for Warner Bros. and a breathtaking 1998 album for Artists’ Only! Records, Holding Back the Years, which found him tackling more contemporary pop songs by such songwriters as Bryan Ferry, Elton John, Prince and Elvis Costello.
“That was fun,” Scot recalls. “When you take some of the contemporary songs like ‘Slave to Love’ and ‘Holding Back the Years,’ you say, ‘Well, what can I do with this if I take it in a rhythm & blues vein or a ballad vein?’ And I tested them out within my own mind to see what I could do with them. I just tried to find the value in the music.”
After that, Scott concentrated his still considerable talents on jazz standards with such Milestone Records’ albums as Mood Indigo and Over the Rainbow. It all seemed to be coming together for Scott in 2003 with the documentary film, “Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew” directed by Matthew Buzzell, the publication of his biography “Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott” by David Ritz and the release of his marvelous album, Moon Glow. That same year, Scott was slated to headline Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival, but he was hospitalized just days before the event and forced to cancel his scheduled performance.
For Scott, it was all about the music – especially the lyrics.
“The lyrics are important … very important,” Scott insisted. “What is the song saying to the people? I’ve worked through all kinds of themes of songs. Having it be of some importance, having it be a thoughtful suggestion to the people … that’s the important thing for me.
“The lyrics are telling a story. And as a singer, you tell the story properly or just forget it. A lot of performers don’t tell the story. They just get up and sing. But then the lyric has no meaning to it, and if it has no meaning, the song won’t touch me. I like to concentrate on the story of the lyrics, and by singing them, tell the people how the music has touched my life in some way. Each song is a life story.”
Scott experienced more than his fair share of tragedy throughout his life, but always looking for the silver lining, Scott insisted that it made his late-in-life success all the sweeter.
“Babe, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it … the good and the bad. The wait has been worth it, I’ll say that,” he said without a trace of bitterness. “Of course, many times you get disappointed because your shot hasn’t come. But is that a reason to give up? I’d advise, `Hey, no. No. No.’ You never give up, babe. Give out a little, but don’t give up.”
Jimmy Scott’s obituary at The New York Times