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The Ballad of Little Jimmy Scott

The jazz singer with the high, ethereal voice has had a rough-hewed career. Now, with fans like Lou Reed and Madonna, he may finally have the kind of success that has eluded him for more than 50 years. By JOSEPH HOOPER



Audio From Jimmy Scott's New Album, "Mood Indigo"
Mood Indigo
How Deep is the Ocean
Time After Time
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Photograph by Tajima Kazunali.

There are various ways to meet celebrities in this media age, many of them involving publicists looking at their watches and saying that the Musician or the Actor has been unavoidably delayed. So it is a little surprising to be greeted promptly at the airport in Cleveland (Cleveland itself being a departure from standard practice) by the slight, smiling figure of the jazz singer Jimmy Scott. He is holding up a cardboard sign with my last name inked in as if he is an especially cheerful limo driver charged with taking me to see somebody really important. "Hey, baby," he greets me, "how was the trip?"

Given that Scott's first and only bona fide hit, the ballad "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," was recorded in 1950, you wouldn't expect him to be overburdened with the trappings of success. Still, ever since a quartet of albums in the 90's, Scott has held a special fascination for music cognoscenti and show-business notables. "Jimmy Scott is the only singer who makes me cry," says Madonna, who gave him a cameo spot in one of her videos. Lou Reed had Scott sing backup vocals on a track from his 1991 "Magic and Loss" album. He may well have put the Scott genuflection competition out of reach: "It's like seeing Hamlet or Macbeth all rolled up into a song."

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The Lou Reeds and Madonnas of this world are presumably attracted to Scott because he remains, in spite of their pro bono publicity, perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century. But the appeal of the man David Lynch featured in the final episode of "Twin Peaks" is also about something else. At worst, Scott's newer fans are drawn to a superficial freakishness, the voice that is pitched well up in the conventionally female range and the hairless face, for decades perpetually boyish, that in recent years has taken on the noble, withered aspect of a tortoise. At best, one could imagine certain show-business types, aware of the smoke and mirrors that go into their own celebrityhood, simply wanting to be in the presence of the real thing.

The humble limo driver guise notwithstanding, these are thrilling make-or-break days in the career of James Victor Scott, now 75. If in the 90's he went from presumed-dead status to musical cult figure and celebrity pet, at the millennium he has a shot at becoming, well, who knows, something more. The most compelling evidence of a Scott renaissance is "Mood Indigo," released in May, a collection of ballad standards that finds the singer in his best voice of recent vintage and in the company of worthy supporting musicians like the alto saxophonist Hank Crawford and the pianist Cyrus Chestnut. Not coincidentally, Scott, for perhaps the first time in his long, harum-scarum career, has empathetic and competent management behind him, as well as an enthusiastic, if modest-sized, new record label in Milestone. Todd Barkan, a respected jazz producer, has worked his longtime connections in the Japanese jazz world to help create for Scott a nascent Far Eastern stardom -- steady touring punctuated by regular standing ovations. Having just finished a sold-out engagement at Birdland in Manhattan earlier this month, it's clear the singer is on a roll at home as well.

As it turns out, Scott doesn't just play the part of a limo driver; he also comes armed with a real limo, his boatlike 1992 Lincoln Town Car. Scott's license has lapsed, so he hands over the keys to his younger brother, Kenny, a retired factory worker whom the singer recently put on the payroll as his right-hand man. Kenny and I take the front seat; Jimmy prefers the back, where he can keep up a steady conversational patter and dandle Princess, a 2-year-old pug with bulging black eyes. "She's the lady of the house," Scott says. A veteran of four failed, turbulent marriages, Scott these days reserves his most effusive attentions for Princess. "She likes the music on the radio. She gets so comforted."

Jimmy Scott speaks, unstoppably, in a high-pitched voice, roughened and phlegmy after a lifetime of smoking and drinking, with none of, for instance, Michael Jackson's girlish lilt. It's a hip voice, a match for the singer's 1960-vintage street-cat rap. Almost everyone is "baby" to his face, usually "hey, baby." Someone not present is customarily referred to as "a hip little cat" (a nice turn of phrase from someone who has never completely shed the moniker Little Jimmy Scott). That lingo mixes effortlessly with his core vocabulary of show-biz abstractions: "expressions" (his East Coast working band is named the Jazz Expressions), "dramatics," "stylings" and "flair." A typical Jimmy Scott pronouncement will run something like this: "Yeah, baby, Cleveland used to be a hip little town for the jazz expression but then that rock 'n' roll flair came in. You dig?"

'Even today cats in the grocery store say, "Miss, what do you want?" . . . But I learned to ignore it. No sense making a big issue out of it.'


Scott's uniqueness goes well beyond his redoubtable verbal flair. From birth, Scott was marked as ineluctably different, afflicted with a hormonal disorder, Kallmann's syndrome, that interferes with normal sexual maturation. In Scott's case, it gave him that boy's alto voice, which is, of course, what made him Jimmy Scott. "Well, I learned that it was a gift," he says after a pause, "that I was able to sing this way." Not that he always embraced it. He was in his 30's before he gave up hope that his range would drop, not so preposterous when you consider that Scott was then still routinely being mistaken for a teenager. "Many times," he says with a laugh, "I'd think, I'd love to try this in a lower register . . . but then after a while you think, Sing with what you got."

It has been enough. Over the years, Scott has invented his own deeply theatrical brand of American art song, the connection to his own emotional pain so palpable that the lachrymose standards in his repertory ("Why Was I Born?" "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "When Did You Leave Heaven") sound like episodes in an autobiographical melodrama.

The sound of the male voice in the higher registers has always exerted its own special pull. Think of the all-boy choirs, of Irish tenors and, disconcertingly, of the castrati in the 16th through 18th centuries in Italy. Jimmy Scott is, vocally, a natural castrato. In the 1960's, at the height of his vocal powers, Scott possessed what was arguably the most ravishing, penetrating and powerful vocal instrument in American popular music. In every other respect, Kallmann's syndrome was an unqualified drag.


Joseph Hooper writes about culture for The New York Observer and National Public Radio.


"Even today," Scott says, "cats in the grocery store say, 'Miss, what do you want?' 'Cause I have no trademarks. But I learned to ignore it. No sense of making a big issue out of it. When I was young and ignorant -- What do you mean [expletive]! Cut you, hell, I'll shoot you!' It's something else, baby. It's something else.' "

For Scott, gender or sexual ambiguity is what's in other people's minds. He's a heterosexual male; he's pretty clear about that. But whether he likes it or not, Scott's sound and his look strike the gender notes in between the piano keys, the discordantly interesting ones. While today he is the soul of liberality on matters of sexual orientation ("Some of my best friends are. . . . "), as a smooth-faced younger man, he felt so intimidated by his gay following that he carried a gun. ("They would try you," he says. "Lots of times, I was tried.") The female attention was easier to take. His most ardent fans seem to have taken the naked vulnerability in his voice as proof of a secret knowledge of the female heart. Scott could be heard as the jazz version of the Greek mythological figure Tiresias, who had been both a man and a woman and who knew everything.


Jimmy Scott in the 40's. He once thought of his perenially boyish voice as a curse; now it's a blessing. Photograph courtesy of The Scott Family.

When Scott is not recording or on tour, the house that he bought three years ago upon his return to Cleveland consumes most of his time. Visiting the trim, three-story home in the leafy suburban town of Euclid is not unlike entering the portal into John Malkovich's brain. The house is Jimmy Scott. The basement, still a jungle of packing boxes, is the site of his dream for the future, a recording studio for his various projects. The third-floor guest room, by contrast, is a veritable cutout bin of Jimmy Scott's recorded life, dominated by stacks of old LP's and CD's and of the cassettes he produced himself during the stretches between contracts. At this moment, Scott is on his hands and knees trying to find his first comeback album, 1992's "All the Way," which has mysteriously disappeared from its jewel box. "I know it's here, baby," he says. "Just give me a little time." The disc fails to materialize, but what does is the story of the comeback and how it came to be required in the first place.

Jimmy Scott began his career in the early 40's as a teenage singing prodigy from the Cleveland ghetto. Soon enough, he was snapped up by Estelle Young, a shake dancer and contortionist, who led her troupe through the second-tier clubs and theaters of the African-American Midwest, a training circuit of sorts for more prestigious "chitlin' circuit" venues like the Apollo Theater.

He moved on to the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and then won a contract with Savoy, but was never able to break beyond his core audience in the black community who caught his act in the little clubs. Scott would punish himself and those close to him for what he considered his failure. "Every time I'd be mad," he says, "instead of saying, 'I'm mad at you,' I'd get drunk. I allowed it. It's wrong. I don't fault anyone for it."

Scott's anger had its reasons. By 1962, then in his late 30's, he had broken with Savoy and was adrift in the business. Ray Charles, always a passionate fan, signed him to his new Tangerine label. The record that Charles produced and played piano on, "Falling in Love Is Wonderful," is by critical accord Scott's finest, but it stayed on the shelves only a matter of weeks before Herman Lubinsky, the owner of Savoy, claimed an exclusive contract with Scott, and the record was pulled. "When I put that Tangerine record on," recalls the record producer Joel Dorn, then a Philadelphia D.J., "the phones just lit up. Everybody was asking, 'What's her name?' "("Falling in Love Is Wonderful" has never been rereleased; LP's from the original pressing are among the most sought-after, and expensive, on the jazz collector's market.)

In 1969, Dorn, by now a successful producer at Atlantic, teamed up with Scott to make "The Source," his first album since "Falling in Love Is Wonderful," but Lubinsky moved in again, and the album never went beyond a first pressing. ("He went out horrible with cancer," Scott says of Lubinsky. "Nobody wishes that, but the things he did to musicians. Baby, I wasn't the only one.") The debacle proved too much for Scott, and in the early 70's he packed in the singing career and returned to Cleveland. Over the next 13 years, he worked as an aide at a nursing home and as a shipping clerk at the Cleveland Sheraton. "When the gig ain't there, you still got to pay the rent," Scott says with an unembarrassed smile. "I learned that a long time ago."

Scott's comeback began in 1984 when a friend from his East Coast days, Earlene Rogers, called up the jazz station WBGO in Newark to ask why Scott, an ex-local hero, was never on the radio. They told her he was dead. Persuaded otherwise, the station invited him to appear on an afternoon talk show, an experience that so energized Scott that he moved back to Newark, wound up making Rogers wife No. 4 and resumed his career full time. But he was, in the main, singing in the same joints and dives that had demoralized him the first time around. One of his closest friends, the eminent songwriter Doc Pomus, even published an open letter in Billboard beseeching the industry to take note of Scott before it was too late.

It would take Pomus's death in 1991 to turn things around. Scott sang at the funeral, overwhelming Seymour Stein, the legendarily tough record executive, which led to the album "All the Way." Scott remembers: "The next day, this cat from Warners comes over with a contract. It was like Doc's hand reaching out from the grave."

Scott's compact living room is dominated by a white piano (ornamental -- he doesn't play) and a large white teddy bear. It makes for an interesting place to talk about the death of his mother, the original source of the seemingly bottomless well of pain he draws on in his work. Scott was 13 when she stepped into a Cleveland street to pull her daughter Shirley out of harm's way. Justine Scott, mother of 10, was struck by a car and died of internal bleeding. "That day, instinctively I knew," Scott says quietly. "It was the craziest thing. When I got home, everything was so quiet and the kids were sniffling." He blames not only the fates for taking his mother but also his aunts and his father, by all accounts a failure as a family man, for allowing the kids to be sent to foster homes. "The attack came too fast," Scott says, as if he were the victim of a vicious military operation.

Scott's adolescence was marked not only by the overwhelming thing that did happen, his mother's death, but also by the one that didn't, puberty. When he was young, shame and secrecy were constant companions. (He is capable of sex, incapable of reproduction.) Today he deals with the syndrome with admirable, even surprising candor. His attitude with women is this: "I'm not looking for sympathy. This is me. I come to you honestly and fairly, and if there's anything you want to know about me, I'm here to explain it. And if we have a relationship, then we have a relationship. If we don't, then yes ma'am, howdy."

In practice, Scott has fallen for a series of women who seem to have been more taken with the voice and the fabulous career it promised than with the man. His neediness and his desire for control, in part traceable to his mother's early death, were aggravated. "I don't blame them," the singer says now. "I blame myself for my anxieties, for not studying the situation. Stupidly, I'd jump in." Scott pulls up a trouser leg to reveal an ugly scar marking the spot where, he says, one of his wives stabbed him with a kitchen knife. "She was a husky little thing," he says ruefully.

These days, Jimmy Scott has the energy of youth without its distracting, in his case even disastrous, passions. He is locked in on the career. "He is mentally prepared for this now," says Maxine Harvard, Scott's new manager and a jazz industry veteran. Hardly a disinterested party, Harvard is nonetheless blunt in her assessment of Scott's moment on the verge. "I have told him that if I see him self-destructing with drinks or anything else, then I'm gone," she says. "There are probably five years there." For his part, Scott indicates he's ready to do what it takes.

And perhaps his time has finally come. In the 60's, the corporate labels were so leery of Scott's unusualness that they replaced him on the album covers of "The Source" and "Falling in Love Is Wonderful" with a pretty young woman and an amorous couple, respectively. In the 90's, a decade infatuated with sexual ambiguity, Scott's aging androgyny undoubtedly helped him secure his cult status, but also threatened to keep him there. Mainstream America has embraced some pretty odd characters (see Liberace), but Scott has the inconvenience of being a real artist with fewer obvious pleasures in his arsenal. With age, the voice has shed much of its prettiness -- the tone is thinner, the vibrato can sound a little cracked. Listening to his reprise of "Day by Day," on "Mood Indigo," anyone who recalls his near operatic original from "The Source" can be filled only with a sense of loss.

But most of the time that loss is more than compensated by the smoke-cured timbre of his voice, by a phrasing so idiosyncratic as to become a private language. No one sings slower or farther behind the beat than Jimmy Scott; his long, melismatic flights freeze conventional time.

Throughout his career, his performances have been magnets for the socially dispossessed -- pimps, prostitutes, gays. Sometimes the scene had a farcical aspect: "These old pimps used to tell me, 'Well, I'm coming in tonight, Jimmy Scott, with four women, and you better sing that song."' But Scott could relate all too well to an underlying loneliness at the social margins. "You can understand that from the songs I sing," he says.

Now, perhaps, that loneliness can be appreciated by a new generation. Weeks after my last visit with Scott, I am watching Ethan Hawke stare rapturously at rough-cut footage of Scott in "Last Word on Paradise," the actor's feature-film directorial debut. "I think Little Jimmy is going to steal this movie," he says.

Hawke had signed up Scott to play a single dramatic scene in his film, shot on digital video and underwritten by Bravo's Independent Film Channel, about a bunch of artist-bohos (Kris Kristofferson first among them) in the Chelsea Hotel. But on the first day, just to set a mood, he decided to shoot Scott singing the song "Jealous Guy," which he had covered on his 1998 modern pop album, "Holding Back the Years." "As soon as it was done," Hawke says, "it was like, 'How can this be in the movie?' But there was no way, because it was a John Lennon song and we didn't have the budget to get the rights." Hawke's assistant contacted Yoko Ono's representatives anyway, and she approved the licensing of the song. Ono reportedly said: "John loved Little Jimmy so much. I'm sure that would be great."

Thinking of that "Twin Peaks" dream sequence -- Smith warbling, a midget dancing -- I mention to Hawke that he's not the first director to be drawn to Scott's piquant strangeness. Hawke looks injured. "My thing is not about Jimmy Scott being weird," he says definitively. "It's about Jimmy Scott being cool."


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August 27, 2000




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