here 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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counselors macabre opportunists, or is the loss of a loved one a
trauma that requires professional guidance? Should grief be a
private experience, or is there a place for outside help? Do you
think it's possible to "alleviate" the pain of losing someone
special? Tell your own story about loss and support. Add your
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.
s 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
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
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
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
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.
hese 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
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
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
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."