Little Jimmy Scott was a singer’s singer. Let’s start with what Nancy Wilson said about him:
“There would be no Nancy Wilson were it not for Little Jimmy Scott. I owe all that I am and all that I have to this man’s singing style…when I hear Jimmy, he touches me with his unique ability for phrasing. The emotions riding on the timbre of his voice. With that all-important ability to tell a story and you get it the first time you hear it. What a gift!”
And as if that weren’t enough of an encomium, Scott performed at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, singing “Why Was I Born?”. Forty years before, he performed that very same song at President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration. Two presidential inaugurations: the first Republican, the second Democratic.
- Madonna said he was the only singer who’d ever made her cry.
- Billie Holiday said he was her favorite singer.
- Quincy Jones, who worked with Scott in the Lionel Hampton band, said, “Jimmy would tear my heart out every night with his soul-penetrating style.”
- Liza Minelli said, “Every singer should get down and kiss his feet.”
- When Marvin Gaye was in self-imposed exile in Belgium, he had only one record album spinning continuously: Jimmy Scott’s Falling In Love Is Wonderful.
The list goes on and on: Ry Cooder, Elton John, Lou Reed, Michael Stipe, David Lynch, Billy Joel, Sting, Joe Louis, Redd Foxx, Sam Cooke, Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, Kevin Spacey, Gregory Hines–I could go on for a while. Might I also add that Scott performed with the likes of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Quincy Jones and Bud Powell. Later with Michael Stipe, David Byrne, Lou Reed, and Pink Martini. Not bad for a singer that not that many people know.
So why isn’t Little Jimmy Scott more well known?
Probably because he had so many ups and downs in his career. His first Top 10 hit came in 1949, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. He did not get credit on the song (probably no royalty checks either). He had an unusually high voice, brought about by a hormonal deficiency known as Kallmann’s syndrome, which prevents its victims from ever reaching puberty. He was small of stature, hence the qualifier “Little”. His voice never lowered in adolescence and adulthood, he remained under 5′ tall until into his 30’s, when he suddenly shot up to a height of 5’7″. His voice was often compared to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday’s. In fact, many who heard him thought a woman was singing. Most record labels wanted more testosterone in their male pop and jazz singers, a more “manly” sound: think of baritones like Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman. That was the sound they wanted. Scott would never become anybody’s male heartthrob. On the other hand, Scott’s high alto voice probably influenced more female singers then male: Shirley Horn, Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynne, Abbey Lincoln to name just a few.
The magic and power of Little Jimmy Scott lies in the emotional power of his singing. He made you believe the words and the emotions behind the songs. He was convincing. He was feeling it all too.
Scott was born James Victor Scott in Cleveland, Ohio. He lost his mother in a car accident when he was 13 years old (he was 1 of 10 children in the Scott household). His father left shortly after his mother’s death and all the kids were raised in foster homes.
After his top hit with Hampton, Scott entered into a contract with Savoy Records. A 1962 album called Falling In Love Is Wonderful, produced by Ray Charles and featuring the Gerald Wilson orchestra and arrangements by Marty Paich, was not released because Savoy Records said he was under an exclusive lifetime contract with Savoy. Savoy’s president, Herman Lubinsky, was known as an ‘arrogant bully’, so this isn’t surprising. The album has been reissued on CD by Rhino Records. Scott’s singing career was derailed for more than 20 years because of the Savoy snafu.
And so Jimmy Scott abandoned his singing career for a decade, 1960s- 1970s a shipping clerk, waiter, hotel worker, and ward captain for the Democratic Party. He once told NPR that “there comes a time in your life where you have responsibilities and family involvements, survival, and you gotta do what you have to do: get a job, pay the rent, try to keep yourself alive”.
All that changed when he appeared to sing at the funeral of his old friend Doc Pomus. Sire Records’ president Seymour Stein was there and signed him to a Warner Brothers contract. The result came in 1992 with All The Way, which sold 50,000 copies and earned him a cult following in Europe and Japan. The hit album also lead to string of other popular albums produced by Todd Barkan, Craig Street, Mitchell Froom, and others. Director David Lynch was also a fan and gave Scott a cameo appearance on the hit TV series Twin Peaks finale, singing “Sycamore Trees”.
And so his last 20 years were comeback ones and he finally got his due. In 2007, Scott was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award, the nation’s top honor. When receiving the award, Scott commented, “There’s times, in certain songs, that I might be in my own world and who cares about who’s out there, you know? You have a job to do so you do that job of singing that song or telling that story because that’s what you’re doing. If you’re singing, you’re telling a story. So to tell it and tell it right, that’s it.”
And despite the down years, Little Jimmy Scott bore no bitterness about many missed opportunities. And despite the hard living of heavy smoking and drinking, he beat father time, passing away at the ripe old age of 88. He will be buried in his hometown of Cleveland.
Here is a clip of Scott singing his comeback song, “All The Way”. Prepare to feel something.
Rhythm Planet Playlist: 6/20/14
- Little Jimmy Scott / Why I Was Born? / Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool / Grp Records
- Little Jimmy Scott / All The Way / All The Way / Warner Bros.
- Little Jimmy Scott / Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool / Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool / Grp Records
- Little Jimmy Scott / If I Should Lose You / Falling In Love Is Wonderful / Rhino
- Little Jimmy Scott / Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child / Lost And Found / Rhino
- Little Jimmy Scott / Heaven / Heaven / Warner Bros.
- Little Jimmy Scott / It Shouldn’t Happen To A Dream / Dream / Warner Bros.
- Little Jimmy Scott / Imagination / Mood Indigo / Milestone