BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
Sunday, May 7, 2006
Jimmy Scott's haunting voice is marked by every twist and crash that
he's endured. As much as any singer in American music, he taps into
the latent pain and vulnerability that runs through the American
Songbook. With his high, androgynous tenor and gravity- defying sense
of time, Scott can turn an innocuous standard like "How Deep Is the
Ocean?" into a desperate plea.
While he first gained attention in 1949 when he joined Lionel
Hampton's talent-laden orchestra, Scott has remained on the periphery
of popular music despite influencing several generations of singers,
from fellow soul survivor Ruth Brown and Nancy Wilson to Frankie
Valli, Marvin Gaye and even Michael Jackson.
"I know a lot of people say I influenced them," says Scott, 80, who
performs on Mother's Day at Herbst Theatre as part of SFJAZZ's Spring
Season. "But I don't think too much about that. I came up in the
school where musicians shared all types of things with each other."
That generosity hasn't always been reciprocated. Scott's career is
defined by a series of infuriating setbacks, sometimes self-inflicted
but more often at the hands of a venal record executive. His
discography was so neglected that it was only in 1999 that a clear
picture of his early years emerged with the release of "Little Jimmy
Scott: The Savoy Years and More...," an essential Orrin
Keepnews-produced three-disc box set. While often backed by
second-tier bands, Scott put his stamp on standards and pop tunes like
"When Did You Leave Heaven?" and "Time on My Hands" with his
But the association with Savoy Records turned into a slow-moving
disaster for Scott, as the label's owner, Herman Lubinsky, shadowed
him for decades, claiming that he still had the singer under contract.
Lubinsky's threats of legal action forced the recall of a potentially
career-making album for Ray Charles' Tangerine label in 1962 and
1969's "The Source" for Atlantic Records, widely considered Scott's
Even his fellow musicians often misunderstood Scott, whose
idiosyncratic sense of time left many unable to follow his lead. In
one famous incident, Charles Mingus stormed out of a 1955 recording
session, frustrated at the singer's consistently behind-the-beat
"I was disappointed by that," Scott says. "Charles being such a great
musician, I would have thought he would have been more understanding
about what I was doing than anyone else. But he came back, and we did
get to finish the recording."
Long before he faced unsympathetic colleagues, Scott knew what it
meant to be different from his peers. Born and raised in Cleveland, he
grew up in a big extended family. But when Scott's mother was killed
in a traffic accident, the 10 children were scattered and never all
lived together again. Her death came just when Scott needed her
emotional protection most, as his physical development was arrested by
the hormonal disorder known as Kallmann's syndrome, which prevents the
onset of puberty.
The chronic condition that made a shambles of his personal life also
gave Scott a signature sound, as his voice never changed. Performing
in nightclubs around Cleveland by the early 1940s, he cut a singular
figure as his soft features and high voice often left listeners
perplexed about his gender. But the bewilderment quickly gave way to
rapture, as he won over audiences with his improbably slow but
ineffably swinging balladry.
Scott got his big break when he joined Hampton, with whom he scored
his only hit, "Everybody's Somebody's Fool." It was Hampton who dubbed
him Little Jimmy Scott, and the diminutive stuck well past middle age.
While adored by jazz masters like Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson and
Billie Holiday, Scott worked less and less and almost stopped
performing entirely in the 1970s and '80s. In a sad twist, it was
another death that led to Scott's career resurgence, when he attracted
attention performing at the funeral of songwriter and producer Doc
Pomus, a longtime friend and supporter who never succeeded in getting
a major label interested in Scott.
Signed to the Warner Bros. imprint Sire Records, Scott got first-class
treatment on his 1992 comeback album "All the Way," with arrangements
by Johnny Mandel and John Clayton that captured the majesty of his
frayed voice. Subsequent albums found Scott exploring contemporary
tunes by Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and Prince, turning each piece
into a stark drama unlike anything else in American music.
"If you call yourself a singer, you should be prepared to sing
anything," Scott says. "To me, jazz means creativity, a creative
person who allows the inner self to collaborate with reality."
More recently, Scott recorded a series of captivating albums for
Milestone, working with producer Todd Barkan, who got his start in the
music business with San Francisco's lamented Keystone Korner.
Surrounded by an all-star roster of musicians, Scott concentrates on
the best standards, often revisiting tunes he recorded five decades
While there's not much left of his voice and his pitch is often
uncertain, Scott's sense of time remains impeccable. His phrases still
unfurl with unhurried grace, floating precariously over the rhythm
section. Onstage, Scott compensates for his diminished range and
flexibility with his dramatic delivery, cocking his head gently and
stretching out his arms as if imploring the heavens.
"It's funny. You can't really overestimate his influence, but there's
no one who sounds like Jimmy," Barkan said in a conversation when
Scott's most recent album, "Moon Glow" (Milestone), was released in
2003. "He's an original old-school cat, and he's lived to tell the
tale. Every time he takes the stage, the man is offering up a piece of
JIMMY SCOTT AND THE JAZZ EXPRESSIONS perform at 7 p.m. next Sunday at
Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $25-$59. (415)