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Clip: Jimmy Scott

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  • Carl Z.
    BETTER LATE THAN NEVER Andrew Gilbert Sunday, May 7, 2006 Jimmy Scott s haunting
    Message 1 of 1 , May 7, 2006


      Andrew Gilbert

      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
      molasses-like delivery.

      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
      his soul."

      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)
      788-7353, www.sfjazz.org.
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