“Sing as slow as you want baby, it’s the band’s job to follow you.” Words of wisdom to a very young Frankie Valli from his idol, Jimmy Scott. Valli is hardly the only vocalist to gain wealth and fame by following the example of the world’s greatest jazz singer. Echoes of Jimmy Scott can be heard in early recordings of Nancy Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Lymon and Stevie Wonder.
Born in 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, Jimmy Scott was one of ten children. At fourteen, his mother was killed in a tragic car accident, and he, along with his brothers and sisters, were shuffled off to foster homes. Not only did Scott become separated from his siblings, but he was also diagnosed with Kallman’s Syndrome – a hereditary hormonal deficiency that stunted his growth and prevented his voice from maturing beyond boyhood. However, the singing voice that was the result of what he commonly describes as ‘the deficiency’, was pure heartbreak and like no other.
Scott put his unique vocal talents to work as a teenager, singing and touring. He joined the Lionel Hampton Band in the late 1940s, where he became known as ‘Little Jimmy Scott’, and recorded a few sides under Hampton’s name, including the hit ‘Everybody Is Somebody’s Fool’. Solo recordings for the Roost and Coral labels in the early ‘50s followed, before he began a long and difficult relationship with Herman Lubinsky’s Savoy Records until 1962, when he signed with long-time fan Ray Charles’ new Tangerine label.
Produced by Ray Charles – who also played the piano on every track – while at the peak of his success, Falling In Love Is Wonderful featured lush string arrangements by the finest chartmeisters of their time, Marty Paich and Gerald Wilson, and is considered by many to be Scott’s finest recording.
Almost immediately after the album was released, Herman Lubinsky threatened a lawsuit, claiming he was the exclusive owner of Jimmy’s contract – which Scott still maintains is incorrect – and the album was pulled from circulation.
From then on fate pounded on Scott. His record deals – the beautiful Source, recorded for Atlantic in 1969, and Can’t We Begin Again for Savoy in 1975 – and his come-backs were short-lived. He left the business and, except for some minor paying gigs and one-nighters on the road, worked for years in obscurity in his native Cleveland as a hotel shipping clerk and an elevator operator.
Many thought he was dead, until he sang at his friend songwriter/blues singer Doc Pomus’ funeral in 1991. Seymour Stein from Sire Records, who was in the audience, was so blown away by Jimmy’s rendition of Gershwin’s ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ that he signed him up to his label the next day. His first album All The Way, one of the best-produced jazz album of the 1990s, was followed by Dream (1994) and Heaven (1996). In 1998, he recorded Holding Back The Years for Artists Only, and signed with the Milestone label in 1999 for three albums Mood Indigo, Over The Rainbow, and the recently released But Beautiful.
The New York Times called him ‘perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th Century” and Billie Holiday said he was her favourite singer. Today, Jimmy’s new-found fans include Madonna, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin.
Now in his ‘70s, Jimmy Scott is still one of the most captivating voices in the world of jazz. His eternally optimistic spirit has touched the hearts and minds of many fans, friends, admirers and associates.