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Remembering Jimmy Scott

By Rich Heldenfels Published: June 16, 2014

 

 

My friend Candace Justice introduced me to the music of Jimmy Scott, through his CD "All the Way," before I moved to Ohio. He was a one-of-a-kind singer and I kept listening to him. In 1997 I was at an Etta James show in Cleveland and, during the intermission was surprised to see Scott walking through the crowd; James later introduced him from the stage.

A couple of years later, Scott's career renaissance kicked up, and I was able to interview him. Since he has now passed away, I thought you'd find that 1999 story of interest. Here it is:

Singer Jimmy Scott sounds like a man just starting a career, not one who first stepped on a stage more than 50 years ago.
During a recent chat in the Euclid home he shares with his sister, Adoree Colley, Scott talked about wanting to record a traditional gospel album, cut a few Christmas songs, and make a CD with trumpeter and Cleveland native Benny Bailey.
Those plans come on top of the recent CD Holding Back the Years, with Scott performing contemporary pop songs like The Crying Game. Cable channel Bravo will air a Bravo Profiles: Little Jimmy Scott at 10 p.m. Monday as well as backing a CD reissue of Scott recordings from the late '60s and early '70s.
Scott is also making a promotional tour of Borders Books and Music stores around the country in conjunction with the Bravo special. (No Northeast Ohio appearances have been scheduled.) And he's worked with writer Jimmy McDonough on an autobiography, though Scott is not sure when it will be published.
"It's taken many a year for that recognition," Scott, now 73, said. While he's been working in clubs, he said, "I've been doing not as many as I'd like. I hope this will all start something. . . . I'd prefer doing more engagements."
The Cleveland-born Scott, whose earliest paying gigs included the old Cosmopolitan Political Club in Akron in the late '40s, has had to look for work before.
His career has flashes of glory, among them singing with Lionel Hampton's orchestra, touring with Lou Reed and performing at the 1993 wedding of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. But his dreams of big success were often stymied.
"Every artist wants the world to know about him," Scott said. But when he started performing, "you didn't have managers who actually cared about structuring your career with you. They were in there for the fast buck. They got the fast buck and after that, hey."
There were years in the '60s and '70s when he supported himself as a shipping clerk at the Sheraton in downtown Cleveland, as a nurses' aide and a dishwasher. Scott was so far removed from the music business that one old friend, songwriter Doc Pomus (Viva Las Vegas, Save the Last Dance for Me), "thought maybe I'd died or something."
Part of his struggles stem from a genetic hormonal deficiency giving Scott a deceptively frail, youthful appearance -- although he was quick to add, "It doesn't do anything to impede your manhood." And the looks worked to his advantage when bandleader Hampton billed him as "Little Jimmy Scott," suggesting to audiences that Scott was a prodigy, not a man in his 20s.
Adding to the illusion was his voice, kept high by his condition. Listeners sometimes thought his records were by a woman, and he would hear concertgoers speculating over his gender.
The voice was not for everyone, nor was his singing style: deliberately paced, wringing emotion from every line like a heartsick angel.
"There are people who can't hear a Jimmy Scott," music producer Joel Dorn says in the Bravo documentary. "Or a John Coltrane. Or read William Faulkner or look at a Magritte painting. . . . We're all created equal, kinda, but not everybody can dig."
"I started off singing how I felt," Scott said. "Whatever I felt, I would try to relay. . . . There's a truth in some of those lyrics. And if you search yourself, you find those truths."
Intense admiration People who love Scott's singing -- among them actors Baldwin and Joe Pesci, singers Reed, Ray Charles and Frankie Valli and film director David Lynch -- are intense in their admiration. All appear in the Bravo documentary and Reed offers a grand summation of Scott performing: "It's like seeing Hamlet or Macbeth all rolled up into a song."
Scott did not look like a tragic figure on a recent weekday morning as he sat, casually dressed in a cream-colored sweat suit that seemed to complement his living room's mostly white decor. His Chinese pug Princess -- a gift from the documentary maker -- sat at his feet. He was happy that a reporter had come to talk, even if that meant reflecting on a life where the breaks went against him more often than not.
In 1938, at the age of 13, Scott lost his mother when she was struck by an automobile -- and the 10 Scott children were parceled out to foster homes.
"Daddy didn't beat nobody," Scott said. "He just couldn't handle his family and try to keep them together. He just didn't have that. When you get older, you understand that. Some people are weaker than others."
Fleeing hard reality, Scott built dreams at the movies. Watching Mel Torme, Judy Garland and Donald O'Connor sing and dance, he thought, "There were young kids doing these things. If they could do it, we could, too."
Scott knew he wanted to be a singer. "I used to go to the five-and-ten, and they used to sell, for 10 or 15 cents, a lyric magazine," he said. "A little, thin lyric magazine, with all the popular tunes that had come out. I used to buy them like crazy."
He'd then pick up the melody from the radio or records, and filter everything through the emotion the songs evoked in him. Then, when working as a waiter, some musician friends invited him onstage to sing. That soon led to performances in Cleveland. And he was noticed by Akron's legendary Booker Brooks Sr., who booked him into the Cosmopolitan.
"Then they had an Italian family that owned another club," Scott recalled. "They used to slip me out of the (Cosmopolitan) club to play at the other one. I'd go and do a number or two, and then they'd bring me back to Booker Brooks' place. . . . "
Scott got another break when he hooked up with contortionist Estelle Young -- also known as "Caldonia," after the Louis Jordan song.
"She was mother to all the entertainers who were trying to get into the business," said Scott. "She would take us down South. We'd do shows in the fields. . . . They used to take two flatbeds where they had stacked hay, and take the hay off to make seats for the audience. We'd get up on the flatbed and do the show.
"Whatever I learned out of this business was from this woman. . . . She was very strict about your performance. You didn't go onstage and act silly or anything. You went on just so and did your performance. . . . She taught you there was an importance about the business. I look at the kids today and wish some of them had had that kind of training."
Not that Scott was making a lot of money from his musical education. "The money these kids are making today, it was unheard of at the time I was starting out in the business," he said. "You were lucky to be able to share 50 bucks a night, and it would be six or seven people that had to share it."
Working around Ohio Still, Scott continued to work around Ohio. Then Hampton held a contest for new talent in Cleveland, Scott tried out but did not win. Fortunately, he had friends in Hampton's band who kept touting the singer. Hampton caught his act again while Scott was singing in a Milwaukee club and signed him in the late '40s.
Recordings followed, both with Hampton and solo on various labels, with songs like Everybody's Somebody's Fool turning into hits. By the mid-'50s Scott was recording for jazz label Savoy, a deal that came back to haunt him.
The Savoy recordings, some reissued on CD, are not among Scott's favorites.
"I was trying to get full orchestration on a lot of that stuff," he said. "But they'd just take four or five pieces, slam it together, and we were supposed to make a hit record. I wasn't comfortable. A lot of that stuff I'm trying to get redone so I can get the full musical expression I wanted." Still, to make money, he kept signing contract extensions with Savoy that bound him to the label for many years.
Scott also left Cleveland for extended periods, moving to New York and New Jersey to work in the clubs there. But he kept coming back for different reasons, among them to help take care of his ailing father, and because he'd married a woman from Cleveland (he's currently separated from his fourth wife). A few years ago, he was thinking about moving to Las Vegas but decided he wanted to be closer to his family -- and "monetarily, I couldn't afford it if I moved there."
Even so, living in Cleveland meant taking jobs outside show business to support himself. "I was in it," he said of show business during the lean years, "but not in the mainstream of it."
Occasional opportunities arose. Ray Charles had Scott record an album for his new Tangerine Records label in the early '60s, and Atlantic Records produced an album near the end of the decade. But both records were pulled from the market after Savoy successfully claimed a continued contractual hold on the singer. Such frustrations weighed on Scott.
"I did myself more damage because I was disappointed," he said. "I'd start drinking and acting crazy, you know. I did myself personal damage because of that. . . . Then I collected myself and got myself together."
Around 1984, his third marriage over, Scott went back to performing full time -- "Philadelphia, Detroit, little places where they'd realize, oh, this guy is still singing." In his liner notes for Scott's All the Way album, McDonough describes Scott singing in East Coast dives in the mid '80s "often to an empty house of five drunks. But it didn't seem to faze Jimmy. . . . He kept right on going."
A return to recording A few years later Pomus -- who'd known Scott since they met in a club in 1945 -- discovered Scott was working again and loudly lobbied the music industry to get Scott back in the recording studio. But it wasn't until Pomus died in 1991 -- and Scott wowed the music-industry crowd by singing at Pomus' funeral -- that Warner Bros. signed him.
From 1992 to 1996 he made three albums for that label -- All the Way, Dream and Heaven -- before joining Artists Only! Records last year. While his '90s efforts have included standards, he has also tackled songs like the Talking Heads' Heaven, Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U and John Lennon's Jealous Guy.
"I've always believed that singers should be ready to tackle most any style of song, from the classic to the gospel," he said. At the same time, though, Scott will not take on a song unless he thinks he can bring something to it. "No one can outdo what Nat King Cole did on 'Chestnuts' (The Christmas Song). . . . Everything he put to that song was so meaningful."
Now, with a new album, the documentary and the tour, Scott is enjoying both reaching out to new fans and encountering old ones he never knew about.
When he went on the road with Reed, he was astonished at the cheers.
"We did the Odeon in London," he said. "Man, when that man spoke my name, I couldn't believe it. I had been out of the business all this time. But then I realized that even though I had been off the stage, the music that I had done had been exploited. It was like living again."




 

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