The world is finally catching up to Jimmy Scott. After more than five decades of being admired by fellow vocalists and a select claque of hipsters, the man whom Joseph Hooper, in a New York Times Magazine profile, called “perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century” is finding a dedicated international audience for his unique, emotionally penetrating art. Scott's autobiography with David Ritz, the award-winning author noted for previous collaborations with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, B.B. King, and Smokey Robinson is entitled Faith in Time: The Jazz Life of Jimmy Scott.
The life story of Jimmy Scott is filled with heartbreak and hope, qualities he expresses most directly in his gripping, highly personalized readings of material from the Great American Songbook. Over the Rainbow, the singer’s second CD for Milestone Records, follows the pattern of last year’s acclaimed Mood Indigo: producer Todd Barkan surrounds him with world-class jazz instrumentalists, including guitarist Joe Beck, bassist George Mraz, drummer Grady Tate, vibraharpist Joe Locke, and saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, in a set of songs that Scott has known—and in most cases performed—throughout his life.
Scott was 14 when he first heard Judy Garland sing “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. His mother had recently been killed in a traffic accident, and he and his brothers and sisters were sent off to different foster homes. The song, he says, “spoke to my soul.” It “became a symbol of hope, an escape from misery, the promise of lasting love.” “Pennies from Heaven” carries a similar meaning. “Just keep trying to make it some way,” he explains. “Pennies will be there for you.”
The freedom with which Scott’s voice floats so effortlessly over rhythm sections has been likened to that of the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Scott recalls that “Don’t Take Your Love from Me,” which he performs on Over the Rainbow, was one of two tunes he sang the first time he sat in with Young, during the mid-1940s at a club in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
“Billie Holiday loved him, and I could dig why,” Scott says of Young. “Listening to him helped me so much in the expression of singing. It was such a comfortable thing to have him play between your vocal lines and to have solos played by him.”
Holiday, when once asked by a reporter which singers she liked, named only Scott. He returns the compliment by applying his distinctive style to one of her signature songs, “Strange Fruit,” poet Lewis Allan’s haunting tale of a lynching. Scott also reprises a couple of his own signature songs on Over the Rainbow: “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” the ballad that first brought him fame in 1950 as featured vocalist with the Lionel Hampton big band, and “When Did You Leave Heaven?,” the old Bing Crosby favorite that Scott made all his own with a 1955 single that became something of a jukebox hit.
Scott’s unique way with songs, which cuts to the emotional core of lyrics with its subtly delayed timing, carefully clipped syllables, and ringing sustains, has inspired numerous other singers for half a century. Nancy Wilson and Frankie Valli borrowed elements of Scott’s style in the Sixties, while Lou Reed and Madonna have championed his singing in recent times. “He is without a doubt the master of the ballad form,” Wilson once stated. Ray Charles, another Scott fan, has said that “he defined what ‘soul’ is all about in singing long before anyone was using the word.”
James Victor Scott was born on July 17, 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, where he still lives. He was one of ten siblings, all of whom sang in church to their mother’s piano accompaniment. Like one of his brothers, he never experienced puberty, the result of Kallmann’s Syndrome, a hereditary hormonal deficiency that stunted his growth and kept his voice from developing beyond boyhood. “I fought through it,” Scott says of the condition. “It didn’t matter. I was accepted into show business back in the early Forties. That helped a lot, and it never bothered me like it might some others.”
The singer’s big break came in 1949, when Lionel Hampton hired him on the recommendation of Paul Gayten and billed him as “Little Jimmy Scott.” “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” recorded at Scott’s second session with Hampton, gave the singer his first and only chart hit, placing at No. 6 on Billboard’s list of R&B jukebox platters. The labels of some Decca 78s mistakenly credited Irma Curry, Hampton’s female vocalist at the time, but many fans knew better, especially women, who swooned at Scott’s every deliciously split syllable during his year on the road with Hampton.
Scott’s hit and three other songs recorded with the Hampton orchestra, along with early Fifties solo sides for the Coral and Brunswick labels, were reissued in 1999 on the GRP CD Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool. Also released that year was the three-CD The Savoy Years and More containing his 1952 recordings for Roost Records and his 1955-75 output for Savoy. Scott also made a magnificent album for Ray Charles’s Tangerine label and another for Atlantic, but Savoy threatened suit and had both suppressed.
The singer spent long periods away from the microphone. He worked for a time as a hotel shipping clerk and as a caretaker for his ailing father. Scott returned to performing in 1990, and his career took off again two years later when Seymour Stein heard him singing at songwriter Doc Pomus’s funeral and signed him to the Warner Bros.-distributed Sire label. Scott recorded two albums for Sire, one for Warner Bros. proper, and one for Artists Only! before joining Milestone Records in 2000.
The previous couple of years saw Scott making triumphant tours of Europe and Japan, as well as being the subject of a Bravo Profiles television special in which he was saluted by such admirers as Alec Baldwin, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, David Lynch, Joe Pesci, Lou Reed, and Frankie Valli. And Scott has become a fashion model in an Italian advertising campaign for a new line of cashmere sweaters by celebrated Milan designer Saverio Palatella.
The wisdom that Jimmy Scott has acquired during his often-difficult life oozes from every track of Over the Rainbow. As David Ritz observes so eloquently in his booklet notes for the Milestone CD: “In the fragility of his voice, there is enormous strength. His songs say that we can live with our inconsistencies; we can be fools but still survive; we can still hope for those pennies from heaven. We look to him for lessons in how to live our lives with patience, dignity, and a sense of wondrous beauty.”