Born July 17, 1925, in Cleveland, OH; married four times; fourth wife's name, Earlene. Addresses: Management--Harriet Sternberg Management, 15250 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 1215, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403. Record company--Sire Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019.
James Victor Scott, nicknamed Little Jimmy Scott by jazz artist Lionel Hampton in the late 1940s, often appears ambivalent about the difficulties in his life. He related in a Vibe article that Kallmann's syndrome, a rare hormonal disorder affecting both Scott and his brother, has been a blessing and a curse. His diagnosis late in life with the disease, whose sufferers do not undergo puberty, has finally explained the most mysterious and memorable aspect of this jazz singer's voice.
First-time listeners often assume Scott's voice is that of a woman. But it is not just his range that mesmerizes: he sings slowly, drawing out notes across measures, playing havoc with time. Sometimes leaving supporting musicians behind, Scott continues a cappella, evocatively delivering painful ballads in his own time. A difficult childhood, failed marriages, and questions about his sexuality and drug use--as well as ill treatment by the music industry--have left a mark of sadness on the singer's life. In Pulse! he observed: "A lot of people, like me, carry sadness with them for the rest of their life. I don't think I'll ever lose the expression of that. But, in a strange way, that sadness has finally brought about some happiness in my life."
Indeed, in the late 1980s, after spending some 20 years outside the music business, Scott reemerged as a powerful song stylist. His career was bolstered by both Jimmy McDonough's 1988 article on the singer in the Village Voice and Scott's rendition of the George and Ira Gershwin tune "Someone to Watch Over Me" at the 1991 funeral of rhythm and blues songwriter Doc Pomus, after which, according to Bazaar, he was signed to a five-album deal by the president of Sire Records, Seymour Stein. Since then Scott has sung for celebrity-filled audiences on both coasts, with Lou Reed on Magic and Loss, and with Bruce Springsteen on the film soundtrack Philadelphia. He even appeared as a ghost on the final episode of director David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks, singing an original tune, "Under the Sycamore Tree." The man for whom Jet magazine "had printed an erroneous obituary in 1965," according to LA Weekly, was back.
One of ten children, Jimmy Scott was born in 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck--a sign, remarked one of his father's friends, that he would become a singer. Scott's father, Arthur "Scottie" Scott, was a skilled asphalt layer; his mother, Justine Scott, played piano at Hagar's Universal Spiritual Church and would gather the children to sing gospel songs, noted Jimmy McDonough in the Village Voice. In the same article, Scott reported that his mother was a stern music teacher: "She'd make you feel guilty for voicing wrong notes. She was a very spiritual woman, a cornerstone of strength. My father just didn't give a damn." Her death in 1938 after being hit by a car caused the family to be split up into foster homes and created a lifelong desire for family unity that Scott has never reconciled.
Although he has told many tales about his youth, it appears that Scott first embraced big band music while serving as an usher at the Metropolitan Theater. He then went on the road with two tap dancers, working as their valet and pestering them to let him sing. In Meadville, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1940s, Scott got his chance. He was a hit in front of a band that included Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Jo Jones. "Even that first night, the people screamed and hollered," Scott recounted in the Village Voice.
From 1945 to 1949 Scott went on tour with shake dancer Estelle "Caledonia" Young, during which he met comedian Redd Foxx and R&B crooner Big Maybelle. According to McDonough in the Village Voice, Foxx would later team up with boxer Joe Louis and actor Ralph Cooper to arrange Scott's first New York City gig at the Baby Grand in 1948. Scott joined Lionel Hampton's band a year later and recorded his first hit, "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," along with "I've Been a Fool" and "I Wish I Knew." Record producer Quincy Jones, who was a trumpeter in the band, commented in the Village Voice: "It was dramatic when [Scott] came out in the solo spot. He'd just stand there with his shoulders hunched and his eyes closed and his head tilted to one side. He sang like a horn--he sang with the melodic concept of an instrument. It's a very emotional, soul-penetrating style. He'd put me on my knees, give me goose bumps. Jimmy used to tear my heart out every night."
Scott eventually left the Hampton band, settling into the thriving Newark, New Jersey, music scene and recording some sessions with Roost Records between 1950 and 1952 before signing with Savoy Records. At Savoy he was to cut memorable sides with producer Fred Mendelsohn--some of which are available on the first Savoy reissue, Little Jimmy Scott--but poor management crippled the singer with inferior material and cheap production while at the same time failing to effectively distribute the recordings or compensate Scott adequately for his work. McDonough noted in the Village Voice that though Scott had some modest hits, he never really fit the R&B market. Changing musical tastes even occasioned a 1958 rock and roll session, on which Scott perhaps fittingly sang, "I'll be what I'm not, if that's what you want."
Scott's difficulties in the industry where compounded by the abuse he suffered for the effeminate way he looked and sang, according to Robert Baird in Pulse! Homophobes called him names and others thought he was a woman posing as a man. His association with such jazz greats as Charlie Parker--his vocal on Parker's "One Night in Birdland" is credited to a woman--aroused rumors that he was a junkie. This made him a target for police in Philadelphia, who insisted that he was a woman transporting heroin and publicly stripped and humiliated him.
By the early 1960s Scott's career was floundering. He stayed on in California after a performance and wound up recording an album on Ray Charles's own label, Tangerine. The singer was accompanied by Charles--whom he had known from his days with Lionel Hampton--on piano and a live string section. Scott declared in the Village Voice, "I finally got a chance to sing with the instrumentation I wanted" and called his collaboration with Charles "a meeting of the souls." Returning to Cleveland to await the record's release, Scott learned that an injunction was being filed by the owner of Savoy claiming that Scott was still under contract. Tangerine subsequently halted distribution.
Scott took a job as a shipping and receiving clerk at a Sheraton Hotel in 1965 and restricted his music to occasional gigs. In 1969, with Joel Dorn as producer, he recorded The Source, an album that was ill promoted and misunderstood. Scott cut one last record with Savoy in 1975, entitled Can't We Begin Again, but it too was a failure. In 1970 the singer suffered a severe back injury in a fall at work. This, along with the end of his third marriage, occasioned his move to a senior citizens home, where he became president of the building's council.
Scott spent the 1970s in the rest home, helping others and caring for his ailing father. After his father's death he reestablished communication with a woman he had met in Newark 40 years earlier. Earlene moved to Cleveland, where she eventually married Scott and encouraged him to renew his career. A successful radio appearance in 1984 was followed by a packed engagement at Newark's Mirage Club. Scott was back in business.
Despite the warm reception by old and new fans, it took several years of tough club dates before Scott began to get the attention he deserved. The time Jimmy McDonough spent with him during this period became the basis for McDonough's seminal 1988 article in the Village Voice, the proceeds from which he used to produce a demo for Scott. In 1989 the singer received a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Grant, and three years later, his first release on Sire, All the Way, earned good reviews and a nomination for a Grammy Award. Produced by Tommy LiPuma, it featured Scott in front of an orchestra performing such classics as "Embraceable You," "At Last," and "Every Time We Say Goodby." People were impressed by his unique style as well as his influence on other musicians. As Doc Pomus noted in LA Weekly in 1990, Nancy Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Johnnie Ray "all began with 'watered down versions' of [Scott's] sound."
The year 1994 marked the release of Dream, an album produced by Mitchell Froom and featuring Junior Mance on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Peyton Crossley on drums, and Milt Jackson on vibes. Saxophone players Red Holloway and Patience Higgins also contributed, along with guitarist Rick Zuniger and Froom himself on keyboards. Scott seemed pleased with the sessions, recalling in his Sire Records biography: "Everyone who was there had really wanted to make it, and that made all the difference. A lot of the tracks we got in the first take. We wanted something friendly and intimate on the album and that came right out of those sessions and the feelings we were sharing at the moment."
For Scott singing has always been about feeling, whether to help bear the pain of his mother's death or the many pains that followed. As he confided in Bazaar: "I've learned that music is such a healer. As long as I could sing my songs, I wasn't as angry about what had happened, about being shoved back for this or shoved back for the other. I'm a singer, and I never lost sight of that."
by John Morrow
Jimmy Scott's Career
Singer and recording artist. Prior to World War II, toured with Vaudeville acts; toured with shake dancer Estelle "Caledonia" Young, 1945-49; member of Lionel Hampton's band, until 1953; started recording for small record labels, 1950; recorded with Savoy Records, until 1975; cut record with Ray Charles on Charles's Tangerine label; entered semiretirement and started work as a hotel shipping and receiving clerk, 1965; renewed music career with a radio appearance, Newark, NJ, 1984; sang at musician Doc Pomus's funeral and signed to first major record deal, 1991.
Jimmy Scott's Awards
Grant from Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 1989; Grammy Award nomination for best jazz vocal, 1992, for All the Way.
- Selective Works
- The Source, 1969.
- Can't We Begin Again, Savoy, 1975.
- All the Way, Sire, 1992.
- Regal Records Live in New Orleans: Little Jimmy Scott and the Paul Gayten Band, Specialty, 1992.
- Lost and Found, Rhino, 1993.
- Dream, Sire, 1994.
- Little Jimmy Scott, Savoy.
- Bazaar, April 1994.
- Billboard, July 23, 1994.
- Cadence, November 1991; March 1992.
- Cash Box, July 30, 1994.
- CD Review, October 1994.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 5, 1994.
- Jazztimes, October 1994.
- LA Weekly, December 21, 1990; July 15, 1994.
- Mirabella, September 1994.
- Out, October 1994.
- Pulse!, September 1994.
- Village Voice: Rock and Roll Quarterly, winter 1988.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Sire Records publicity materials, 1994.