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 Po-mus, 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 chord 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
For the Record…
Born July 17, 1925, in Cleveland, OH; married four times; fourth wife’s name, Earlene.
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.
Awards: Grant from Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 1989; Grammy Award nomination for best jazz vocal, 1992, for All the Way.
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.
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 ayear 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! Ho-mophobes 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 McDon-ough 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.”
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.
Scott, "Little" Jimmy
"Little" Jimmy Scott
Jazz and rhythm-and-blues singer
A jazz and rhythm-and-blues (R&B) singer with a distinctive high-pitched voice, Jimmy Scott is admired by singing stars as diverse as Madonna and Lou Reed. His heyday was the 1950s and 1960s, when he was known among jazz fans as a vocalist with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, and his most acclaimed album is 1962's Falling in Love Is Wonderful, which he made with Ray Charles. His pretty, girlish voice was well suited to the sad, lonely songs that were his specialty in the 1960s and he was a major influence on singers like Charles, Marvin Gaye, and Nancy Wilson. Though his career faltered in the 1970s and 1980s, Scott made a highly successful comeback in the 1990s. Since then he has recorded several albums and performs to sellout audiences. Madonna has been reported as saying that "Jimmy Scott is the only singer who makes me cry."
James Victor Scott was born on July 17, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, one of ten children. When Scott was 13 his mother was hit by a car and killed. His father, who worked as an asphalt layer on road gangs, left soon after and the children were raised in foster homes. Scott's late childhood was also blighted by a rare inherited hormone deficiency known as Kallmann's Syndrome, which meant he never went through puberty and forever carried the nickname "Little" Jimmy. His celebrated high-pitched voice is the result, but Scott had a difficult time growing up in his teens, growing to only four feet eleven inches until his mid-thirties, when he inexplicably grew a little more. Throughout his early adult life Scott was accused of being a woman in disguise and subjected to humiliating abuse and police searches. He began singing in church and at first hoped to record gospel songs—he names Paul Robeson, Ivey James, and Bessie Smith as his early influences—but his voice and the way he uses it make him ideally suited for the cool, slow-paced jazz for which he has become famous. His private life, including four turbulent marriages—one of his wives stabbed him with a kitchen knife—and bouts of heavy drinking, have also proved more in line with the jazz lifestyle than the gospel scene. He married his fifth wife, Jeanie, on December 31, 2003.
Scott's professional career began with Estelle Young, touring the Midwest and performing in black theaters and bars. He seemed about to break into the big time in 1949 when he joined Lionel Hampton's band. Scott made some of his most influential recordings in the following few years, including "Everybody's Some-body's Fool," and "I Wish I Knew," but the records were credited as "Lionel Hampton and vocalists," so the singer's name did not appear on them. Even so, his voice was so distinctive that it was well known among Hampton's followers. Scott left Hampton's band and joined Paul Gayten's group, but despite having recorded "Embraceable You" with Charlie Parker, Scott felt he was struggling to break out from the limited coverage and sales offered by the audiences in the small clubs.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s he recorded with the Savoy label under various smaller labels, and thus came under the control of Savoy's owner, Herman Lubinsky. Lubinsky was well known for having his artists sign very restrictive contracts and when Scott left to record with Ray Charles under Charles's Tangerine record label, Lubinsky blocked him. Falling in Love Is Wonderful is probably Scott's most important record, yet it was on sale for only a few weeks. For this reason it is one of the most collectable jazz records on the market. After several failed deals in the late 1960s Scott started drinking heavily and gave up on his singing career. In the 1970s he worked as a helper in a nursing home and as a clerk. He started singing again in 1984, but it was the death of his friend songwriter Doc Pomus in 1991 that really began his comeback. Singing at Pomus's funeral, Scott was spotted by Sire Records president Seymour Stein and received a five-album contract the next day.
Since then Scott has toured with Lou Reed and sung backing vocals on his Magic and Loss album; he has since appeared with Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, as well as having one of his songs featured on The Cosby Show and singing "Under the Sycamore Tree" on the cult favorite TV show Twin Peaks. In the 1990s a cure was found for Kallmann's Syndrome, but Scott refused it on the basis that it would rob him of his gift. Listing entertainment business luminaries such as Quincy Jones, Robert DeNiro, and Tony Bennett among his friends, Jimmy Scott achieved stardom over 40 years after his career began. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Joseph Hooper attributes the revival in Scott's fortunes at least partly to the singer's strange, feminine voice and a growing acceptance of sexual ambiguity in entertainment: "Scott's aging androgyny undoubtedly helped him secure his cult status," he argues, but it is only with age that his voice and approach to music have matured. He describes Scott as "perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the twentieth century." In 2003 Scott toured in Asia and Europe and in 2004 he continues to perform, enjoying a career that ended so abruptly in the late 1960s that many fans thought he was dead.
Little Jimmy Scott/The Paul Gayten Band: Regal Records: Live in New Orleans!, Specialty, 1951; re-released, 1991.
If You Only Knew, Savoy, 1956; re-released, 2001.
The Fabulous Songs of Jimmy Scott, Savoy, 1960; re-released, 2003.
Falling in Love is Wonderful, Tangerine, 1963; re-released by Rhino, 2002.
The Source, Atlantic, 1969; re-released, 2001.
All the Way, Warner Brothers, 1992.
Lost and Found, (recorded in 1969 and 1972) Atlantic, 1993.
Heaven, Sire, 1996.
Holding Back the Years, Artists Only!, 1998.
Everybody's Somebody's Fool, Universal Music, 1999.
The Savoy Years and More, Atlantic, 1999.
Mood Indigo, Milestone, 2000.
Over the Rainbow, Milestone, 2001.
But Beautiful, Milestone, 2002.
Moon Glow, Milestone, 2003.
At a Glance …
Born James Victor Scott on July 17, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio; married five times, most recently to Jeanie, 2003. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Recording artist, 1940s–; toured with Estelle Young, 1940s; joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, 1949; joined Paul Gayten's band, 1951; recorded with Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, and others until late 1960s; worked as an elevator operator, waiter, shipping clerk, and other jobs, 1970s and 1980s; signed by Sire Records, 1991.
Addresses: Label— c/o Milestone Records, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley CA, 94710.
Ritz, David, Faith in Time: The Jazz Life of Jimmy Scott, Da Capo, 2002.
New York Times Magazine, August 27, 2000.
Jet, March 17, 2003, p.34.
"Interview with Little Jimmy Scott," All About Jazz, www.allaboutjazz.com/iviews/jscott.htm (October 15, 2004).
"Jimmy Scott Biography," Fantasy Jazz, www.fantasyjazz.com/html/scott_j_bio.html (October 15, 2004).
Little Jimmy Scott: Why Was I Born? (documentary biography), Bravo Profiles, Bravo, 1998.
Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew (documentary biography), PBS, 2004.