This feature was written to coincide with Jimmy Scott’s London appearances in 2004 but they were cancelled and the piece was not used.
Van Morrison says that Jimmy Scott can “sing the rest of us off this planet”: Lou Reed calls him the greatest singer in the world: Marvin Gaye longed to sing ballads with the depth of Jimmy Scott: Madonna says he is the only singer who can make her cry, but relatively few people know of Jimmy Scott.
There are several reasons why. It is partly due to him signing a ridiculously restrictive recording contract and partly due to his limited and hackneyed repertoire, giving the impression that new albums are old ones. The fact that he is the slowest singer in the world is another factor, but the main reason is his freakish voice. Hear Jimmy Scott by chance on the radio and you will be convinced you are listening to a woman, and many listeners find that off-putting. As Nancy Wilson wrote in a sleeve note to an album in 1969, “Many vocalists, especially females, including myself, have patterned their styles from Little Jimmy Scott.”
If you know nothing of Jimmy Scott’s life, you might think I am making up the story that follows: nobody, it would seem, could live like this as one calamity follows another. His tribulations enhance his work: is any singer more aching or poignant on stage or on record than Jimmy Scott?
James Victor Scott was born in the black part of Cleveland, Ohio on 17 July 1925. He was the third of ten children to Arthur and Justine Scott. Arthur surfaced roads for a living, but he was feckless so that the family never had enough money. Justine took the family to church and sometimes Jimmy would sing to her piano accompaniment. Even when he was 10, he was singing behind the beat. She encouraged his talent knowing that he was both different and good.
Because Jimmy wasn’t growing, he was diagnosed with Kallmann’s Syndrome when he was 13. The syndrome stopped his body developing, stunting his growth at just under five foot. He had no sense of smell, his voice did not break and, a matter of some concern, he had small privates.
Around the same time, Justine put a hand out to save her daughter from a speeding car. Her arm got caught in the door handle and was wrenched from its socket. She died from a loss of blood. The drunken but wealthy driver donated $50,000 for the upkeep of the family, which a judge put in trust for the children but the money was never seen again. The children were placed in orphanages and foster homes.
Jimmy didn’t spent long in care. He was working from the age of 16, washing dishes, typing envelopes and being a cinema usher. He admired the way Paul Robeson could make a lyric come to life in Show Boat and he would study the lyrics of the great popular songs and consider how he might sing them himself. Once you know his background, you can sense that he is singing of his own plight when he performs ‘My Mother’s Eyes’, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ or ‘Why Was I Born?’. He stopped singing ‘The Loneliest House On The Street’ because, even by his standards, it was too emotional.
In 1945 Jimmy travelled in a road show starring a contortionist called Caledonia. He was 20 and he married a buxom, 16 year old waitress, more out of pity than anything else because he wanted to rescue her from abuse by her father. When they went on the road, she became a prostitute and they were divorced when he caught her with another man. Jimmy’s next relationship was with another large prostitute.
When he demanded his wages from one piano player, he was knocked to the ground and kicked in the head. He bought a gun and shot out the windows in the pianist’s house, but it taught him that he did not want to be a gangster. On the whole, he was earning reasonable money and when his brother, Justin, died after drinking contaminated water, his father sent him a telegram, “Justin is dead. Send money to pay for funeral.”
Hardly surprisingly, Jimmy started drinking and smoking reefers, but his friend, Charlie Parker (‘Bird’), warned him off heroin. A live recording from 1950 of Jimmy and Bird doing ‘Embraceable You’ surfaced in 1977 on the LP, One Night In Birdland, but the vocalist was wrongly identified as Chubby Newsome. Billie Holiday heard Jimmy at the Baby Grand club in New York and told him, “I heard what you’re doing and you’re doing it right.”
He auditioned for Lionel Hampton’s orchestra, who had discovered Dinah Washington and had Quincy Jones on trumpet. He sang ‘Why Was I Born?’ with the band and Hampton was impressed. Hampton loved gimmicks and called him Little Jimmy Scott. Because Jimmy, and sometimes the audience, would be in tears when he sang, he was also called Crying Jimmy Smith.
In 1950 he made his first recordings as the featured vocalist with Hampton’s orchestra. His version of ‘I Wish I Knew’ with flute, vibes and organ is exquisite. When he was handed a lyric by a fan, Regina Adams, ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’, he and the organist Doug Duke wrote a melody. He recorded it with Hampton but was disappointed that the record label said “vocal with orchestra” without giving him a namecheck. The disc-jockeys assumed that it was Hampton’s female vocalist, Irma Curry. To make matters worse, neither Doug or Jimmy were listed as composers, but Hampton’s wife, Gladys, took the credit instead. Jimmy had mixed feelings as the song climbed to No.6 on the R&B charts and it was to be his only hit record.