Jimmy Scott Biography

James Victor Scott, 17 July 1925, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Known also as ‘Little’ Jimmy Scott. An influential figure to popular singers as stylistically diverse as Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, and Frankie Valli, the highly acclaimed balladeer ‘Little’ Jimmy Scott nevertheless found it extremely difficult to transcend his enduring cult status. Revered by only the most knowledgeable of jazz aficionados, it was not until the 90s that Scott was able to mount a successful comeback after suffering decades of undeserved obscurity.

Scott’s wavering, ethereal contralto vocal range, much closer in pitch to that of a woman than a man, was a result of a rare hereditary condition called Kallmann’s Syndrome, which restricted Scott’s height to 4 feet 11 inches until he was in his mid-thirties (when he suddenly grew to 5 feet 7 inches), blocked his sexual development, and stopped his voice from lowering into a conventional masculine register - thereby creating one of the most unusual and stunning vocal deliveries in post-war music history. He was one of 10 children, all of whom sang along heartily to their mother Justine’s spirited piano playing at Hagar’s Universal Spiritual Church in Cleveland. After her death (she was struck down while pushing her daughter out of the way of a speeding car), Scott was raised in various foster homes from the age of 13. While in his teens, he ushered at Cleveland’s Metropolitan Theater, where he heard the bands of Buddy Johnson, Erskine Hawkins and Lucky Millinder.

He received his first chance to sing in front of an audience in Meadsville, Pennsylvania, in the mid-40s, backed by jazz saxophone legends Ben Webster and Lester Young. Scott toured from 1945-49 with shake dancer Estelle ‘Caledonia’ Young. Comedian Redd Foxx, actor Ralph Cooper, and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis helped the promising young singer to gain a job in 1948 at the Baby Grand nightclub on 125th Street in New York City. Scott joined Lionel Hampton’s band the next year, with whom he made his debut recordings. In 1950, he sang the hit ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ on Decca Records as Hampton’s featured vocalist (the song reached number 6 on Billboard’s R&B charts). Scott was also spotlighted vocally on ‘I Wish I Knew’, a popular but non-charting 1950 Decca side credited to the Lionel Hampton Quintet that featured Doug Duke’s organ accompaniment, and ‘I’ve Been A Fool’. Scott soon left Hampton’s band to join forces with New Orleans R&B mainstay Paul Gayten’s band (which also featured vocalist Annie Laurie) in 1951. Scott made some live recordings for Fred Mendelsohn’s Regal label that year with Gayten’s band (trumpeter John Hunt, tenor saxophonist Ray Abrams, baritone saxophonist Pee Wee Numa-Moore, pianist Teddy Brannon, bass player Thomas Legange, and drummer Wesley Landis) that were captured for posterity at Rip’s Playhouse, a New Orleans nightspot.

Those long-buried tapes belatedly saw the light of day in 1991 on a Specialty Records disc. Mendelsohn sold Scott’s contract to Teddy Reig and Jack Hook’s Roost Records, where he recorded 16 further tracks under his own name (including his first classic rendition of ‘The Masquerade Is Over’) before signing with Herman Lubinsky’s larger Savoy label in 1955. Four ballad-heavy sessions were held that year for Savoy, surrounding Scott with top-notch bandsmen including pianist/arranger Howard Biggs, saxophonist Budd Johnson, guitarists Mundell Lowe, George Barnes, and Everett Barksdale, bass player Charles Mingus, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Scott was unhappy with the skimpy financial rewards he received while under contract to the Newark, New Jersey-based Savoy (more sessions ensued in 1956 and 1958). Nevertheless, under Mendelsohn’s astute supervision, Scott did manage to create numerous classic ballads for the company despite the fiscal discord. ‘When Did You Leave Heaven’, ‘Imagination’, and the bluesy ‘Don’t Cry Baby’ are among Scott’s finest performances for Savoy. Although his early years were artistically enriching, Scott’s offstage existence was apparently another matter. The singer endured multiple divorces and suffered from a reported drinking problem.

Scott temporarily switched over to Sydney Nathan’s King Records in 1957 for a dozen sides supervised by Henry Glover before returning to Savoy in 1960 for one more session. Finally, in 1962, Scott received what appeared to be his big break: a contract with Ray Charles’ fledgling Tangerine label. With Marty Paich and Gerald Wilson supplying lush arrangements and Charles himself deftly handling the keyboards, the resulting album, Falling in Love is Wonderful, would have most likely boosted Scott’s national profile considerably. Unfortunately, Lubinsky quashed the set’s distribution shortly after its release, claiming that Scott remained under contract to Savoy (the set was finally re-released in 2002). In 1969, Atlantic Records producer Joel Dorn recorded an album with Scott, The Source, with arrangements by Arif Mardin and sporting a varied set that included ‘Day By Day’, ‘This Love Of Mine’, and ‘Exodus’, but it failed to further Scott’s fortunes. He returned to Savoy one last time in 1975 for a Mendelsohn-produced album that made little impact.

For a lengthy period prior to his triumphant return to live performance in 1985 (which was spurred by the urging of his fourth wife, Earlene), Scott toiled as a shipping clerk at Cleveland’s Sheraton Hotel, forgotten by all but his most loyal fans. Scott has engineered quite an amazing comeback in the years since. In 1992, his Blue Horizon Records album All The Way (listed as being by Jimmy Scott, with no reference to his height) found him backed by an all-star jazz aggregation that included saxophonist David ‘Fathead’ Newman, pianist Kenny Barron, bass player Ron Carter, and drummer Grady Tate and string arrangements by Johnny Mandel. Scott followed it in 1994 with another set for Sire/Blue Horizon, Dream, and ended the 90s with the excellent Holding Back The Years. Jimmy Scott’s reputation as a unique vocal master is assured, but his status definitely has not come easily.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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