Forget about the millionaire musicians upset with their multi-album recording contracts; Jimmy Scott is an example of someone who was really screwed by the record business. Yet he doesn't complain. The 74-year-old singer is too busy enjoying a career renaissance.
Scott doesn't look like he'd be able to take on the recording industry. He stands at four-foot-11, and his high-pitched alto voice isn't much bigger. It's often mistaken for a woman's. Both Scott's height and voice are the result of a rare hereditary condition called Kallmann's syndrome, a hormonal deficiency that causes sustained preadolescence. When presented with the possibility of a cure, Scott declined treatment, possibly fearing his singing voice would change. You can hardly blame him. His voice, light and sweet, was made for singing ballads, and that's what the singer has done from the beginning. Though he has always been a jazz balladeer, Scott has influenced Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Scott's biggest torchbearer, Nancy Wilson.
"I think I sound more like him than anybody," Wilson says. "I heard him when I was eight and he was singing with Lionel Hampton's big band. With the big band, he had a different sound than you hear now, but I've heard him all my life. Those great big ballads, I loved them."
Scott's feminine voice and behind-the-beat phrasing are a unique combination. While he has influenced others, no one has copied him. His delayed tempo has confused even the best jazz musicians. Legend has it that bassist Charles Mingus, a master of unusual tempos, stormed out of a recording session in 1955 when he couldn't adapt to Scott's peculiar use of time.
"You can't imitate him," says producer Joel Dorn, who recorded Scott in the late '60s and early '70s. "If you want to have some fun, put on a Jimmy Scott record that you've listened to for a million years, that you know top to bottom, then try to sing along with it. Just try to sing along with something you've heard 200 times, and you'll see that even when you know it, you can't sing it. Where he sings, nobody else sings."
Scott's explanation of his style doesn't lend any insight. "I sang like this all my life," he says. "It's just a natural thing."
Scott started singing publicly in grade school and in the mid-'40s was part of contortionist/shake dancer Estelle "Caledonia" Young's traveling tent-show revue. In 1948 Scott was hired by Hampton and was soon considered one of the best balladeers around, though his unique style meant he wasn't as accessible to the general public as Nat "King" Cole or Frank Sinatra.
"When Jimmy was in his prime, one of the problems he ran into was that people didn't like to follow him," says Dorn. "So he must have lost half of the gigs that he could have got because nobody wanted to come on behind him. He used to spellbind the place. I saw him in tiny clubs where he would do 50-minute sets and he would sing six or seven songs real slow. There were times when there was almost like a vapor in the room that he was in control of. Then I saw him at the Apollo where people were screaming, just screaming. It was something else."
Scott left Hampton for a brief stint with Paul Gayten's band, and in 1950 embarked on brief solo career recording for Roost and Decca. Scott quit the music business in late 1952 and moved back to Cleveland. He wouldn't resurface until 1955, when a producer-friend began working at Savoy Records and encouraged Scott to record there. Scott's decision to associate with Savoy would turn out to be the most disastrous move of his career.
Savoy Records was owned by the late Herman Lubinsky, a five-foot-four seedy-looking, cigar-chomping character. By forcing Scott to record sub-par pop material, then not recording him at all, then not letting others record him, Lubinsky almost killed Scott's career. By the early '70s, Scott's career had come to a halt.
"The guy that owned Savoy was a pig, Herman Lubinsky. Stone-out pig," says Dorn. "He just trapped people. Jimmy was one of them. He signed one of these slave contracts to Savoy. Jimmy ain't exactly Bill Gates when it comes to doing business. He's a singer."
It wasn't until 1991, when Warner Bros. released All the Way, that Scott got hot again. Reissues of his out-of-print material started to surface. The latest is The Savoy Years and More..., a three-CD set that includes nine songs from his Roost days and all of the material he recorded at Savoy, including several unreleased tracks.
The first nine selections taken from Scott's 1952 Roost sessions paint an interesting picture of a young Scott. He instantly jumps out of the speakers on "After I'm Gone," the compilation's opener. He sounds like a mournful teenager, yet his understanding of a lyric, his control and his passion clearly belong to a man, one whose heart has been broken. On the Roost recordings, "After I'm Gone" and "Why Do You Cry" in particular, Scott's amazing sense of drama stands out. He communicates stories in an almost theatrical fashion, carefully noting the impact of each syllable when he sings.
By the time Scott recorded with Savoy in '55 and '56, his dramatic flair was unmatched. When he soulfully belts out "When Did You Leave Heaven," he quickly but subtly builds the song from a slow burner to a power ballad. Yet even when he holds notes at triple forte, he never oversings.
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On "Time on My Hands," he conveys loneliness so effectively it's hard not to shed a tear within the first few bars, and he shatters you just as quickly with "It's Over." Though he can destroy with slow, melancholy ballads, Scott can also sing upbeat songs about romance. He puts his emotional stamp to great effect on "All or Nothing at All," "If You Only Knew" and "Everybody Needs Somebody."
If the '55 and '56 sessions showcase Scott's best traits as a vocalist, the majority of the '58 to '60 Savoy sessions do just the opposite. Not that it's completely Scott's fault. Savoy tried to get the singer to jump on the R&B bandwagon with mediocre numbers poorly suited for his talents. Songs such as "What I Wouldn't Give," "I May Never" and "I Need Some Lovin' Baby" are terribly derivative, and Scott is unable to cast his spell on these discount recordings. When Savoy realized Scott was out of his element with R&B, the company gave him ballads again, but the arrangements were inferior. Many of the songs just sound cheesy, the strings plain embarrassing. Then there's the terrible Erroll Garner impersonation by pianist Robert Banks on "Please Forgive Me," which only makes one wonder what Garner and Scott could have done together. Even good songs such as "My Romance" are marred by bad arrangements. The major exception is Scott's exceptional performance of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."
When Scott returned to Savoy in '75, he was provided with material and arrangements more suited to his style. The difference in sound quality and musicality is amazing.
The Savoy Years and More... is in many ways reflective of Jimmy Scott's career: magical highs and tragic lows. It's rarely perfect, but neither is life.