"Little" Jimmy Scott Biography
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.
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.
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