It'll make a grown man cry

A career dogged by bad business dealings and personal misfortune led Jimmy Scott to give up performing his ballads of liquid sadness, leaving his imitators to steal a highly original act. Now he's back, tears and all.
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The Independent Culture
Jimmy Scott may well be the best-kept secret in popular music. Certainly, for his small but totally smitten coterie of admirers, listening to the veteran American vocalist's albums provokes a particularly secret kind of pleasure, like luxuriating in a warm, consoling, bath of liquid sadness. When Scott sings one of his inexpressibly tender late-night ballads, and the muted bellow of his high-register voice starts to tremble with emotion in that cracked, wavery vibrato, it takes a very strong constitution not to come over all misty-eyed. At his peak in the Fifties, it was enough to make grown men cry, including Scott himself, who could be so overcome by the sentiments of a lyric that he would break down in tears in midsong.

Now 74, with a voice that is a little battered and worn, Scott is still breaking hearts. He's even become a cult, most notably among gays, although his career has been marked by such tragic setbacks it's a miracle he's managed to survive at all. A disastrous contract with Savoy Records, four marriages, and the kind of personal problems institutional to jazz musicians of a certain age, are all water under the bridge.

As happened so often with black artists in the era of rhythm and blues, "Little" Jimmy Scott (as he was called then) didn't reap the benefits of his strikingly original style. The white "cry-baby" crooner Johnny Ray - Scott remembers watching him at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem - stole his act. With the aid of an onion or two, Ray went on to become a star while Scott became so disheartened by lack of success and bad business dealings that he gave up performing for two decades.

The debt that Ray owed him is also the source of a remarkable sociological fact: even today, the dominant style of many British pub singers goes back to the histrionic delivery that Ray learned from Scott. Rediscovered in the late Eighties, with his cause promoted by a diverse cast of admirers including Joe Pesci, Frankie Valli, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen and David Lynch, Scott began a new recording career with Atlantic Records in 1992. His first release, "All the Way", remains one of the best jazz vocal albums ever, so good that it has to be heard to be believed.

Typically, Scott bears neither Johnny Ray nor his other imitators, such as Nancy Wilson, any ill will. "I didn't even think about it," he says. "If what I did encouraged someone else, then fine. So many people put so much importance on what they do, but did they write the song?" Unlike Ray's onion-assisted sobs, however, Scott's tears were genuine. They were brought on by memories of his beloved mother, who had died in his arms after being hit by a car when he was a boy, and by the emotional pain he suffered due to the hereditary condition of Kallmann's Syndrome.

This hormonal deficiency meant that Scott, like Peter Pan, never entirely grew up. It accounts not only for his small stature and boyish, unshaven face, but also for his high, almost feminine singing voice, which recalls those of two of his friends, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

"A lot of the crying was because of my mother, but if anything affected me about the Kallmann Syndrome, that was when it came out, because a girlfriend or a wife hadn't understood about my physical disability," he says. "There were certain songs that touched home and I succumbed to sadness, although I didn't cry every night. You just got overwhelmed."

Sitting sprawled in an armchair at the Warner Building in London, Scott looks like a ventriloquist's dummy awaiting an animating hand to prod him back into shape. His beautiful, rather Native American-featured face is still boyish, and he speaks softly of his extraordinary past. He began singing in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, he says, in order to help his nine siblings who, after the death of his mother, were scattered between different foster homes. "Being the third oldest, I was desirous of keeping the family together. I had started singing in church, where my mother would form the kids into choirs at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and at high school we had a teacher of art, Miss McGrath, who created little plays to dramatise the government programmes of Roosevelt. We had an old upright piano and a previous tenant had left a Pianola with rolls of all kinds of music. I remember `Ave Maria', and Irish tunes."

The racism which Scott was to encounter in his dealings with the music business was something he had been protected from at home. "My mother wouldn't allow it to be talked about in the house. She'd tell us to be careful and to watch ourselves, but we didn't know what she meant. We lived in an Italian neighbourhood, and next to that was the Hungarians and the Poles - a whole variety of people - so it was strange for me to accept the racial facts of life. When I did, I understood what Mom had said." Though his genetic condition offered the possibility for further discrimination, Scott denies that it had much effect. "Everybody would look, and if I went in a bar they'd say `What's that boy doing in here?' but that's all. Dinah Washington used to see me in a club and say, `Come on over here, big daddy!'"

After receiving his first experience in showbiz in local clubs as part of a troupe led by the comedian and dancer Jocky Gray, Scott joined the revue of Estelle Young, famously nicknamed "Caldonia" in a song by Louis Jordan. "She had a beautiful body and she did a contortion act with chorus girls and a band. We toured farms and plantations in the south where we'd take the bales of hay to make seats for the audience and pull up two flatbed trucks for the stage. Down there you saw things you'd never seen before from a prejudice point of view. You'd think, why are they projecting this evil?"

In 1949, Scott joined the band of Lionel Hampton, who had seen him at an amateur night in Cleveland, and it was here that his specialism of slow-tempo ballads - what he calls "the avenue of songs I thank God I haven't lost" - was formed.

"I used some swing songs to back off a little, but the more relaxed I sang, the more the audience listened, and to get them to listen you'd take it down a little bit more. I didn't feel that the story the lyric told should be expressed with a lot of rhythm, but that it should be subdued, and for me they responded. I'd come in a club and a guy would say, `You better sing that slow song!' All the hustlers and the big-time street guys would come in with their ladies, and ask for such and such a song. Not long ago I had one guy come up to me at Catalina's in LA and he said, `Jimmy Scott? I've been waiting for years to see you because I'm trying to give you back the problem you gave me. Every time I played one of your records my woman would get pregnant.'"

Ironically, given the misfortune he has suffered in the past through bad recording contracts (Savoy served an injunction to prevent the release of an album for Ray Charles's Tangerine label in the Sixties that could have rescued his career), Jimmy Scott's latest album has required him to sing an unlikely selection of contemporary pop songs associated with the likes of John Lennon, Bryan Ferry, Sinead O'Connor, Elvis Costello and Mick Hucknall. Although the idea (originated by a Warner's exec) sounds like a bad joke, Scott somehow manages to make even the most recalcitrant material, such as Ferry's "Slave to Love", sound not only bearable but often deeply moving.

That this late in his career he still has to bend to someone else's kitsch concept perhaps shows that in the record industry nothing much has changed. And Jimmy Scott is such a nice man that you feel were you to slip a dodgy contract across the table to him at the end of the interview, he'd sign it with the same good grace he shows in autographing your CDs as souvenirs. This time round, however, one hopes against hope that justice is done, and the secret of Jimmy Scott becomes no secret anymore.

`Holding Back the Years' is out on Monday on WEA. `All the Way', `Dream' and `Heaven' are also available. A British tour is planned for October