What's in a voice? It's a question worth asking, especially given the recent run of Pop Idol, that glorified Butlins' talent show for pub singers in waiting. Where on earth did their unnatural voices come from? And why, even when a singer could hold the notes, did they so often fail to involve us emotionally?
What seems to be missing is that quality identified by the philosopher Roland Barthes in his essay The Grain of the Voice. Using the example of a Russian cantor, Barthes says that what moves him is not technical perfection, but expression; something "brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities ... as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music it sings ... The 'grain' is that: the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue."
He could have been talking about the singer Jimmy Scott, who on 12 January begins a two-week residency at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London. Here's a man who has the grain in his voice like lettering in Blackpool rock. Now aged 78, and a little shaky on his feet, he doesn't have a lot of voice left, but what he does with it will bring tears to your eyes. Ask Nick Cave, who booked Scott to sing at his wedding.
Since emerging as a featured vocalist with the Lionel Hampton band in the late 1940s, an era when he was friends with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, Scott has been through more than the mill. Disastrous record contracts, several broken marriages and problems with alcohol led to him all but giving up. One of the greatest vocal stylists of the 20th century spent what should have been his peak years working day-jobs as a janitor or hotel clerk, and singing at retirement homes.
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 - who watched Scott play at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem - stole his act. This debt is also the source of a remarkable sociological fact: for years, the dominant style of many British pub singers - the ancestors of today's Pop Idol wannabes - derived from 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 in 1992. His first release, All The Way, remains one of the best jazz vocal albums ever. The latest, Moon Glow, is astonishingly good for a man of his age.
Typically, Scott bears neither Johnny Ray or his other imitators any ill will. "I didn't even think about it", he says, talking on the phone from Cleveland, Ohio, the city where he was born and still lives. "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, has never entirely grown 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 his friends, Billie and Dinah. "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 the sadness, although I didn't cry every night."
You can read about Jimmy Scott's life in Faith In Time (Da Capo Press), the biography by David Ritz. But I wanted to know about his singing. "It's a story," Scott says. "Every song is like listening to a story or reading a book; first you get the theme of it, and then you begin to understand it." One of Scott's formative influences was Judy Garland, whose child-star films he saw when he was a kid himself. "She too had a notion to take a song and make a story of it; in her it was a lovely sincerity", he says.
Scott decided early on that slow songs were his particular forte. "Everybody was going after that hot tempo, giving a rhythm to what they sang, so I thought, 'tell the story'. Setting it down in a ballad tempo would heal the substance of sadness, like a doctor giving a medicine. It consoled the inner self."
Where the grain of the voice might come in, is in the relationship of the singer to the song. "It's sharing part of your life with what the song is about," Scott says. "It's like Percy Mayfield or Ray Charles; they had that notion to put that feeling on you, the darkness of what life was about. If you look at their lives, the way they came through the life, you understand." Does that mean, I ask, that to sing about suffering, you have to have suffered? "It helps if you have had some experience, but it doesn't always come natural to the singer," he replies thoughtfully.
As to singers today, and the contestants of Pop Idol, whose US version Scott has watched, what advice can he offer them? "Study well the lyrics of the song," he says. "What is that story trying to say? Each writer writes a story of life and you have to learn how to project it. If it doesn't come natural, if they don't have that feeling, it doesn't work." When I mention the vocal gymnastics of Mariah Carey and company, Scott is unforgiving: "They overdo the thing, and I don't think they really benefit from it. If the song doesn't mean anything to them, how can it mean anything to you? It has to be part of life."
Jimmy Scott plays Ronnie Scott's, London W1 (020 7439 0747), 12 to 24 January