POP MUSIC / Preview: Great Scott: You want tears? Phil Johnson on Jimmy Scott, the balladeer supreme

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The Independent Online
The stylistic origins of the classic British pub singer of the pre-karaoke age are difficult to fathom. For the male of the species Sinatra certainly has a lot to answer for, but the lineage goes back at least to Bing Crosby and Al Bowly, while the chin-trembling vibrato and the addition of extra syllables ('I-a, did it my-a way-a') seem to be taken straight from the Fifties crooner Johnny Ray. However, it may be that Jimmy Scott, a jazz singer of impeccable obscurity for listeners in this country, is the real model, albeit by proxy.

While the Nabob of Sob was recording for the R&B label Okeh, Little Jimmy Scott was on Savoy and Roost and had already established his reputation with the Lionel Hampton band, trilling out lachrymose laments in which his voice appeared to liquify into big fat tears at the slightest opportunity. Scott is probably the most emotionally compelling ballad vocalist there is, bar none. To see him live - as British audiences can this week - is to experience one of the greatest thrills in all of black music, for Scott - a diminutive man with the face and voice of a woman - is a mesmerising performer, accompanying each song with extravagant arm gestures that threaten to wrestle his baggy tuxedo to the ground. It's no easy ride either; Scott wrings the tears out of an audience in the same way he wrings the soul out of a song. As Ray Charles said: 'Jimmy had soul way back when people weren't using the word.'

Now 69 and at last getting some of the attention that his genius deserves, Scott is too polite to claim, as some have, that Johnny Ray stole his act, but he admits that there were borrowings. His true art lies in communicating a lyric as if it really did tell the story of his tragic life. Everyone from Charlie Parker to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday (whom he increasingly sounds like) was evidently captivated by Scott, but bad business dealings meant he lost opportunity after opportunity to capitalise on his talent. Herman Lubinsky of Savoy had him tied to a contract that prevented his Sixties freelance work - for Ray Charles's Tangerine label and for Atlantic - from surfacing, and Scott was reduced to working day jobs and playing Sheraton hotels for senior citizens and drunks. Neighbourhood showbiz friends like Frankie Valli and Joe Pesci continued to press his case and at songwriter Doc Pomus's funeral he sang 'Someone to Watch Over Me', accompanied by Dr John on organ, so movingly that Sire Records' Seymour Stein signed him up on the spot. Support slots with Lou Reed and David Byrne followed, and director David Lynch employed him to play a ghost in the wilderness in Twin Peaks.

Scott's latest album, Dream (Sire) is a triumph (though not quite as good as its amazing predecessor, All the Way) and while the big voice is kept under wraps for most of the set, his subtle effects of phrasing and modulation are like a master-class for jazz singers. At his London performances, there may even be a version of the old Bing Crosby tune 'My Mother's Eyes', the song he had to stop singing because it made him cry so much.

'It was a ticklish thing for me to sing,' he told me, 'because mine of course had passed away (she died in his arms after a car crash when he was 13) and she never even had the opportunity to see me perform. It's the kind of thing that you carry with you and you save the love for the memory.'

Jimmy Scott plays the Purcell Room, London, on Friday and Saturday at 10.30pm. Booking: 071-928 8800