Catch Him If You Can: The Heartbreaking Jimmy Scott

A master balladeer is in town Tues Feb 23rd & Weds Feb 24th, and although he is well past his prime at age 85, and only 4 ft 11” tall, he’s a true giant, and just being in the room with him is well worth the pittance Yoshi’s is charging this week at the door. He is known for infusing songs with so much pathos, pain and beautiful angst it’s hard to take it all in… and if you’ve never heard of him…sadly, you are not alone.

Fortunately, you still have time familiarize yerselves with his saga, and a musical legacy that was obscured by bad business breaks, pride, and deep prejudice, the kind that was not only racial, but sexual & medical …

Almost strangled to death by the umbilical cord at birth in 1925, Jimmy Scott was soon orphaned by a car crash, along with his 9 other siblings in depression era Cleveland. If the odds against him were not bad enough, they were further stacked by a strange genetic pituitary hormonal defect known as “Kallman’s Syndrome”. This medical disorder accounts for his somewhat effeminate looks & unnaturally high singing voice. Basically Scott’s pubescent development was stunted, causing his arms to appear longer than the rest of his torso while the diminutive singer never developed facial hair.

Finding solace away from the bleak foster homes on stages, he sang in combos of the post war R&B era, notably as a featured singer with band leader Lionel Hampton, with whom he made his recorded debut in 1950 (although his name did not appear on the label). After the chart making & touring stint with Hampton ended, Scott began dividing his time between night spots in Cleveland, New York and Newark, New Jersey.

Unable to secure proper record deals, or even respect on the road from fellow musicians due to his androgynous appearance, Jimmy Scott’s show biz career was a hard road. That road hit a brick wall by the late 1960′s when tight fisted Herman Lubinsky of the Savoy label refused to release Scott from a long dormant contract, and legally prevented comeback albums for Atlantic & Ray Charles’ Tangerine label from being released purely out of spite.

Jimmy’s numerous shots at stardom had been so hampered by fiscal mismanagement & bad business dealings, it lead to failed relationships, drinking and drugging, and a career ending downward spiral that took him away from the limelight for decades, until a break finally occurred when he was well into his 60′s.

Strangely enough, it appears death is something he won’t take sitting still, and is actually the catalyst that has brought Jimmy Scott’s career back to life…

read more about the show, plus detailed info on his life & career accomplishments below the fold
more on little-jimmy-scott

Career:

Jimmy Scott tried his luck on a smattering of labels, working notably with producer Fred Mendelsohn in the early 50′s. They got some interest going with a tune released on the Roost label called “I Won’t Cry Anymore”, it eventually became a big hit, but for another larger label, called Columbia, and the singer who got the hit, was actually a white Italian guy named Tony Bennett. Other labels Scott flipped obscure sides for included Coral & Regal.

It is said that 50′s singing sensation Johnny Ray, stole the stage act after seeing “crying” Jimmy Scott perform. Ray went on to great acclaim, while Scott ended up humbly opening for the crooner who grew famous by imitating Jimmy’s heartfelt & teary eyed performances. Ray committed suicide at the peak of his career, but not before turning on a Georgia raised singer who made the 3rd generation appropriation of Scott’s shtick a big part of his stage act, that guy was James Brown….

Jimmy Scott outlived them all…but he never got the notoriety.

Even after a late career renaissance brought him to new audiences around the world, Scott copes with the fact that his type of fame is fleeting. He has duly noted this phenomena when he sang onstage in the 1990′s with the Grateful Dead to an arena crowd of thousands in his hometown of Cleveland, the local daily paper still referred to him as an “unknown female singer”.

Since the quirky career kickstart given to the 67 year old Scott after an appearance at Doc Pomus’ funeral, he has continued touring, recorded some 8 or so albums on half dozen labels since hitting retirement age, made a movie about his life called “Jimmy Scott, If You Only Knew”, and added a 5th wife in 2003 to his bio as well.

Now with his aged infirmities creeping in, ever dapper, Scott is performing while even restricted to moving around via wheelchair…

but dammit, he just won’t quit…

Music is his life, once saying “I love performing. You live with reality every day. You can’t miss it. We can try to avoid a lot of trials in life, but it’s better to overcome than avoid. That’s what music has been for me. It’s been my opportunity to overcome.”

All Hail The Tough & Tender Little Jimmy Scott whose motto is :

“It’ll work out in the end. You gotta believe” – Jimmy Scott!

Strangely enough, it appears death is something he won’t take sitting still, and is actually the catalyst that has brought Jimmy Scott’s career back to life…

By the late 70′s and early 80′s Scott was reduced to playing low rent bars and seedy nightclubs for pocket money. Eventually, some of his only gigs were occasional charity appearances at senior citizen homes. Scott’s humble menial day jobs at Bob’s Big Boy and in a Cleveland Sheraton hotel gave him a mindset that was set far from keeping abreast of the changing tastes of a fickle record buying public at the tail end of the 20th century.

In 1985, at age 60, he returned to the eastern seaboard, and for the first time in over a decade started working small clubs in New York and Harlem, perhaps getting occasional nostalgic write ups in the NY Times or Village Voice. Despite thin crowds at first, he kept at it, no matter how hopeless or slow going it seemed. Soon little bright spots would appear. Things like getting invited onstage by blues vet Ruth Brown or old friend Milt Jackson would liven up his schedule & sagging fortunes.

Scott’s subsequent shift back into the public eye ironically began to truly gather momentum at The Riverside Funeral Home on St.Patrick’s Day 1991. The sad/happy occasion was legendary rock n roll songwriter and old friend Doc Pomus’ funeral. Pomus ( aka Jerome Felder ) was a remarkable songwriter, whose library of classic early rock & roll classics include “Save The Last Dance For Me”, and “This Magic Moment”.

Said Jimmy of meeting Doc: “I met Doc Pomus when he came to see my show at the Baby Grand in Harlem around 1945 or ’46. Doc showed me how to get around on the New York Subway system, then took me home to have dinner with his mother, father, and little brother, Raoul Felder (Raoul was so stuffy, snooty, and studious at the time; he later became one of the country’s top celebrity lawyers)… bringing me home and having dinner with his family was my most cherished memory of Doc.

Ever since Jimmy had met Pomus back in the 40′s, they had stayed in touch. In fact, in 1987 Doc even wrote a letter to trade publication Billboard extolling Scott’s virtues, decrying the hard times he was going through, and warning the record industry not to sleep on a chance to catch the long overdue second coming of Little Jimmy Scott.

Now a few years later, Scott sat Shiva and was asked by Doc’s family to perform “Someone To Watch Over Me” at the funeral, along with backing from fellow old timers Dr. John on piano and Fathead Newman on sax. Scott arrived early and sat unasumedly with hands folded in the back with his 4th wife Earlene. After the colorful eulogies, Jimmy’s haunting voice overthe tinkling keys stunned the room, with many so far back they could barely see his tiny head over the crowd. The room was filled with dozens of music biz luminaries, like Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and the aforementioned Seymour Stein of Sire who felt it was almost his spiritual duty to Doc to simply offer Scott a dignified deal.

Jimmy later told a reporter in 2000 of the bittersweet good fortune coming from his friend’s death, ” The next day, this cat from Warners comes over with a contract. It was like Doc’s hand reaching out from the grave.”

He went on to many new career highights ranging from appearing on television shows & sold out shows across the US & Europe to even performing onstage at Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball gala in DC. Said Scott in a 200 era interview of his new found glory, “…if you dance long enough, somebody hear you tapping your toe.”

A favorite of performers ranging from Billie Holiday & Dinah Washington, to Frankie Lymon & Frankie Valli. Amongst his admirers include Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby and John Lennon, all whom knew of and expressed respect of his work. Some more of Jimmy Scott’s long list of fans and admirers have also included amongst them Red Foxx, Bill Clinton, Marvin Gaye, Ossie Davis and Amiri Baraka.

Said Quincy Jones once of the time he spent backing Jimmy,
‘Night after night, I’d be sitting back there in the trumpet section, listening to this man cry his heart out. He’d just tear you up, you could sense Jimmy taking us all to an emotional level that was high and deep at the same time…Jimmy would tear my heart out every night with his soul-penetrating style”…

Even Madonna has said “Jimmy Scott is the only singer who makes me cry,”

to get tickets for this week’s rare San Francisco performances of the legendary Jimmy Scott, click here:

There is only 1 8pm set per night, tickets are $18

http://www.yoshis.com/sanfrancisco/jazzclub/artist/show/1122

Jimmy Scott’s Official Bio Webpage: http://www.jimmyscottofficialwebsite.org/biography.htm

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