|The starstruck author and Jimmy Scott. San Francisco, February 23, 2010|
American jazz singer Jimmy Scott died Thursday June 12 at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada aged 88.
Described by the New York Times as ‘the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century’ and by Madonna as ‘the only singer who could make me cry’, Scott was highly influential despite never achieving the success of those who worshipped him.
A close friend to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many American jazz legends, Billie Holiday cited Scott as her favourite singer. Such was their closeness Scott officiated as Holiday’s family at her funeral.
Known for his distinctively ethereal contralto and uniquely laconic phrasing, Scott was diagnosed with Kallman’s Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that prevented him from reaching puberty, effectively making him a castrato.
His distinctively androgynous voice can be heard on early recordings such as Lionel Hampton’s 1950 hit Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool and Charlie Parker’s Embraceable You, both widely played records that omitted his name and mis-credited him respectively. Scott is best known for his appearance in the TV series Twin Peaks singing David Lynch’s Sycamore Trees.
Scott’s diminutive stature, effeminate appearance and unusual voice – symptoms of his disorder - cast him as an outsider and lead him to be the victim of physical and verbal abuse for much of his life. Singers Frankie Valli, Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson all cite Scott as a key influence.
In 1955, Scott signed a recording contract with Herman Lubinsky’s Savoy Records that bound him to Lubinsky for life. Lubinsky claimed the rights to all of Scott’s work, even after he left the label.
Scott’s first album Falling In Love Is Wonderful, produced and funded by Ray Charles was withdrawn within days of its release due to a threatened lawsuit from Lubinsky. Scott’s second album, 1969’s The Source was similarly derailed.
Unable to record or release music until Lubinsky’s death in 1975, Scott took menial jobs and remained in obscurity until rediscovered singing at the funeral of singer-songwriter Doc Pomus in 1991. Also present at the funeral were Seymour Stein, owner of Sire Records, who signed him immediately, and Lou Reed, who regularly featured him on albums and tours. Director David Lynch wrote Scott into the final episode of his TV series Twin Peaks in 1991 after chancing across him in an adjacent room in a recording studio.
Interviewing Scott in 2010, he said, “My life is such a human interest story. Even Ray Charles said mine was more interesting than his! Ray said it was more compelling not only because we both lost our mothers at a young age - he was blind and I had my thing - but he was lucky. He was in the right places at the right time. I wasn’t, you know?”
Scott’s first ‘comeback’ album, the Grammy nominated All the Way, came when he was 67 and was the first of ten albums released between 1992 and 2004. He was the subject of Matthew Buzzel’s 2003 documentary Jimmy Scott, If You Only Knew, and David Ritz’s biography Faith In Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott.
He was the recipient of numerous jazz awards including the NEA Jazz Master award, the Kennedy Center’s ‘Jazz in Our Time’ award and NABOB’s Pioneer award in 2007. Scott was inducted into the R&B Music Hall of Fame in October last year.
Live was where Scott excelled and where he felt most at home. Scott’s performances include the inauguration of both Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and Bill Clinton 40 years later as well as the wedding of Nick Cave.
At a 2010 show in San Francisco, Scott – permanently confined to a wheelchair after a fall since 2007 – held the small audience effortless spellbound. Arms flailing, his body possessed, he inhabited ballad after ballad as if living them anew. It was a rare concert to not feature tears in the audience and often onstage.
“A lot of people come into the business not knowing what to do or how to project,” he said. “They don’t realize they’re telling a story. I feel if you’re singing a song it has to mean something. It has to make sense. That’s why I protect what I have in it. Good songs should touch you and make you think about what you’re doing with your life. A lot of times I got caught on the wrong end of bad deals, that’s it. You have to overcome it. I’ve been there, I’ve felt those blows, but you overcome. You have to. You can’t give up.”
Scott is survived by his fifth wife Jeanie.