Jimmy Scott, Singer Whose Star Rose Late, Dies at 88
Jimmy Scott, a jazz singer whose distinctively plaintive delivery and unusually high-pitched voice earned him a loyal following and, late in life, a taste of bona fide stardom, died on Thursday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 88.
The cause was cardiac arrest, his wife, Jeanie Scott, said.
Mr. Scott’s career finished on a high note, with steady work from the early 1990s on, as well as a Grammy nomination, glowing reviews and praise from well-known fellow performers like Madonna, who called him “the only singer who makes me cry.” But the first four decades of his career were checkered, with long periods of inactivity and more lows than highs.
After enjoying sporadic success in the 1950s, he had almost none in the 1960s. Albums he recorded for major labels in 1962 and 1969, which might have jump-started his career, were quickly withdrawn from the market when another company claimed to have him under contract. He virtually stopped performing in the 1970s and made no records between 1975 and 1990.
But if Mr. Scott spent most of his career in relative obscurity, he always had a core of fiercely devoted fans — among them many prominent vocalists who cited him as an influence, including Marvin Gaye, Frankie Valli and Nancy Wilson.
The fact that both men and women considered themselves Mr. Scott’s disciples is not surprising: because of a rare genetic condition called Kallmann syndrome,which caused his body to stop maturing before he reached puberty, Mr. Scott’s voice never changed, and he remained an eerie, androgynous alto his whole life.
Standing 4-foot-11, with a hairless face to match his boyish voice, he was originally billed as Little Jimmy Scott, and he was presented to audiences as a child until well into his 20s. In his mid-30s he unexpectedly grew eight inches taller and, although he otherwise remained physically unchanged, doctors told him an operation might stimulate his hormonal development. He decided against it.
“I was afraid of entering uncharted territory,” Mr. Scott told David Ritz, the author of “Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott” (2002). “Besides, fooling with my hormones might mean changing my voice. Whatever the problems that came with the deficiency, my voice was the one thing I could count on.”
Mr. Scott’s condition left him incapable of reproduction.
James Victor Scott was born on July 17, 1925, in Cleveland. The third of 10 children, he lived in orphanages and foster homes after his mother was killed in a car accident when he was 13. After singing in local nightclubs for a few years, he went on the road in 1945 with a vaudeville-style show headed by Estella Young, a dancer and contortionist. He moved to New York City in 1947 and joined Lionel Hampton’s band a year later.
His 1950 recording of “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” with Hampton set the pattern for his later work. A mournful ballad of love gone wrong, the song was delivered with feverish intensity and idiosyncratic, behind-the-beat phrasing. The record was a hit, but because it was credited on the label simply to “Lionel Hampton, vocal with orchestra,” few people knew that Mr. Scott was the singer.
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Recordings later in the decade for the Roost and Savoy labels helped establish his name. But with a style somewhere between jazz and rhythm and blues and a voice somewhere between male and female, he found it difficult to gain a foothold in the marketplace.
The vagaries of the record business did not help. An album he recorded for Ray Charles’s Tangerine label in 1962, featuring Charles on piano and a string section, garnered radio play and, with national distribution from ABC Records, seemed likely to expand his audience. But Herman Lubinsky, the owner of Savoy Records, threatened legal action to block its release, claiming he still had Mr. Scott under contract. A similar fate befell “The Source,” an album Mr. Scott made for Atlantic seven years later.
By then, a frustrated Mr. Scott had moved back to Cleveland, where he held a variety of nonmusical jobs, including cook, hotel clerk and nurse’s aide, for the better part of two decades, although he continued to perform occasionally and even recorded an album for Savoy in 1975.
“When the gig ain’t there, you still got to pay the rent,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 2000. “I learned that a long time ago.”
In 1984, encouraged by the woman who would soon become his fourth wife, Mr. Scott moved east and began to get nightclub bookings in Newark and New York City. He released a self-produced album in 1990. But despite his renewed commitment to music, his profile remained low until 1991, when he was signed to Sire Records, a rock-oriented Warner Brothers subsidiary, on the strength of his performance of “Someone to Watch Over Me” at the funeral of the songwriter Doc Pomus, an old friend.
On his first Sire album, “All the Way,” he sang classic love songs by the likes of Porter and Gershwin, accompanied by first-rank jazz musicians. The album garnered strong reviews, sold well and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
After that, Mr. Scott never wanted for work. He sang at one of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural balls in 1993. He became a popular concert attraction in Europe and Japan. He sang on the soundtrack of “Philadelphia” and other movies and acted in the independent film “Chelsea Walls” in 2001. He also appeared in an episode of the cult television series “Twin Peaks.”
Mr. Scott continued to record into the 21st century, notably for the Milestone label, and to perform. His last appearance was in June 2012 at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. In 2007, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and a Living Jazz Legend by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Mr. Scott married Jeanie McCarthy, his fifth wife, in 2003. Besides her, he is survived by a son, Tracy Porter; three sisters, Nadine Walker, Betsy Jones and Elsa Scott; and a brother, Roger Scott.
Finding himself in demand a half-century after he first sang in front of an audience, Mr. Scott was grateful but philosophical.
“I appreciate the fact that these things are finally happening for me,” he told The Plain Dealer in Cleveland in 1997, “but I wish they could have happened earlier in my career so I could have enjoyed the retiring years much better.” Still, he conceded, “in show business, generally you don’t retire. If you love it, that is, you’re in it forever anyway.”
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