Jimmy Scott Honored at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem
Jimmy Scott, who died in June at 88, had a voice out of time: ripe and cutting, nestled between male and female registers, utterly unmistakable in tone as well as timbre. His influence on other singers has been profound, especially taking into account the many years he lurked in obscurity. And the breadth of that influence — its great range of possibilities, not all of them emulation — was a striking feature of his memorial service on Saturday afternoon, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
The service, officiated by the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, featured a rich array of vocal performances, most of them touched by the electrifying pathos that Scott made his trademark. The house band was composed of his former sidemen, including the saxophonists T. K. Blue and Bill Easley and the bassist Hill Greene. (The estimable jazz pianist Randy Weston also performed a ballad, “The Healers,” joined on flute by Mr. Blue.)
Sam Moore, the indomitable soul singer, set a high bar with his keening, regal interpretation of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” over a gospel groove. His power of projection was later matched only by a nearly operatic Chuck Jackson, belting his signature hit, “Any Day Now,” in tribute to Scott and his widow, Jeanie.
Several other singers worked with a deliberative, aching languor, closer to Scott’s style. The most purely evocative was the New Orleans pianist and vocalist Davell Crawford, whose version of “When Did You Leave Heaven?” incorporated Scott’s behind-the-beat phrasing and dramatic intonation, approaching a sob. The actor-singer Storm Gardner was similarly faithful on “I’ll Be Seeing You,” but with more emotional reserve. And Antony Hegarty, who once featured Scott as his guest at Carnegie Hall, softly demolished “Smile,” making use of an ethereal, quavering falsetto; he nailed the otherworldliness, and the androgynous tone, that gave Scott an air of mystery.
To one degree or another, those were the stylistic heirs on hand. There was also a pair of singer-songwriter-pianists who qualify more as Scott’s peers. Andy Bey, who has made his own magisterial art out of slowly unfolding standards, delivered an “Embraceable You” that moved through the fullness of his range, all swoop and shudder. And Dr. John gave his song “My Buddy“ an easy, conversational cadence: “I miss your voice,” he sang in a restrained croak, making it feel like a direct address.
Among those who paid spoken tribute to Scott were his former sidemen; his biographer, David Ritz; executives from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the Jazz Foundation of America; and the producer Hal Willner. A common theme in these recollections was Scott’s dauntless optimism in the face of a lifetime’s worth of hardship, including a hormonal condition, Kallmann syndrome, that influenced his singing voice. But the main point was his irrepressible talent. “He didn’t have to study to hit the note,” said the veteran R&B singer and pastor Mable John. “He was the note.”
Representative Charles B. Rangel spoke briefly, to greet his constituency and pay his respects; he recalled his first grateful encounter with Scott’s voice, courtesy of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra single “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” And a bit of related news came from Lloyd Williams, president and chief executive of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce: Next July 26, in a collaboration between the Harlem Music Festival and Jazzmobile, an afternoon concert will be held at Grant’s Tomb, entirely in tribute to Scott.
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