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Little Jimmy Scott was a big man on campus. In some ways the acclaimed jazz singer — who died Friday at the age of 88 — was the very embodiment of the term "cult figure," so the New York Times wasn't speaking out of turn when, at the turn of the millennium, the newspaper called Scott "perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century." But within the circle of singers' singers, there was far less ignorance, with veneration coming by everyone from classic R&B figures like Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Marvin Gaye to modern-day icons like Lou Reed, Madonna, and David Lynch.
The rehabilitation of his legend got seriously underway in the early '90s. A generation of TV viewers was first exposed to Scott in 1991 when he sang a number co-written by Lynch in the final episode of Twin Peaks, which is set to be released on Blu-Ray next month. A year later, the rock world took notice of him when he appeared on Lou Reed's Magic and Loss album and took a prominent role as a featured vocalist on the tour that followed. In both instances, he was employed as a spooky, even spectral figure — not such a stretch, since his voice had been described as "otherworldly" for decades before that.
Scott's name had come up a lot lately because of the imminent release of the movie version of Jersey Boys, since Frankie Valli has been name-checking Scott as a personal hero since he first met him in the 1950s. "Jimmy Scott was one of my earliest inspirations, especially in the field of jazz and R&B," Valli told Yahoo shortly after learning of his death Friday. "He will be missed greatly." In an interview last month, Valli placed Scott in the pantheon of greats. "You felt that everything Frank Sinatra sang was really happening or had happened to him in his life," said the Four Seasons' frontman, "and there were a lot of great singers that were like that — Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington and Billy Epstein and Little Jimmy Scott."
Ray Charles, who produced an album for Scott in 1962, was quoted as saying that "Jimmy was singing soul way back before the word was being used." Madonna, who gave Scott a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in her 1994 "Secret" video, opined that "Jimmy Scott is the only singer who makes me cry." Superfan Bill Cosby centered an episode of his Cosby sitcom around the Huxtables' love of a particular Scott classic. Early acolyte Joe Pesci said "the sound of his voice turned my world upside-down."
And Marvin Gaye, like Stevie Wonder and many of the R&B singers of the '60s, counted Scott as a critical influence. “I heard Jimmy Scott back in the '50s when I sang doo-wop," Gaye told biographer David Ritz in the 1970s. "We looked to Jimmy as a master. My entire career I longed to sing ballads — like Frank Sinatra or Nat Cole or Perry Como — but with the depth of Jimmy Scott. He had that tear in his voice. That aching soul. When I finally got to record those ballads, I had a tape of Jimmy Scott songs by my side."
In the pre-iTunes era, a lot of TV viewers scrambled to find Little Jimmy Scott records after his recording of "An Evening in Paradise" was featured on a season 2 episode of Cosby in 1985 titled "Denise's Decision." The Huxtables danced to the record and argued over what year the song was recorded, with Cliff winning the bet by correctly naming the year 1962. But with Scott's seminal albums long out of print by the mid-'80s, there was no rush on Little Jimmy's records at the time.
"It's not a normal voice," Lou Reed once said, in one of the greatest understatements in the history of popular music. "It'd be cliche to say the voice of an angel." It'd also be cliche to say the voice of an androgynous human, but Scott was deliberately misidentified as a woman on one of his earliest recordings. The New York Times wrote: "His most ardent fans seem to have taken the naked vulnerability in his voice as proof of a secret knowledge of the female heart. Scott could be heard as the jazz version of the Greek mythological figure Tiresias, who had been both a man and a woman and who knew everything."
Scott's voice, variously described as the equivalent of a contralto or a boy's alto, became a little rougher as a result of old age and untold amounts of cigarettes. He was born with Kallman's syndrome, which put off the effects of puberty, including a deepened voice. He stood at a mere 4'11" for much of his adult life, although he reportedly enjoyed an eight-inch growth spurt in his 30s. For many fans, knowledge of his condition contributed to the forlorn quality of his balladry. In fact, Scott was able to enjoy sexual relations (although not sire children) and married five times, so he wasn't necessarily quite the romantic loner some imagined. But he did confess to interviewers that some of his wives were attracted more to his celebrity than they were to him, so the lonesomeness wasn't strictly an accident of his song choices or vocal timbre, either.
The sadness that melancholiacs found in Scott had other likely sources, starting with his mother's death in a car accident when he was 13. In later decades, career troubles offered plenty of reasons for the blues, as a singer who'd been championed as one of the greats in the early '60s spent the 1970s in his hometown of Cleveland working as an elevator operator, a nurse's aide at an old folks' home, a shipping clerk, and even a waiter at Bob's Big Boy.
His first and arguably only radio hit came in 1950 when he sang lead on the Lionel Hampton Band's "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," which made the R&B top 10. Unfortunately, in the first of a long series of unlucky breaks, he wasn't credited anywhere on the record. When he sang lead on another band's record soon after, a woman was credited.
Ray Charles signed him to his own Tangerine label in the early '60s and produced an album, Falling in Love is Wonderful, that some cultists regard as one of the finest vocal jazz recordings ever made. Rather than sell Scott's image, the label put an amorous couple on the front of the LP sleeve. It was a moot point: Scott's formal label threatened legal action, and the album was withdrawn after a few weeks, becoming a highly sought after and expensive collectors' item until it was finally issued on CD 42 years later. Another album that many consider a classic, The Source, was recorded in 1969 but not released until 2001.
Then came the Bob's Big Boy years. Scott at least got back into music in the 1980s after working menial jobs through the '70s, but to largely empty clubs. His first break during the lean years came with a lengthy Village Voice profile bemoaning his plight in 1988. In 1991, he got the kind of booking he'd been needing, at Hollywood's Cinegrill, where supporters Nancy Wilson and Ruth Brown threw him an opening-night party. In attendance was the man who was then arguably the hottest filmmaker in the world.
"David Lynch had come to the Cinegrill to see me perform," Scott told biographer Ritz. "He told me afterwards that he liked my aura and had to have me in his show. Naturally I agreed. I wasn't too familiar with the program, but someone said that millions of young people watched it, so I was grateful for the shot. I didn’t quite understand the story line. David had me wearing a bow tie and singing to a dwarf.” It's a scene that the website Noisenarcs accurately described as "the most amazing two minutes of scripted television ever." The mystical song that had Scott serenading Agent Cooper into the Black Lodge, "Sycamore Trees," was re-recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, although the film itself features only an instrumental version.
It was a good break, but still, it was hard to make out whether Scott was real or a ghost amid all those Lynchian strobe lights. Rock fans got a better look at him when Lou Reed and Warner Bros. took up his cause.
Ironically, the renaissance really started when Scott performed at the funeral of music legend Doc Pomus, who was famous for writing a letter to Billboard a few years earlier saying it was a crime that Scott wasn't better revered. Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, who'd previously been urged by employees to sign Scott, was at the funeral and found himself so impressed that he offered the little-remembered singer a major-label deal, even though there was little hope he'd actually make money for Warner Bros. He hired the jazz world's top producer, Tommy LiPuma, to helm his comeback album, All of Me. Independently, Reed, another funeral-goer, was partly inspired by Pomus' death to record the mortality-themed Magic and Loss album, for which he employed Scott as a crucial vocal contributor.
Reed also took Scott out on tour. In a review of a Greek Theatre show, the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The wild card of the evening was 'the legendary Little Jimmy Scott,' the wonderfully weird, aged soul singer who reprised his wail on the new album's 'Power and Glory.' Singing 'I want all of it, not some of it' in a near-soprano, Scott played The Life Force as a foil to Reed's mumbling, disappointed curmudgeon, gesturing with the dignity of an orator while emitting some lovely, otherworldly sounds. Scott also got to take the 'girls' part on the closing 'Walk on the Wild Side.' 'Crazy,' said Reed, affectionately."
From his Warner Bros. debut forward, Scott recorded eight studio albums in the 1990s and 2000s, cementing his status as a cult hero to rock as well as jazz fans as he tracked tunes like Roxy Music's "More Than This," Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue," and Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" as well as the standards. Documentarians descended upon his fascinating story en masse for both TV and feature-length portraits. For someone whose legend was predicated on loneliness, he had the biggest celebrity fan club you could ask for. Madonna put him in her "Secret" video, although only for about three seconds, perhaps as a sort of talisman. Ethan Hawke gave him a role in his Chelsea Hotel movie. The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea recorded a cover of the Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" with Scott in an album that attempted that un-ironicize lounge classics.
But his appeal was always more about the emotion than the hepster iconography. He once told David Byrne that Lionel Hampton had dubbed him "Crying Jimmy Scott" as well as "Little Jimmy Scott" because of his propensity for tears. In the interviewer's role, Byrne asked, "Why did you want to learn not to cry? Was it just physically and emotionally exhausting?" Scott answered, "I felt like people don't want to see me standing up here crying because I feel emotional about the lyrics I'm singing, and I felt that was wrong; I shouldn't do that. So I worked myself out of it and got more control over the emotions."
But fortunately not quite so much control that he didn't tug at others' tear ducts for more than 60 years. Lou Reed might have put it best: "Listening to Jimmy is like having a performing heart."