"In my whole career the NEA Jazz Masters Award is the greatest gift I ever received. It is an honor to receive this award."
For more than five decades, vocalist Jimmy Scott numbered among the jazz world's best singers with his select group of fans. No less an authority than Billie Holiday named Scott -- and only Scott -- as a vocalist she admired. Although he was, for a period, "perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century" (according to Joseph Hooper in a New York Times Magazine profile), Scott was able to find a dedicated international audience for his emotionally penetrating art later in his career.
James Victor Scott was born in 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, and as a child was diagnosed with Kallmann syndrome, a rare condition that prevented him from experiencing puberty -- therefore his voice never changed, giving his singing an almost otherworldly sound. He got his first big break in 1949 when Lionel Hampton hired him and billed him as "Little Jimmy Scott." As featured vocalist with the Hampton big band, Scott achieved fame in 1950 with the ballad "Everybody's Somebody's Fool." His success continued throughout the next decade, notably with his hit recording in 1955 of the old Bing Crosby favorite "When Did You Leave Heaven?," a song that he made his own.
Scott subsequently spent long periods away from the microphone, working for a time as a hotel shipping clerk and as a caretaker for his ailing father. He returned to the stage in 1985 and began recording again in 1990, and his career took off again two years later when Seymour Stein heard him perform at songwriter Doc Pomus's funeral and signed him to the Warner Brothers Sire label. Scott recorded two albums for Sire, one for Warner Bros., and one for Artists Only! before joining Milestone Records in 2000. He sang new interpretations of "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" and "When Did You Leave Heaven?" on the Milestone CD Over the Rainbow, released in 2001, on which he returned the compliment Billie Holiday had paid him by performing his own distinctive version of one of her signature songs, "Strange Fruit."
His resurgence in the public eye included appearances on Lou Reed's 1992 recording Magic and Loss and in an episode of David Lynch's 1990s television series Twin Peaks. Scott's new fans rediscovered his original hit recordings of the 1950s on such collections as the three-CD box set The Savoy Years and More released in 1999, which included his 1952 recordings for Roost Records and his 1955-72 recordings for Savoy.
The Savoy Years and More, Savoy, 1952-72
Falling in Love is Wonderful, Rhino, 1962
All the Way, Sire, 1992
Holding Back the Years, Artists Only, 1998
Over the Rainbow, Milestone, 2000
Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
January 11, 2007
Edited by Don Ball, NEA
THE POWER OF RADIO
Q: I wanted to ask you, did you have had some kind of really pivotal early experience when you were a child, either hearing a recording or going to a live concert, that really resonated with you?
Jimmy Scott: Mine would have been the radio, listening to the radio. Tommy Dorsey was big then; Bing Crosby was big. And it was the old timers that I learned from by listening to them. You see, we didn't have all the fancy new record players and all that, so we listened to the radio.
Q: Well, the radio took on an importance in those days that I don't know if it still has.
Jimmy Scott: Well, it was really the beginning of having the advantage to hear the big bands and all. I remember when we were little how that was the major support of us learning anything about music. I would hear these singers singing with these bands and what not, and a lot of these stories attracted me. I'd go to the Five-and-Ten and [buy] a lyric book. It had the lyrics to all the popular songs, and I think we paid a dime for the first one. We paid a dime for it. Then it got to cost a quarter. After that it went into something else, see, sheet music and what not. Then you began to buy sheet music of the songs you wanted to learn. And you'd get the sheet music, which was good because it made you familiar with the melodies and things, the sheet music did. You had two things you could learn from the sheet music. You could learn the melodies and structure of the songs. The early conception of my study, that's the way it was.
FIRST EXPERIENCES SINGING
Q: You obviously took an early interest in music and were singing and learning music through the sheet music, but when did somebody outside first recognize the talent that you had?
Jimmy Scott: Well, we had a teacher in school who would organize dramatic shows. And she decided to put on a show about, I don't know whether you remember, Ferdinand the Bull, the comic script. However, she decided, you're going to sing Ferdinand, me, as a role. Mr. Todd, the music teacher in school, he played the melody for us, That was my first public singing.
Q: So was it intimidating to you or did you feel like that was a natural?
Jimmy Scott: Well, it was intimidating in the sense that I wasn't aware of grasping the music yet and knowing it. See, you rehearsed music, then it became attached to you as you went along rehearsing it. Then you remembered it; you began learning how to remember it.
Q: Do you remember was there any specific point at which you realized that you really had something to say?
Jimmy Scott: I tell people about the time that I was with two tap dancers. They had decided they wanted me to be their valet. And we went on this gig in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and then there was one with an S, Sheraton or Sherman or something like that. And at this gig I'm in the dressing room, the band's outside and I don't know nobody in the band yet and this band is just swinging like mad, boop-de-boop, but swinging. Man, that band was swinging. And I couldn't sit still back there in the dressing room. In this band was Lester Young, Papa Jo Jones, Ray Brown. I'm trying to think of who was on piano.
Q: Sir Charles [Thompson]?
Jimmy Scott: Sir Charles, yeah. Sir Charles. You're right, Sir Charles. So anyway, they found out that I could sing a little bit so they would encourage me to go and do a number on their shows whenever I was around. And that used to be the same thing when I'd go down to Birdland, the first one. They didn't let you sit there, you know, if they knew you. They'd ask you to sing. And I'd start going down to Birdland. Earlier I had been in New York, which was my first time to New York, and I got booked in the Baby Grand up in Harlem there. I was booked there for a week; they kept me there for about a month. That's where Doc Pomus and myself became very close friends and start running together around town and what not. Nipsy Russell was the emcee, never forget it, yeah. He was the emcee there at the Baby Grand. They were great show people back in the day. They were the foundation of what show business is all about. And what I know about show business, that's where I learned with them back in those days.
Q: Back in those days, were you aspiring to create a certain sound?
Jimmy Scott: That was just a natural thing. That was the way I would sing. They'd play; I would sing as long as I knew the melody well enough. That was one thing that was most important to any singer even today -- know that melody. And it helps you in the sense of knowing what the lyric is trying to tell the public. It's like anything else; it just all connects and if you present it right, it works with the public.
RELATING TO AUDIENCES
Q: I wanted to ask you about your experience with Lionel Hampton and playing with a band of that popularity and for audiences of that magnitude. How did that affect your experience of relating to an audience?
Jimmy Scott: Well, it helped to teach me how to accept large audiences being in front of this band and singing out there with just huge crowds and things. You learn to get used to it.
Q: Do you have a preference between big audiences or intimate settings?
Jimmy Scott: It doesn't matter after a while. You got to do the show and you go out there with that in mind. That's it. And that alone takes care of it all, you know. That's one of the things, it becomes a natural part of you. I think if you learn to accept it, it strengthens your performance. I believe that.
There's times, in certain songs, that I might be in my own world and who cares about who's out there, you know? You have a job to do so you do that job of singing that song or telling that story because that's what you're doing. If you're singing, you're telling a story. So to tell it and tell it right, that's it.
Q: Obviously you can't perform at the same level in every single performance, so there has to be some performances where there's more magic than others. Can you feel that in a performance?
Jimmy Scott: Oh yeah, you can tell. That's when you feel the audience, whether they call it spiritual or whatever, but it's there. And it comes from that audience.
Q: And I would think it would be more of a challenge in a recording studio where you don't have anyone that you're necessarily communicating with, you're by yourself. Can you choose one recording to just tell us a little bit about the process of recording? Whichever recording you chose, how it came about, how it felt and what the experience was.
Jimmy Scott: Yeah, well that first one that I ever did with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, "Everybody's Somebody's Fool." I got it out before I actually learned in-depth what it meant. And it was years before I knew what I was singing for that reason, you see, and I was shocked that it attracted the public like it did.
Q: Were you more passionate about recording or about performing live?
Jimmy Scott: I would have liked more attention to my recording. You know, I would have liked that to have grown to be meaningful. It didn't grow like I thought it should. But I will always believe there's still time for that. And the performances, they've done it all. Even how little they've paid for me to perform, I still feel that I've received something that's been important to me.
THE MUSIC BUSINESS
Q: You had promoters and people behind you early in your career who then suddenly were not behind you for a while.
Jimmy Scott: Yeah, well I had a rough time because everybody wanted to grab the money; everybody come grabbing the money. You know, I wasn't the only one. So many kids got caught up in that. And everybody wanted their hands on the money. It wasn't about how good they could make your career or how much better they could make your career, it was who's going to get the money. And it wound up, of course, being disturbing to myself and to any other artist.
Q: So did you eventually take a hiatus or take leave of your own accord?
Jimmy Scott: Most of the leaves I took in the business were of my own accord because we got tired. And then the money's going one way and you're going another. I had rent to pay, I had bills to pay. There was times I needed money to survive. But if you ain't getting no money, how can you survive? Simple as that, that's all it was.
And you back off and hope for a better show. Maybe somebody would come along and give you a hand, maybe they wouldn't. But I was grateful for any hand that I was given. They called up and I got that shot at the Baby Grand. That was one of the greatest things that had happened to me, in my opinion at that time, because nobody had ever done anything like that for me. It's just like this award. It's a great help to me and my wife at this particular time. It's something we needed, you see. And a great honor. And it can mean many things for the future for both of us. And that's another important thing about it.
Q: Do you have any aspirations about how you hope to be perceived by your peers, by the musicians, by the people?
Jimmy Scott: Well, as far as musicians, I hope to be perceived as a brother of loyalty to them, respectfully. And I try to respect every one in the business and I'm hoping to gain a little more respect from the producing side of the business, so that advantages will be created for me to step ahead in life. And I have wife now, and naturally I'm looking forward to making a salary that will afford me to take care of her.
Q: So are you turning gigs down these days or are you happy to tour and happy to go out?
Jimmy Scott: Show business has always been my life. I love it. I've shared the ups and downs. So it will still be my life. It is a big piece of your life because this is all you know. It just seems like it takes you to such great heights in your life.
In between, I've taken regular gigs, I've worked in grocery stores, worked as a dishwasher, a porter in different places, all for survival. I don't feel bad about doing it. I wished I could have done better. And still do.