Music Memories: Jimmy Scott

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Jimmy Scott on cover of his album, But Beautiful
Jimmy Scott on cover of his album, But Beautiful

On July 17, 1925, Jimmy Scott was born. Scott was a jazz singer with two distinct career phases. His music in the 1940s and 1950s sat on the boundary of jazz and R&B; when he reappeared in the 1990s and 2000s, it was as a singer of traditional jazz ballads.

Scott was born with Kallmann syndrome, a genetic condition that kept him from going through puberty. As a result, he had a distinctive high voice and he was shorter than most men. He stopped growing at the height of four feet eleven inches, until an unexpected 8-inch growth spurt in his late 30s.

Because of his height, he was known at the beginning of his career as Little Jimmy Scott. Under that name, he sang with Lionel Hampton’s band in the late 1940s. He was the voice on Hampton’s 1950 R&B hit, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” which was credited only to “Lionel Hampton and vocalist.”

Very Truly Yours

But it was a big enough hit that Scott was able to go solo, and he was successful enough to be invited to perform at the inaugural festivities for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Between 1955 and 1960, he recorded three albums for the Savoy label—Very Truly Yours, If You Only Knew, and The Fabulous Songs of Jimmy Scott—and seemed on his way to a long career.

In 1963, Scott recorded an album for Tangerine Records, which was run by Ray Charles. The album was pulled from the market after less than a month when Savoy claimed that Scott was still under contract to them. The legal wrangling continued for several years, and an album Scott had recorded for Atlantic was another casualty of the dispute. By the end of the 1960s, Scott had returned to Cleveland, where he spent the next twenty years working in a variety of jobs, hospital orderly and elevator operator among them.

Scott didn’t return to public performance until 1989, when he began sharing late-night concerts at a New York club, with Johnnie Ray, who had been successful singing melodramatic pop songs in the early 1950s.

In 1991, Scott sang at the funeral of his longtime friend Doc Pomus, one of the major songwriters of the early rock’n’roll era. There were many important musicians and music executives in attendance, and the performance was a major boost for the revival of Scott’s career. He was invited by Lou Reed to sing backup vocals on his next album, he can be heard on the song “Power and Glory”; he appeared in an episode of the TV series Twin Peaks, and he was signed to a recording contract by Warner Records’ Sire label.

All The Way

Scott, now billed as “Jimmy Scott” with no “Little,” recorded three albums for Sire between 1992 and 1996. All the Way and Dream were albums of jazz standards, usually melancholy ballads; Heaven was a collection of contemplative religious and gospel songs. If Scott’s voice had lost some of the flexibility and range it had shown forty years earlier, the distinctive timbre was no less haunting, and his phrasing and interpretations were as thoughtful and intelligent as they had ever been.

In the midst of this career comeback, Scott sang at one of the inaugural concerts for Bill Clinton, forty years after having sung for the new President Eisenhower.

Scott’s 1998 album, Holding Back the Years, was a departure from his usual repertoire. It was a collection of pop songs from recent years, written by John Lennon, Elvis Costello, Prince, and others.

By now, Scott’s comeback had taken hold strongly enough that anyone who had earlier Scott recordings was releasing them. The Savoy albums came out as a box set, including a fourth album recorded in 1975; the legal problems surrounding the Tangerine album were resolved, and Decca released an album of his early work.

Everybody's Somebody's Fool

Scott recorded four more albums between 2000 and 2003, then mostly retired. He surfaced occasionally as a guest artist on a song, notably recording “Tea for Two” with the lounge-jazz band Pink Martini. The album he’d recorded in 1969 for Atlantic, The Source, was finally released in 2011. He made his last recording in early 2014, contributing vocals for an album by jazz harmonica player Grégoire Maret, who had appeared on several of his 90s/00s album.

Jimmy Scott died in his sleep on June 12, 2014. Most of his albums are available for streaming at Hoopla.