by carl wilson

The Greatest Living Ballad Singer

JimmyScott.jpg

I have an appreciation of jazz singer ("Little") Jimmy Scott, 80, who's opening for the fine singer Dianne Reeves at Massey Hall next Wednesday, in today's Globe and Mail. Jimmy Scott's is one of the great lost-artist-returned stories of modern times, and his voice, at once masculine and feminine, boyish and worldly wise, is one of the most moving I have ever heard. (Antony lovers and haters alike need to hear it.) The piece emphasizes his music's sadness, but gentle consolation also pulses through his tone. If you're looking for a place to start, try the recent - well, not reissues so much as recoveries - of his once-shelved masterworks, the 1962, Ray Charles-supervised Falling in Love is Wonderful, and 1969's soulful The Source. But Zoilus readers would also be interested in 1998's Holding Back the Years, where he sings songs by Prince, Elvis Costello, Bryan Ferry and even Elton John, as well as (as mentioned in the piece) his 1996 gospel cover of Talking Heads' Heaven. But first, read about his incredible life.

An evocative voice of great sadness

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Friday, December 16, 2005

When 80-year-old Jimmy Scott sings the song he has made one of his signatures, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, it is not merely a lyrical figuration of loneliness, though in Scott's rendition the familiar spiritual blues becomes a cry as bereft as a bark-stripped tree. It is also a literal lament, carrying the knowing listener back to a root tragedy in Scott's life, when his seamstress mother was torn from him in an Ohio road accident and the 13-year-old boy and his nine siblings became leaves scattered to various foster homes.

Many a motherless child grows up too fast, but for Scott, who performs at Massey Hall in Toronto next week, there was a bitter twist: He was born with Kallman's syndrome, a hormonal disorder that interferes with puberty. He would forever be as small and smooth-skinned as a boy; his voice would never drop. For protecting himself in the macho streets and nightclubs of the 1940s, it was a curse. For the jazz singer he was fated to be, inspired by his heroes Paul Robeson and Judy Garland, it was as if the gods had appointed him to a unique destiny.

When people speak of "Little" Jimmy Scott - admirers have ranged from Ray Charles to Lou Reed to Madonna - they describe how his voice channels an elemental sadness, as if pouring the suppressed sob of a ballad right into the listener's body, welling up through your chest into your throat and brimming over in your eyes.

Whether singing his one Top 10 hit from 1950 (as a singer for Lionel Hampton's orchestra), Everybody's Somebody's Fool, or new repertoire such as Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U, Scott makes the notes throb, timed behind the beat as if the words had caught on unseen thorns. In 2000, The New York Times Magazine called him "perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century."

Billie Holiday once called him her favourite singer, and the feeling was mutual: Scott's voice often evokes a more robust Holiday, suspended, floating somehow, over the same abyss into which she disappeared. That rare likeness is a consequence of the most commonly noted strangeness of Scott's sound, its androgyny.

On hearing his male alto, most people assume it's a woman, a fact that made record companies skittish 30 and 40 years ago, besides putting Scott in frequent physical jeopardy. He coped by drinking and (because his development wasn't entirely arrested) marrying the wrong women, repeatedly.

He made a similarly bad contract at Savoy Records, which by the 1960s would neither release his recordings nor let anyone else (including Ray Charles) do so. By decade's end, Scott retreated to Cleveland in a disappearance of his own, taking menial jobs and seldom performing. Rumour had it he was dead. After he surfaced in the mid-1980s to say to the contrary, director David Lynch (one of the white hipsters who have often exoticized Scott) cast him as a ghost singing while a midget dances in the Twin Peaks finale.

Finally, in 1991, Scott captivated an executive who heard him sing at the funeral of songwriter Doc Pomus, a longtime Scott champion. This led to his Grammy-nominated comeback album, All the Way, and since then, watched over by a caring fifth wife, Scott has released a half-dozen albums of standards and new material, and been the subject of a biography and two documentaries. His voice has grown hushed, but still potent: An album of duets with some famous younger fans is reportedly under way.

You could say he's making up lost time, but for Jimmy Scott, the singer and the man, time always seems a little less solid than for others. While he is often said to transverse gender, like a jazz Tiresias, that is a side effect: It's more true to his condition to say his voice pierces the boundary between adult and child. It tantalizes with a yearned-for innocence, yet only experience could make it ache so. It's a paradox harrowingly near the dilemma every love song hides. The most sorrowful word in his set piece has never been "motherless," but always "child." And only in old age is it being widely heard.

One of my favourite later performances is the title track of his 1996 gospel album: Heaven, he croons, "is a place/ Where nothing ever happens." It was pungent enough when originally recorded by the Talking Heads. But perhaps only Jimmy Scott could turn it into a song of praise, for a miracle so awful and so bright, all it can do is come true.

Jimmy Scott opens for Dianne Reeves at Massey Hall on Dec. 21. $49.50 to $69.50. 416-872-4255.

There's also a good interview with Jimmy Scott by Tim Perlich in this week's Now Magazine.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 16 at 12:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

COMMENTS

P.S. Well, that P.S. explains a lot.

Posted by zoilus on December 16, 2005 5:37 PM

 

 

No time for a complete part 4 yet, but I regret, and retract, the "happy go lucky" slam at Sinatra. I do like him slower, but midtempo is great too.

More soon.

Posted by zoilus on December 16, 2005 5:37 PM

 

 

I take your points, Carl. Scott is a first-tier specialist, no question. However...

1.) I think you're caricaturing Sinatra -- or maybe just not listening closely enough. This is the guy who found the emotional core of the American Songbook. Albums like "Songs for Swingin' Lovers" -- all uptempo numbers - have just about as much emotional nuance as any records I've heard. To cite the canonical example: check the final chorus of "I've Got You Under My Skin" (right after that amazing trombone solo). Ecstasy, elation, sadness, loneliness, hope, unparalelled sass -- all there. (Before I heard Sinatra's rendition, I thought "Skin" was one of Cole Porter's crappiest, most vapid songs, a total hack job. Comme d'habitude, Frank located the song's existentialist heart.) Anyway...happy-go-lucky was just one of Sinatra's many moods.

2.) I disagree with you about Billie. Listen to the Columbia recordings. She was half-dead by the time she made those records for Verve, a tragic diva self-parody -- albeit a genius beautiful heartbreaking tragic diva self-parody. But there are many Columbia records that are purely high-spirited jazz records. I cant detect any wistful subtext in "Gimme a Pigfoot and A Bottle of Beer," not even in her vocal tone.

3.) We maybe be getting into dicey genre semantics here, but I think there are lots of "high-high" ballads. An example that springs to mind: the Gershwins' "Embraceable You," a straight-up billing and cooing love song. (It was my grandparents' song, actually. The one they fell in love to.) This is a song that's usually played at a stately ballad tempo. Jimmy Scott sings it like most of his other songs - sad 'n' wistful - but I think there's something else happening in the lyric: love 'n' romance. Seems to me Scott can't quite get there.

4.) Finally, Mr. Anachronist does have a better-living-ballad-singer nominee. (Drum roll.) Willie Goddamn Nelson. What say you?

P.S. I loathe Nina Simone.

Posted by Jody on December 16, 2005 5:17 PM

 

 

I'm glad somebody weighed in to my deliberately provocative "greatest" there. I hear joy in Scott's music, Jody, but not the "high-highs" I agree. I also have to admit that "high-highs" are low on my list of musical priorities in this genre. I'm not a big fan of happy-go-lucky swing singing by Sinatra and co. And I don't think Billie Holiday ever really sang anything non-wistful, so it's the same for Scott.

And are the "high-high" songs really ballads? I think you can name someone a first-tier specialist and not have someone reply that they're a second-tier generalist, no?

Finally, note the word "living" in my headline. All the counter-cases you've mentioned (and some you haven't, such as Nina Simone) are dead. Can you name me a living singer who is Scott's better, Mr. Anachronist?

(This is perhaps an unfair technicality because at 80, Scott's just a survivor of a mostly-passed-on generation. And when you get to younger people you're not really comparing like with like. Y'know, like "Prince" might be a good answer, but it's also a terrible answer.)

Posted by zoilus on December 16, 2005 3:17 PM

 

 

Lovely piece, Carl. Penultimate paragraph particularly on the money and nicely put.

My friend David Ritz (co-author of Ray Charles and Aretha's autobiographies, Marvin Gaye's biographer, and the lyricist behind "Sexual Healing" -- not too bad, eh?) wrote "Faith in Time," Scott's life story, and introduced me to the man himself several years back. He was incredibly courtly, gentle, and funny. And what a sharp-dressed cat!

I can't help feeling, though, that Scott's singing is a little emotionally limited. The very greatest ballad singers, seems to me, are capable of communicating joy and rapture in addition to sadness -- the low-lows AND the highs-highs. (Cf. Sinatra, Billie, Ray.) I don't get that feeling from Scott's music; his emotional spectrum seems to run from wistful melancholy to, you know, the black depths. I love his records, but he seems second-tier to me.

Posted by Jody on December 16, 2005 2:22 PM

 

 

 

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