Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Jimmy Scott RIP

The jazz singer with a voice from the heavens dies at the age of 88

Jimmy Scott at home in Las Vegas in 2009. Photo: Jamie-James Medina

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 09:04


You’d never have mistaken Jimmy Scott and that gorgeous, tender, heartbreaking voice of his for anyone else. When Jimmy sang the blues, you knew he’d experienced the blues too.

But for most of his life, despite the fact that he was singing for most of them and attracting attention from a starry set of musicians including Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Frankie Valli, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Hampton, Scott was largely unknown and unheralded. He was one of those secret voices that music fans talked about in awe, but you rarely heard them because the albums weren’t around, his tours didn’t reach your town and he just wasn’t on the radar.

There were many reasons for this, but one tale stands tall and that’s the one around “Falling In Love Is Wonderful”, the album Scott recorded for Ray Charles’ label Tangerine back in 1962. It’s an album which will leave anyone with a heart breathless with the sheer sadness of what they hear. Emotional, sensitive and incredibly honest, it shows once and for all why sad songs say so much. If there’s a place in your life for music with heart and soul and blues, there’s space for “Falling In Love Is Wonderful”.

It’s an album, though, which took 40 years to get a proper release. Ray Charles wanted to produce, record and release an album of Scott singing gorgeous, romantic lovelorn ballads for his recently launched Tangerine label. Scott said yes, hit the United Sound studio in Hollywood and the album was quickly completed.

But within a month of the release, Herman Lubinsky entered the picture. His Savoy label claimed that Scott was still under contract to them and threatened the mother of all legal writs. Left in no doubt about Lubinsky’s intentions, Tangerine pulled the record from sale and Scott’s career went into freefall. He headed back to his native Cleveland and worked as a hotel clerk and a cook. Singing took a back seat.

Over the years, copies of that jilted album became the holy grail for those who appreciate deep, emotional music, people like Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce “It was absolutely heartwrenching, that voice and those sounds” was how Pierce described the album. “His voice is so unique, just the style of singing that it moves you every time. A huge voice from such a little man.”

Scott did eventually find a slot in the limelight, thanks largely to the songwriter Doc Pomus who championed his cause at a time when the only singing Scott was doing was at weekend concerts in old folks’ homes. Indeed, when the singer sang “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” at the songwriter’s funeral in 1991, the rest of the world tuned in.

Lou Reed took Scott on the road, David Lynch recruited him to sing on “Twin Peaks”, Seymour Stein brought Scott back into the record label fold and Bruce Springsteen recruited him to sing on the Philadelphia film soundtrack. As the years went by, more people tuned into Scott and his music – here in Ireland, broadcaster John Kelly preached the gospel according to Scott on his various radio shows.

I saw him play a few shows over the years and two, both in New York, stand out. The first was in 1999 at one of those downtown jazz clubs where musicians find themselves providing a glorified soundtrack for people eating steaks. So when Little Jimmy Scott got up to sing like an angel with that mighty contralto voice of his, a voice which was due to a rare genetic condition called Kallmann’s syndrome, most in the disinterested, half-full room were paying more attention to the menu.

Like many encounters at these jazz clubs, there was something desperately sad about the whole experience but then, that seemed to chime with Little Jimmy’s career. Between sets, he sat at the back, smoked and chatted to all comers. He didn’t seem to mind the state of the room. He was back singing for his supper, after all.

The second encounter was at Carnegie Hall six years later. Scott was there as a guest of Antony Hegarty, the Chichester-born chap with the Donegal roots who grew up in California then swapping life as a downtown alternative cabaret mainstay for swanky uptown performances.

Mid-show, Hegarty generously ceded the stage to Scott. When the idea of the show was first broached, Hegarty explains to the audience, he immediately decided to invite Scott to perform, a singer he has long been compared to and someone he obviously admires. Of course, had events worked out differently, Scott may well have been a Carnegie Hall regular instead of one of the most overlooked singers of all time.

When the frail, delicate 80 year old man sang “Why Was I Born” and “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” with that heartbreaker of a voice reaching every nook and cranny, you can hear a pin drop in the hall. It was sad to realise that it will only be in years to come that we’ll recognise just what a treasure we ignored. One of the saddest, loneliest and most magnificent voices ever, bar none.

Jimmy Scott died in his sleep at home in Las Vegas on Friday at the age of 88. Guardian obituary here and Sufjan Stevens on Scott here.