All the Way with Jimmy Scott: For Whatever Reason
Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter, 1988
“YOUR EYES … ” Other singers could finish an entire set in the time Jimmy Scott takes to sing these two words, but to this crowd it just signals the slow downward slide known as “The Masquerade Is Over.” They respond with a gasp. “… Don’t shine …” A couple of older black women in the audience bow their heads, their mouths twisted into brittle knowing smiles. “… Like they used to shine …” In the front row, Tony Williams, once the great lead singer for the Platters, cocks his head back and lets go with a chilling half-laugh, half-cry. “… And the thrill is gone …” A couple tables away sits new-wave performer James White, a serious look on his hound-dog face. “… When your lips meet mine …” Jimmy’s voice has lost some of its range with the passing years, but it’s still impossibly high. Too high for a man.
“I guess I’ll have to play Pagliacci, and get myself a clown’s disguise,” he sings, striking an “oh, well” pose. “I’ll learn to laugh like Pagliacci” — Jimmy pauses, then swoops down on the next line — “With tears in my eyes.” His mandarin face contorts into a sob, and those long hands clutch the microphone to his breast. It is a grim song. He’s sung it for a lifetime.
“The masquerade is over,” he cries. “And so is love.” He sings the last four lines again, bringing the song’s unbearable tension to an end. For a moment the stunned audience does nothing. They miss the beat where they should respond, then break into wild applause. A silent Jimmy makes his way through the crowd and sits down at our table. People seem almost embarrassed to talk to him. “That was great, Jimmy,” I say. He shrugs his shoulders and says nothing, taking a long drag off his cigarette as he looks away.
“The feelin’,” says Ray Charles. “I just loved the feelin’ in his voice. Jimmy had soul way back when people weren’t usin’ the word.” Jimmy’s fan club is a heavy bunch — Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Frankie Valli, Tony Bennett, Percy Mayfield, Big Maybelle, Levi Stubbs, Jacqui Verdell, James Booker. When Dinah Washington couldn ‘t make a gig she called Jimmy Scott.
“He blew me away from the first note,” says Ruth Brown. “Jimmy drew the professionals wherever he sang. A lot of singers owe their style to him.” Songwriter Doc Pomus agrees. “Nancy Wilson, Frankie Valli, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Lymon, Johnnie Ray — they all started out with watered-down versions of what Jimmy was doin’.”
In spite of his influence, Jimmy remains an invisible man in black music history. His two greatest albums — long out of print — don’t even have his picture on the cover. Jimmy performs with Charlie Parker on One Night in Birdland, yet his vocal is credited to a woman. Rumors swirl around the singer — some say he’s a junkie, others insist his masculinity is a fraud, just another gimmick to get over a very idiosyncratic female vocalist. In the mid-6os, when Jimmy had all but disappeared from the music scene, Jet magazine mistakenly printed his obituary.
Jimmy has lived with a secret that has allowed others to invent his life for him — until now. As r&b singer Joe “Mr. Google Eyes” August says, “You gotta understand one thing. What Jimmy Scott sings, he lived.”
Why Was I Born?
JAMES VICTOR Scott was born on July 17, 1925, an umbilical cord wrapped around his throat. “Yep,” says Jimmy, “when I came into thins world I came here hung.”
His father Arthur was told his child had been born dead, and he rushed home from work with a friend named Victor. “It wasn’t until later in life that my family told me why I was named after him. When they came home and found I was still alive with that cord wrapped around my neck, Victor predicted that someday I was gonna be a singer.”
One of 10 kids, Jimmy was raised in a poor neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. His mother Justine was a pianist at Hagar’s Universal Spiritual Church and would gather the children around the old upright to sing gospel songs. “All the Scott children sang, but Jimmy’s was God-given,” says his brother Kenny. “If you ask him today, he still can’t read a note.”
Justine was s stern teacher when it came to music. “If you didn’t sing a note just so, a little later in the day she’d say, ‘You know you didn’t sing that song right,”’ says Jimmy. “She’d make you feel guilty for voicing wrong notes. She was a very spiritual woman, a cornerstone of strength. My father just didn’t give a damn.”
Arthur “Scottie” Scott was a skilled asphalt layer, but hanging out with his street buddies was more important than any job. “Shooting pool, gambling, drinking his beer,” says Jimmy, “he liked being away from the house.” Once Arthur pawned the family radio when he needed some quick cash.
Justine kept the family together, and as Jimmy entered his teens, things seemed to be looking up — until the car accident. “Mother was taking my sister Shirley to school,” remembers Jimmy. “Shirley ran ahead of her, stepping out in the street. My mother flung her back to the curb. As she did that she got hit. The driver caught my mother by the arm — tore it right off — an’ drug her about 200 feet.” Justine Scott died a few days later. No one had bothered to take her children to visit her in the hospital.
“After she died, the hospital nurse said the last thing on her breath was, ‘Are my children alright?'” says Jimmy. “And my grandmother — my mother’s mother — told her, ‘Don’t worry about nuthin’. Your kids are fine — they’ re all in the detention home.’ My mother was so upset, the excitement caused her to hemorrhage and she bled to death. That’s the one thing that tugged on me for years and years after. I knew that my mother never wanted her kids separated.”
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
AT AGE 13, Jimmy was on his own. “It shook the hell out of me and the other kids, because we had nobody but Mom and when she died, Dad took the quickest way out.” The kids were split up and dumped in foster homes. Along with his brothers and sisters, Jimmy begged his father to get a house and reunite the family. “We’d get promises from Dad,” says Jimmy. “‘Oh boy, now lemme tell ya, I’m gonna get the house, you all come down on such an’ such a day,’ and we’d go downtown to meet him” — Jimmy laughs disgustedly — “and we wouldn’t find our daddy nowhere.”
There were other problems. Jimmy, like his brother Kenny, seemed stuck in adolescence. With their abnormally high voices, soft features, and short stature — Jimmy only grew to four feet 11 inches until his mid-thirties, when he inexplicably shot up to five feet seven —the two Scott boys were always fighting to prove their masculinity.
As a teenager Jimmy ushered at the Metropolitan Theater, and fell in love with the music he saw there — Buddy Johnson, Lucky Millinder, Erskine Hawkins, and the rest of the big bands of the day. Then the youngster went out on the road with two tap dancers, working as a valet when he wasn’t pestering them for the chance to sing. Sometime in the mid-’40s on a Meadsville, Pennsylvania, gig, Jimmy got his shot. Walking out in front of a killer band that included Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Jo Jones, the bag-of-bones kid snuck up on the microphone, belting out “Talk of the Town.” Even as a kid, Jimmy was drawn to all-or-nothing-at-all tunes, supplicant hymns of unconditional love and broken-hearted ballads that offer no exit. His debut song was a sad one. It cut straight to the heart of the motherless child with the freakishly high voice: I can’t show my face/Can’t go anyplace/people stop and stare/It’s so hard to bear/Everybody knows you’ve left me/It’s the talk of the town.
The response was immediate. “Even that first night, the people screamed and hollered,” says Jimmy, still surprised. His most excited fans were female. “You talk about Tom Jones and women throwing their underthings onstage — Jimmy Scott already had that thing going back in the ’40s,” says pianist Ace Carter. “Only they were throwing money. He pulled the women sexually.”
Hank Williams would’ve dug Jimmy Scott. Both possessed the ability to convey their innermost feelings to the world, creating an intense bond with the crowds they performed before. Yet both were extreme loners, men who had no use for show business when the show was over.
Unfortunately, Jimmy’s voice had a built-in gimmick: close your eyes and you heard a female vocalist. His childlike looks only complicated the mystery.”The biggest thing that bugged me was havin’ cats pick at you because you look young — like you’re some kind of woman or something,” says Jimmy. “I even had insinuations that I was gay.” For a couple of years, Jimmy carried a .25 automatic to discourage his more ardent male admirers.
Talk of the Town
FOR ALL his onstage popularity, Jimmy’s private life was a mess. His first love, Ophelia Sharon, left him for another guy after a quickie marriage in ’45. Then came a statuesque 13-year-old from Newport News, Virginia, a streetwalker since the age of five. Their turbulent relationship lasted into the early ’50s, even though the towering prostitute would often chase the singer with an open razor.
“She was kinda young,” says Kenny Scott. “Every woman doesn’t understand us. There’s nothing wrong, we’re just not as fully developed as the next guy, y’understand? These women in the streets think you’re funny. Jimmy couldn’t accept this rejection.” The ladies flocked to Jimmy, but he always wound up with tough, streetwise women that couldn’t possibly understand him. It was a tortured scenario that would repeat itself over and over in the years to come, with Jimmy inevitably playing the victim.
From ’45 to ’49, he went on the road with shake dancer Estelle “Caledonia” Young, the woman he considers his mentor. It was with Caledonia that Jimmy first hooked up with comedian Redd Foxx and Big Maybelle, the great r&b singer. Both became lifelong friends. In ’48 Foxx, actor/MC Ralph Cooper, and fighter Joe Louis arranged his first New York City gig, at the Baby Grand. A year later, Jimmy joined Lionel Hampton, who had the swingingest big band at the time. Jimmy recorded three songs with Hampton — “I’ve Been a Fool,” “I Wish I Knew,” and — his first big hit — “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”
“It was a dramatic when he came out in the solo spot,” says Quincy Jones, then a young trumpet player with the band. “He’d just stand there with his shoulders hunched and his eyes closed and his head tilted to one side. He sang like a horn — he sang with the melodic concept of an instrument. It’s a very emotional, soul-penetrating style. He’d put me on my knees, give me goose bumps. Jimmy used to tear my heart out every night.”
Life on the road was an endless lesson in racism — the band had to drive miles out or their way for food and lodging — but Jimmy cherishes his days with Hampton. “I loved singin’ with that man,” he says, shaking his head.
Jimmy was a star. Capitalizing on Jimmy’s youthful looks and sound, Hampton changed his stated age from 25 to 17, then labeled the singer for a lifetime as “Little” Jimmy Scott. “It helped me get over to the public, but it sure didn’t help when I went to buy a drink or negotiate my salary,” says Jimmy. “Even though I looked like a child, I definitely didn’t think like a child.” The bandleader was notoriously cheap with his musicians, and Jimmy barely made a living, despite his hits.
Jimmy gradually left the Hampton band. Teddy Reig, a hustling A&R man intertwined with many jazz careers, wooed Jimmy into going solo with the promise of big bucks. Reig, along with partner Jack Hook, ran Roost Records, a threadbare label out of Linden, New Jersey. Between 1950 and ’52 the pair cut 16 excellent —if somewhat orthodox — sides on Jimmy, among them the original version of “The Masquerade Is Over.” The records were poorly distributed, and Jimmy didn’t see a dime from the deal.
One of the Hampton trips brought Jimmy to Newark, which in the early ’50s had a nightlife matching that of Harlem, or 52nd Street. Jimmy soon moved in. “One week I’d be at the Caravan Club, the next, Lloyd’s Manor or the Key Club,” says Jimmy. “I could practically make a living without leaving town.” It was in Newark that two young white kids, both aspiring singers, hung out with Jimmy Scott. One was Joe Pesci, who would later act opposite DeNiro in Raging Bull. The other was Frankie Valli.
In a week, Jimmy will turn 63, so I take him up to a friend’s house in the country. Not much of a present, but at least I get him out of his apartment and away from the TV. “Give me the simple life,” he always says, but it’s been too simple. Take Jimmy to the movies, and he tells you it’s the first time he’s been to a theater in 20 years.
Unfortunately, when we arrive in the country I have an interview scheduled, so while Jimmy and Earlene look around the house, I sneak upstairs to call his old pal with the million-dollar falsetto, Frankie Valli.
“Jimmy’s not just a guy, not just a singer,” says Valli. “He was my mentor. Jimmy used to tell me ‘Don’t be afraid to sing slow, baby. Let them follow you — don’t you be following them.’ He broke all the rules in singing.”
Valli alludes to Jimmy’s dark side, telling me how the singer would vanish for months and suddenly reappear. “Lemme tell you something,” says Valli. “There are gonna be pieces and parts you’re never gonna get to. You’ll never get to the bottom of the guy.” As he says that Jimmy’s raspy laugh echoes up from the floor below.
Late that night, a few of us decide to take a walk up a huge hill a couple blocks from the house. I figure Jimmy and Earlene would want to call it a night, but they seem offended I would leave them out. A small, round woman with a perpetual smile, Earlene huffs and puffs her way up the hill, stopping every 10 feet to giggle at Jimmy’s jokes.
You can see stars everywhere from the top of the hill. Earlene excitedly points out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and any other constellation she can name. Our faces turn to the sky, and for a long moment nothing is heard but the static drone of crickets.
Jimmy stands a few feet from me, barely visible in the mist. I think of what Frankie Valli said about never getting to the bottom of Jimmy Scott.
Earlene makes a request of her husband, breaking the silence. “You know what would really make this evening perfect, Jimmy? If you’d sing a song for us up here.” Jimmy says nothing, his figure just a silhouette against the night. Earlene asks again, but Jimmy doesn’t sing.
When Did You Leave Heaven?
“I WAS A waitress at the Coleman Hotel, the place in Newark where all the black entertainers would stay,” remembers Earlene, who first met her future husband in the early ’50s. “I’d spend all my tip money playing ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ on the jukebox. I never knew who sang it because it didn’t say on the record. The jukebox man used to have to replace it ’cause I’d wear it out!
“In the meantime this little guy was comin’ in with two other entertainers — Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie. I thought he was their son, and when they’d order I’d say to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re away from home so much they don’t give him enough to eat!‘ So I decided when he came in, I was gonna make sure he had enough to eat — an extra glass of milk, a double order of collard greens, a big order of potato salad. I was tryin’ to fatten him up, see? But I had no idea he sang the record I loved so much.”
Then Henry Polite, the house detective and night manager for the Coleman Hotel, introduced her to Jimmy Scott. “He says to Jimmy, ‘I just want you to know this young lady spends all her money listening to you!’ and Jimmy said, ‘Oh yeah?’ with that little voice, and I said ‘OH MY GOD — I’ve been feedin’ this little fella thinking he was a little boy and here this was a grown man!’ I was so embarrassed I didn’t even come back for the dishes!”
To complicate matters Jimmy had fallen for someone too. While at a friend’s house Jimmy fell in love with a picture of a girl he saw on the dresser.
His search for the glamorous woman in the photograph landed him at Earlene’s house, where she was dressed in her dowdy waitress uniform, getting ready for work. “I said, ‘What are you doin’ here?’ and Jimmy said, ‘What are you doin’ here?’ He said he was waitin’ for the girl in the picture. That’s when I told him, ‘Well you gotta stay an’ wait for, her, ’cause I gotta go to work!'” A little while later Jimmy figured it out, then ran back to the Coleman Hotel. “He asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was you in the picture?’ I just laughed.”
Unbeknownst to Jimmy, Earlene already had a man — her husband John, who was trying to drag her into his dope habit. The next time Jimmy visited they were in the middle of an argument. Jimmy threw John out for yelling at Earlene. “After he was gone, I said to Jim. ‘Y’know, that was my husband.’ And he said, ‘What’s wrong with you. woman — you tryin’ to get me killed? I didn’t see Jimmy for quite a while after that.”
But even though it took months and sometimes years, Jimmy would always come back to Earlene. “Her innocence made you respect her,” he says, who often shielded Earlene from the wilder sides of the entertainment world. “Where Earlene came up on Broome Street, there were so many girls usin’ dope, or out in the street tryin’ to be slick trickers, and here’s this one girl amidst all this shit tryin’ to make a living. She was totally supportive. I had never had that attitude out of a woman.”
The Loneliest House on the Street
“NOBODY ASKED me to leave, I just walked off,” says Jimmy of his final split from the Hampton band in ’53. Disgusted with the music business, Jimmy went back to Cleveland. A jealous father was waiting for him at home. “I’d want Dad to be proud of me, share in my success,” says Jimmy. “But as soon as I walked into some joint lookin’ for him, he’d start yellin’ — ‘Jimmy Scott, come over here. You ain’t NUTHIN’. I still run you, boy.’ He would bulldoze me, and I could never understand why.”
Yet Jimmy was obsessed with reuniting his family. Others thought he was crazy. “I’d say quit kissin’ their ass — they ain’t thinkin’ ’bout you,” says Channie Summerville, the next femme fatale in Jimmy’s life. “I bet half of his family never even seen Jimmy perform. They were grown by then, anyway — they had their own lives. Sure, Jimmy wanted to buy a big house an’ get ’em back together, but he was livin’ in a dream world. The fact that his family is separated is somethin’ he still can’t deal with.”
Jimmy met Channie at the Paddock Bar, a Cleveland hangout, in 1954. “My brother Roger kept tellin’ me, ‘Look at her — bet you can’t get her,’ so I went up to her and rapped — and I copped,” says Jimmy.
“I said, ‘I like to sing — would you give me some lessons?” remembers Channie, who idolized Billie Holiday, a singer she was related to through her cousin, Louis McCay, Billie’s last husband. Channie and Jimmy soon married.
“She was an olive-complected girl with dyed-blond hair and an hourglass figure, just beautiful to look at,” says Jimmy. “But once she opened that mouth it killed all the beauty in her. Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time.”
“They’d fight all the time, all the time,” says r&b singer Nappy Brown. “Channie wanted that money, and she’d put a spankin’ on Jimmy if she didn’t get it. He had to dance by her music.” Channie insists she was devoted to the singer. “When we first got together, Jimmy was down and out,” she says. “I bought him a yellow Cadillac convertible, a pink suit, even died a lock of his hair blond to match mine.” She prodded the singer back to New York, where he signed with Savoy Records and the Jimmy Evans booking agency.
Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool
WHEN JIMMY was first summoned to Savoy records, Herman Lubinsky was running the company out of a cramped office above his electronic parts store in Newark. A short, cheap man with a lousy temper, Lubinsky knew little about the black music he recorded, but he knew how to pick a winner. “You know the song would be a hit if he danced, with his goddamn bald head, smelling like God knows what,” says Lee Magid, an A&R man who recorded much of Savoy’s early r&b.
Horror stories about Savoy in the old days are endless. Rose Marie McCoy — who along with her partner Charlie Singleton wrote some of Jimmy’s greatest songs — says the team often saved their worst material for Lubinsky, knowing he’d only pay a flat rate of $100 per song. Nappy Brown almost broke Lubinsky’s neck on more than one occasion. Lubinsky put his name on a big tune Brown wrote, “The Night Time Is the Right Time,” and Brown’s never seen a dime in royalties. Jimmy says he only got paid $50 a session.
Booking agents were often another nightmare. Most of Savoy’s r&b stars were dumped on the late Jimmy Evans, a booking agent who operated out of Times Square. “One-eyed Jimmy was an asshole, a real asshole,” says Lee Magid. “He dealt with people nobody else would handle. A schlock guy.”
“Jimmy Evans would play artists against each other,” says Channie. “One week it would be ‘Oh, Maybelle’s got the big hit, she’s the star in this office.’ A week later it would be Nappy Brown who had the hit. ‘Nappy’s the boy, we got Nap. Where’s Nappy at? Send him in. Nap, m’boy, have a cigar.‘ And everybody else is sitting around the office like damn fools. I don’t think the entertainers thought it was funny. He’d play one person against the other like a mother do her kids.” Jimmy claims that because he warned other artists to keep track of their earnings, Evans froze him out of gigs.
Evans has his supporters, those who say he was just a tough businessman in a tough business. Even Lubinsky has his defenders, although they usually end up criticizing him the most. Fred Mendelsohn — an A&R man who worked on and off at Savoy for nearly 20 years before taking over the company — insists that “90 per cent of the artists never earned royalties because of the way the contract read. He was a cheap s.o.b., but as far as his honesty, I will never question it. His problem was he wanted to be a big man. He’d get in fights with artists many times — he’d have people crying over the phone. Listen, I’d have to mop up after Lubinsky quite a bit. The artist was his enemy.”
Lubinsky and Mendelsohn fought continually. Tall, soft-spoken, and a real fan of the gospel and r&b he produced, Mendelsohn was the antithesis of his boss. His name is revered by the black musicians he worked with. The six sessions in ’55 and ’56 that Mendelsohn produced on Jimmy — including songs like “Imagination,” “Don’t Cry, Baby,” “If You Only Knew,” “Oh, What I Wouldn’t Give,” “Address Unknown,” and “Guilty,” — defined him as a singer. (Half of these sessions are on the first and best Sayoy reissue, Little Jimmy Scott.)
Mendelsohn surrounded Jimmy with top musicians, even though some didn’t appreciate the singer’s style. Bassist Charles Mingus walked out on the first Savoy date, aggravated by Jimmy’s freewheeling sense of time.
The minimal jazz combos that backed Jimmy on those first sessions — usually led by pianist and arranger Howard Biggs — played at graveyard tempos, crafting slight melodies that left huge spaces for Jimmy’s daredevil phrasing. He dragged words across measures, then cut them into such precise, frozen syllables he seemed to be writing definitions for Webster’s. The result was a narcotic drone that never lost its edge.
It was scary. The youthful kid singer was gone, replaced by one who had been too many places, seen too much. Beneath that world-weary cool was a bottomless empathy. “I’d be singin’ and get so filled up the tears would just roll,” he says, explaining his nickname in the streets of Newark — Cryin’ Jimmy. If the band didn’t know the tune, Jimmy just plunged in without accompaniment. The singer held nothing back from his audience, almost suicidally went all the way. Still, so much remained unknown about Jimmy Scott.
“Everybody knows/How the story goes/I have nothing to conceal,” he sang, swinging lightly through the line, oblivious to the irony: everything about the singer is a question mark, starting with his maddening, asexual voice. It could shoot stratospherically high, trail off into a sob-stained vibratto, then descend into a cry so low-down it could shatter the toughest r&b singer. And for all the emotion, he never sounded piteous or weak. Jimmy had no use for falsetto histrionics or on-the-knees pleading. No wonder gospel singers whispered his name, women followed him home, junkies and drag queens idolized him. Jimmy Scott understood.
Yet Jimmy had his own agonizing limitations. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give/To walk down the aisle with you,” he sings. It’s an impassioned rending, but that nameless sorrow in his voice tells us the singer is going to get the girl. Jimmy sings of a pure, idealistic love; real life fell short. Jimmy kept the one he really loved on a distant pedestal, afraid his boozy nightclub netherworld would corrupt her innocence. “I am only human, but you are so divine,” he cries in “When Did You Leave Heaven?” and he’s singing to the one he couldn’t have — Earlene. Seldom has the battle between spirit and flesh been so elegantly realized in jukebox terms. The labels should read, “Recorded in purgatory.”
Though Jimmy had a couple of modest hits, he just didn’t fit the r&b market. Mendelsohn was the only one at Savoy who understood the singers talents, and when he left the company temporarily in ’57, Lubinsky sought ways to commercialize Jimmy’s sound. He should’ve been presented as a song stylist, like Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington, and if Savoy tried for elegance, the results were strictly kitsch. Jimmy was drowned in cheap strings, turgid arrangements, and the mediocre material Lubinsky owned publishing for. With few exceptions, the recordings from ’58 to ’60 were uniformly awful (masochists can check out the Savoy reissue All Over Again). The nadir of his Savoy career was a 1958 rock & roll session. “I’ll be what I’m not, if that’s what you want,” Jimmy warbles on the aptly titled “What?” For once I don’t believe him.
“HE WAS lazy,” says Channie. “Jimmy didn’t want the responsibility of bein’ an entertainer. One time he went out an’ got a factory job — just so he wouldn’t have to sing.” Jimmy would squander his big money buying food and drinks for the house, or gamble it away in after-hours joints, then come home without a cent. “I had to make all the financial arrangements, pay all the bills,” says Channie. “It was like he was the woman an’ I was the man. Jimmy put me in a damn-ass trick bag.”
Jimmy disagrees. He says his wife was so hungry for his cash, she’d show up at his gigs with a boyfriend or two to ensure he’d hand over the loot. He admits to spending the money as fast as he could. “When I realized Channie was trying to hog all the bread for herself — I didn’t care how it went then. I’d rather give it away.”
Alcohol was Jimmy’s way out. As Channie puts it, “Booze turns Jimmy into Mr. Hyde.” Jimmy would wait until his last set was over, get roaring drunk, then pick on the biggest guy at the bar, inevitably challenging him to a fight. Friends often talked strangers out of killing the singer. A few drinks and Jimmy wanted to take on the world.
“Sure, I’d get wild and crazy as hell,” admits Jimmy. “I’d drink one night and shit, you couldn’t get me to drink for months and Sundays after that. It look a toll. I know now I was fighting this thing within me — fighting myself, because of all the things I was seeing and living with. Not only are you tryin’ to scuffle with your career, but ya gotta go home and scuffle with your old lady, too. You look up and say, ‘These suckers done used me all this time?’ ”
We drive all day and still show up late for the gig. Jimmy heads straight for the bar. These days he rarely drinks, but when he does the demons are there to greet him. The gig is at an empty bar in a rundown block in Queens. Not exactly last night’s show — a Washington. D.C. jazz festival with Ray Brown and Milt Jackson. But Jimmy seldom gets gigs like that.
I look around the bar, dreading another three-people-in-the-audience Jimmy gig, but stepping into the back room I come face-to-face with a few hundred black couples dressed to the nines and chanting for Jimmy Scott. Jimmy throws back a drink, hops on the stage, and belts out “All of Me.”
A few more sets, a few more drinks, and Jimmy is flying. He dances across the stage, joking with the audience. “Summertime” turns into an apocalyptic blues, strange new lyrics are improvised to “Georgia.” The performance never ends. As the crowd files out, Jimmy even brings Earlene up on the stage, announcing his love affair to the emptying house.
The show is over, but Jimmy won’t leave. I try to get him in the car and he climbs a lamp post. Finally he slides into the passenger seat, although he tries to crawl out the window. After unleashing a torrent of abuse on the guy hired to drive, he stops suddenly, turning around to face Earlene. Jimmy’s tux is wrinkled, his hair sticks straight up, a big grin crosses his woozy face. “Give me a little kiss,” he asks his wife. She does. Then he whips back around to the front seat, snarling “Hey motherfucker, what’s your problem?” at the driver. His response is to step on the gas, and we go flying down the highway.
Minutes later Jimmy pops over the front seat, demanding another kiss from Earlene. Then he returns to cursing out the driver. This routine goes on the whole ride home. I hide in the corner of the back seat, hoping he won’t pick on me.
Everybody steers clear of Jimmy once we’re back at the apartment. About to run out of energy, he paces the floor like a tranquilized panther. “Nobody knows me,” he boasts. “I’m the world’s greatest actor.” He begins to sing an old Irving Berlin tune, a song I’ve heard him sing many times when he’s in the middle of despair. “All by myself in the morning,” he says softly, a horrible grimace smudged on his face. He reaches out to me, but I turn away. Jimmy isn’t surprised. “All by myself in the night.”
All or Nothing At All
ONE NIGHT after a gig in Connecticut, Channie tried to run her husband down in the couple’s blue Coupe De Ville. It had been raining; the road was covered with mud. Jimmy and Channie were drunk. “He came outta that club without a dime,” says Channie. “I said, ‘I’m gonna kill this motherfucker.’ It just so happened the car swerved an’ that saved me from hittin’ his ass. Later I realized it wasn’t worth it — I could’ve gone to prison for life. I didn’t even have any life insurance on the nigger.”
On the next trip to Connecticut, Jimmy tried to kill them both. Channie had begun the long drive back, unaware that Jimmy was silently fuming about the gig money he had just handed over. There they were — four in the morning, in the middle of nowhere on some old country road, when Jimmy took his foot and slammed it down on Channie’s, flooring the gas. “I started pushin’ and kickin’ and hittin’ him with my elbow an’ he was hittin’ back at me,” says Channie. “Jimmy was drunk. He was tore up.”
Channie jumped out of the car and went running down the road, screaming for help. Officers of the law arrived, and they turned out to be Jimmy Scott fans.
The cops offered to let the singer go if he promised to behave. Jimmy politely agreed, much to Channie’s surprise. “I thought, ‘Damn, this man done got hisself together. He done sobered up quick!’ ”
The couple didn’t get too far. Minutes after they got back on the road, Jimmy repeated his trick, and this time the cops were waiting. The couple spent the night in jail. Their relationship continued to deteriorate back in New York. Jimmy’s body is a road map of scars he received one way or another from Channie, and she doesn’t deny it. “Sure I whupped him — he’s little, but he can take them blows. Maybe he don’t feel it.”
There is one record that expresses all the confusion Jimmy was going through. In 1957, during Fred Mendelsohn’s brief stay at King Records, he arranged for Jimmy to cut 12 sides with producer Henry Glover. The best of them was “What Sin,” another blow-by-blow account of a doomed relationship. Jimmy’s voice soars above the beat like a sad air-raid siren. “What sin have I committed?” he moans. “What crime am I guilty of? Where did I go wrong, dear? How did I lose your love?”
Jimmy Scott was falling apart. His family was still separated, his marriage to Channie was a disaster, and his career had ground to a halt. He tried to escape it all by turning to the bottle, and for an artist that idolized Paul Robeson and longed to be an example to others, that was the worst failure of all. Jimmy was killing himself.
But those were only his real problems.
“WOKE UP an’ thought I had a cold,” says Joe August. “Turns out I had a habit.” By the early ’50s, heroin had gone from a secretive hipster high to a more common affliction. In Newark, at joints like the Downbeat Club and the Joy Tavern, musicians could cop from house dealers the minute they stepped off the bandstand. “Everybody got high back then — everybody,” says August. “Who knew it would kill us?”
Narcotic use destroyed many great musicians. But so could suspected narcotic use. Even the squarest performers had to be extra cautious in New York City, Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Paradoxically the town where Jimmy drew his biggest crowds, Philly had a notorious reputation for harassing black musicians the minute there was any rumor of drugs. One afternoon in the early ’50s, it happened to Jimmy Scott.
“I was playing in a club on Market Street with a piano player, Red Garland,” says Scott. “I walked into the club, ordered me a drink, and pow! This cat dragged me outside, slapped me upside my head and shoved me in a car.”
Another entertainer had fingered Jimmy for smuggling narcotics out of Cleveland. “Somebody had the idea I was carryin’. Carryin’ what? Buddy, I didn’t have a damn thing — I didn’t know anything about sellin’ dope.” Yet he wasn’t surprised by the accusation. “They wanted the guy to name names, so bein’ from Cleveland he picked me. Entertainers were lyin’ on each other all the time — just to get the man off their back.”
The detectives found he was clean, but his troubles were far from over. Curious about the singer’s high voice and delicate looks, they demanded he strip naked. Jimmy rarely discusses this incident, and when you hear him mimic the officers’ gruff voices, you understand why. “‘What is he, a boy or a girl? His name is Jimmy. Must be a girl, has a high voice anyhow. Take off your clothes, faggot!’ Then they pushed me around, in front of everybody. I think today, why did I let that happen? But shit — these were officers of the law.”
The cops hounded Jimmy throughout ’50s, knocking down the door in the middle of the night, ransacking his apartment in search of contraband. Then they’d take the singer downtown for interrogations that more than a few times ended with Jimmy doing a nauseating striptease for the law. He was never formally charged with anything, yet the damage had been done. Word was out — Jimmy was a junkie. Why else would the cops be messing with him?
Jimmy openly admits to his one experience with heroin — a disastrous late ’40s encounter snorting the drug in Milwaukee that he insists scared him away forever. If he was using, he fooled those closest to him. Channie, who certainly has no vested interest in protecting her ex-husband, says, “It was a lie. I was married to the man for five years an’ he don’t have a needle mark on his body.
For some people, just watching him perform was evidence enough. Not only did he look high, but he sounded it, with the weird way he stretched out the notes. And there was the company he kept. “I was with guys who were coppin’. I was with guys who were kickin’,” says the singer. “Some entertainers turned their back on ’em because of their habit, but I couldn’t — these were my friends. Big Maybelle, Sonny Stitt, Bird, all of ’em. They’d be sittin’ in front of me shootin’ theyself, sayin’, ‘Look here, Jimmy Scott, if I ever catch you doin’ this shit, I’m gonna bust your brains out.’ ”
Once the rumors started, they were impossible to stop. Dealers approached Jimmy in every town he played. Other entertainers talked behind his back. Just last year, a New York news show lost interest in doing a story on Jimmy when Earlene informed them he hadn’t been a junkie. Jimmy says the music industry spread the lie, that they used any dirt they could find on black artists to further control their careers. He says the worst victims were people like Big Maybelle. While token efforts were made by booking agencies and the record companies to get her off drugs, Jimmy insists this was only to cover up the way they robbed her blind.
Others say self-destructive artists like Maybelle would have done themselves in anyway, and feel Jimmy is just making excuses for his real problem — alcohol. “The record company squeezed black artists — they figured if they didn’t somebody else would,” says Lee Magid. “But it doesn’t matter if they’re faggots or dopers or boozers, they’re gonna blame the record company, the promoters, the wives. The world did it to ’em. They don’t take the blame themselves.”
I try to argue this point with Jimmy, but he quietly maintains that he’s not just speaking for himself, but for all the artists he watched go down the drain. “Everybody I knew back then, believe me, baby, they’re all dead. They’re actually not on this earth. Can you blame all that on self-destruction?”
“Tell me about Willie John, Jimmy.” I’m always asking about Willie John. With records like “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Suffering With the Blues,” John’s one of the few singers who matched Jimmy’s intensity. The two ran together in the ‘5os. What a lethal combo — small, tough, and willing to fight until the end, although Willie didn’t make it, having died in prison after stabbing a man in a crap game. Jimmy doesn’t like to talk about Willie John, but tonight he says he’s got something to show me and goes off into the other room.
He returns with a tiny black-and-white picture. “Somebody gave it to me in Detroit,” he whispers. Willie John sits in a chair, all dressed up in a flashy gangster suit and hat, a nasty grin on his teenage face. In his lap sits Etta James, her overripe body stuffed into a skintight dress, her big face caked with makeup. They are a magnificent couple, but look too young for the roles they play. They seem trapped. Jimmy stares at the photo and smiles. The picture is impenetrable to me.
I plan to blow the photo up so Jimmy and I can study every detail, but as he sticks it in a drawer I decide to put it off. The following week I ask him for the picture. He looks everywhere but it’s gone.
A few days later, I call Channie. She’s had a few drinks. We talk about her favorite singers — Judy Garland, Big Maybelle, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott. “They’re all dead ‘cept for Jimmy,” she says. “Ain’t that funny?”
The Masquerade Is Over
THE END for Jimmy and Channie came on July 17, 1959. “He had worked in Connecticut again,” remembers Channie, “and we had gotten into a big fight. I said, ‘This is it — you never have no money, you never do nuthin’.’ And in the middle of it all, a voice came over the radio — ‘We interrupt this broadcast to tell you Billie Holiday is dead.’ Oh my goodness, it was the saddest day.” The couple stayed together to officiate over Billie’s funeral — Jimmy’s sunglasses hiding a black eye from Channie — then went their separate ways after a messy divorce.
On November 30, 1960, there was one last session at Savoy. Lubinsky — too cheap to succumb to payola demands — went back to cutting gospel records. Although hampered by the usual $1.98 string section, Jimmy was in top form, particularly on the single released from the session, “My Romance,” pouring his heart out in the lament for a mythical love. The record went nowhere.
The early ’60s were tough on jazz and r&b artists — or anybody else who didn’t play rock & roll. The sense of community Jimmy had enjoyed with the struggling musicians around him — his surrogate family, really — was about to end. Artists were fighting one another over the few gigs left; others killed themselves with heroin. Jimmy sunk to the bottom of rock & roll bills, backed by musicians who didn’t know the tunes and didn’t care.
The singer went to California for a gig and wound up staying. Ray Charles, who had shared the bill with Jimmy in his Hampton days, had started Tangerine, his own label, and Jimmy was the first singer he wanted to record. Charles played piano throughout the impeccable selection of standards and put a string section behind the singer.
“I finally got the chance to sing with the instrumentation I wanted,” says Jimmy dreamily. Jimmy was deeply affected by working with Charles. and calls their collaboration as “a meeting of the souls.” The record was titled Falling in Love is Wonderful.
It was a profound combination — the blind pianist and the so-called “little” singer with the womanly voice. Both knew how it felt to be considered an outcast; both had experienced more than their share of controversy. “People who are born with limited equipment — or what they perceive as limited equipment — they find each other,” says Doc Pomus. “There’s a fraternity of fucked-up people in the world.”
“Why can’t I be more conventional? People talk, people stare, so I try,” sings Jimmy in “Why Try to Change Me Now?,” the desperation of his Savoy records replaced by a languid defiance. “Let people wonder, let them laugh, let them stare,” he decides, his voice as cool as a Central Park snowfall. Why try to change Jimmy Scott now, he is saying. I am what I am. I can dig it — can you?
Charles had no problem with Jimmy’s strange sense of time. “You don’t insult people,” he says. “If they’re good and they know what they’re doin’, you let them do it. You don’t go makin’ ’em somethin’ you want ’em to be. It wasn’t a complicated thing. Everything was very easy-flowin’, man. Just like Jimmy.”
Jimmy sent for his father to come out and watch the sessions. At first Arthur was impressed, but seeing his son receive the star treatment day after day drove him crazy. Jimmy left behind everything in L.A. to drive his father back to Cleveland. “Dad, he wasn’t gonna go home on the bus,” says Jimmy. Back in Ohio, he waited for the Tangerine album to come out. “You couldn’t have told me that record wasn’t gonna be a hit.” he says. It almost happened.
“Every time I played the record, there’d be some new person asking, ‘What is the name of that woman singing — she is incredible!’ ” says Joel Dorn, then a jazz DJ in Philadelphia. “Everybody thought it was a chick singer. So naturally, in explaining that Jimmy wasn’t a chick it called so much attention to him that every record store in the area got hundreds of calls. The response was stunning. Until the lawsuit came out.”
Herman Lubinsky had an injunction placed against the record, claiming Jimmy was still under contract to Savoy. Rather than face a lawsuit, Tangerine stopped distribution. Lubinsky made certain no record company would go near Jimmy for another six years. “To this day I don’t know what Lubinsky gained from it,” says Joe Adams, longtime business associate of Ray Charles. “I just think he did Jimmy more harm.”
Few people heard the record. The only copy Jimmy owns is full of scratches and missing a cover. “All you wanted was a decent home life, a decent opportunity to express the depths of what you were all about as a singer,” he says. “But it never happened. I never really got over.”
JIMMY REMAINED in Cleveland, remarrying in ’65 and taking a job as a hotel shipping clerk. His spare time was devoted to a study of world religion, particularly the teachings of Yogananda. He contemplated entering the ministry of his mother’s religion, the Spiritualist Church. Music was confined to occasional weekend gigs. In 1969, Joel Dorn — now a successful producer at Atlantic Records — brought Jimmy back. An uneven record, The Source is marred by an overdubbed string section and material that strains to be contemporary, but on three cuts — “I Wish I Knew,” “This Love of Mine,” and “Day by Day” — Jimmy took his singing to new extremes.
“Day by Day” is the album’s centerpiece and the singer’s greatest recording. Jimmy ‘s subtle phrasing and dramatic time changes had grown so sophisticated that the song sounds devoid of melody, but the more one hears it, the more its riverlike tempos sweep you away. Unbelievably, Jimmy was singing even slower than he had in the past, stripping lyrics down to their barest meaning, rendering each phrase so succinctly you could stick it in a fortune cookie. And while the sadness in his music was more devastating than ever, a Zen calm permeated every note. “There isn’t any end to my devotion,” he murmurs. “It’s deeper, dear, by far, than any ocean.”
Jimmy had made sense of his life, come to terms with the past. He credits this to his religious, studies and the time he away from the business. “After a while you grow up,” says Jimmy. “It’s like the old saying goes, ‘when a man reaches the end of his rope, he comes to the beginning of God.’ ” Unfortunately the world didn’t share in his knowledge. The Source received no promotion, and many of those who heard it failed to comprehend. “I remember people hearin’ the album and sating, “Wow, that’s weird!’ ‘” says producer Dorn. “Jimmy makes me feel the way Edith Piaf does; he can reach that far into emotion. But it’s so much emotion it’s just not comfortable for people.”
“Why was I born?” Another night, another gig, and once again Jimmy Scott is singing all by himself. The thrown-together band doesn’t know the tune. so Jimmy has graciously asked them to sit this one out. “Why am I living?” This old show tune from the ’20s once served as background music for many a suicide.
“Why do I cry … You’ll never hear me.” The white audience at this jazz club doesn’t get it. Some people fidget in their chairs, others look at the floor. One guy winces at the singer, as if he has stared too long at the sun. “Why was I born?” Jimmy cries, letting the question hang in the air for an eternity.
“Why was I born?” he asks again, his arms outstretched to the crowd before him. “To love you,” he says softly, dropping his head to his chest.
Day By Day
IN 1970 JIMMY fell while on the hotel job, severely damaging his back. The injury still causes him continual pain, particularly onstage. After Lubinsky died of cancer in ’74, Mendelsohn cut one last Savoy album on Jimmy in ’75. Begin Again was a disaster. The arranger he hired showed up drunk, without any charts, and the young musicians didn’t know Jimmy’s material. The record was ignored.
Jimmy’s third marriage ended in another difficult divorce, and he moved into a senior citizen’s home, becoming president of the building’s council. “He would always be helping somebody, driving them to the grocery store or the doctor,” says Lucille Chapman, a neighbor and friend. Chapman couldn’t help but notice the sorrow that hovered over Jimmy. “It was always there — even on the good days. Something was missing, you could tell. It was his mother. He missed her quite a bit.”
In ’79 Arthur Scott had a stroke. To pass the time Jimmy took his father fishing. Since he was paralyzed on one side, Jimmy would ready his line. “Dad said, ‘here boy, cast this out for me,’ and handed me his favorite fishing pole,” Jimmy remembers. “I went to cast it and the thing just lifted out of my hands and flew into the water. Oh man, I felt so bad about that. He loved that pole.
“But it was the funniest thing. I said, ‘Let’s go buy a new one. I’ll get one, let’s go somewhere.’ I really wanted to replace it. But he said, ‘No boy, don’t worry about it. Forget about it.’ It was like he knew nobody else would get to use that pole.”
A few months later his father was back in the hospital. Jimmy went to see him. “Visiting time was up so I started out the door. He raised up und said, “Boy, don’r think too hard of me, hear?” Arthur Scott died the next day.
THROUGHOUT THE years Jimmy had kept in touch with his old flame, Earlene. “Sometimes I’d get down in the dumps and play Jimmy’s records,” she remembers, “and my mother would say, ‘Uh-oh,’ ’cause she knew what was comin’ next. I don’t care when I’d play them, he’d call. If it wasn’t that night it was the next day. So help me, it was like he knew I needed him.”
Long separated from her husband John, Earlene was still in Newark, living with her mother, when she received a letter from Jimmy Scott. After all these years he wanted to get back together. “I called him up and asked what he was doin’, and he said, ‘Nuthin.’ He told me he was gonna be a minister. Jimmy had given up singing altogether.”
Earlene went to Cleveland. “He already had all these pens, cups, and stationery that said “James and Earlene Scott.’ I couldn’t believe it,” she remembers. “I asked him if I got him an interview on the radio would he come back to singing, and he said, “Only if you promise to marry me.’ ” She returned home and, being a longtime contributor to Newark’s jazz station, WBGO, pleaded with them to put Jimmy on the air. At first the woman on the phone insisted Jimmy Scott had died long ago. Earlene was furious. “I said, ‘He is not dead. He’s in Cleveland!’ ”
That following week, Jimmy appeared on Bob Porter’s show and ended up staying for hours, talking to fans. Not long after, Jimmy made his first professional engagement in years at Newark’s Mirage Club. “That place was packed,” says Earlene, who had married the singer on February 14, Valentine ‘s Day, nearly 40 years after their first meeting. “Jimmy had tears in his eyes. He didn’t know that so many people enjoyed and missed him. He thought they had forgot.”
The happy ending stops there. Jimmy’s reputation is still so underground his comeback has meant little. He’s playing the same kind of dives he sang in 30 years ago. Jimmy has to hire inexperienced musicians who can’t handle his time changes, and most of the gigs are unadvertised. I’ve seen him perform to an audience of three — Earlene, her mother, and me. He has no record company, no manager, no band. And Jimmy is singing better than ever.
One day Jimmy hands me three sheets of legal paper. Across the top of the first page is written,”For Whatever the Reason.” The elegant longhand is Jimmy’s.”My Problems did not take effect until my Thirteenth Birthday in that year my mother was killed by a car accident immediately I realized I was totally alone.” Both he and his brother Kenny were born with Kallmann’s Syndrome, a hereditary condition that affects one in a thousand. “The brain doesn’t secrete the proper hormones to stimulate testicular functions,” says Dr. Joann C. Findley, an assistant professor of medicine at University Hospital in Cleveland. “Essentially, those born with it haven’t gone through puberty.” Jimmy’s voice has the power to break women’s hearts, make men cry. Even his saddest songs have saved marriages from divorce. His voice has joined the world, and separated him from us.
When Jin1my was born, Kallmann’s was a mystery; now it can be treated. Kenny Scott only found out a few years ago about hormone shots. “It’s helped me a lot. but you know Jimmy, he can’t stand to take a needle, and besides,” Kenny pauses for a moment, “it would probably do to Jimmy what it did to me. Change his voice.”
A few days later I leave Jimmy’s after a long interview. In the last week, his life has begun to make awful sense. I stand and wait for the elevator, thinking about the father that never loved Jimmy. The doomed marriages.”Little” Jimmy Scott, the dopefiend afraid of needles, standing naked before those fucking cops. What would I have done in his shoes? Get drunk and go crazy or put a bullet through my head? “God made me this way,” Jimmy says. “It’s too late to change it.”
As the ancient elevator rumbles up to my floor, I notice a discarded old picture by my foot. It’s an old watercolor illustration of Jesus. He’s dressed in a flowing white robe, sitting in a sunlit garden. Around him are gathered three little children, dressed in their finest Sunday school clothes. It is an idyllic image, seductively innocent. Until I look closer.
A small blond child is sitting in the lap of Jesus, pointing to his paint. “What happened to your hands?” she asks.
All the Way
JIMMY SCOTT stands in front of the microphone, his first real recording session in 12 years. On the other side of thc glass sits his producer — me. When I interviewed Quincy Jones, he said that if I got him a demo tape of Jimmy with a good pianist, he’d take care of the rest. So I took him up on the offer, using the money I’d make from this article to produce the demo myself.
Lottery tickets would have been a wiser investment. The session began with a good omen — the studio turned out to be where Jimmy had cut his first records with Hampton. But there was no money, no arrangements, and the pianist was just the wrong choice for Jimmy. Instead of slicking to the melody and staying out of the singer’s way, he kept second-guessing the next note Jimmy would land on, What were once songs had become exercises in dissonance.
The atmosphere in the studio was grim. Each new take sounded more vague than the last. I got uptight. Jimmy got uncomfortable. I put my head down on the console, figuring I was just contributing to another disaster in Jimmy’s career.
Then Jimmy changed everything. Before the session, I had asked him to do a couple of a cappella numbers. He was noncommittal, so I dropped it. But Jimmy hadn’t forgotten.
A long drag off the cigarette, then Jimmy closed his eyes and slowly began to sing an old Sinatra tune. For once nothing held him back, and his colossal voice echoed around the studio. “When somebody loves you, it’ s no good unless they love you ALL THE WAY.” He sounded so sad. And so full of hope.
Nobody said a word when it was over. The pianist’s head was bowed; the recording booth silent. I wanted to hug Jimmy, but he was on the other side of the glass.
Back he went to his cigarette, awkwardly shuffling the pages on his music stand. Jimmy looked frail, spent. He seemed indifferent to the past four minutes, even though he had said everything there is to say about Jimmy Scott. As usual, he had done it the only way he has ever done it. All by himself. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 29, 2020