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All the Way with Jimmy Scott

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

***

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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Guilty

“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?’ ”

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***

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.”

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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.

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What Sin?

“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?

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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?”

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***

“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?”

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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.”

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“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.”

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Address Unknown

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.”

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“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.

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My Romance 

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.

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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.

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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. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Matthew E. White Makes Regional Music

Matthew E. White, whose band opens for each of the Mountain Goats’ four consecutive New York City shows this weekend (and who composed the horn arrangements for the new Goats album, Transcendental Youth), wrote a letter and slipped it into each vinyl copy of his debut album. “It is regional music,” he writes about Big Inner, co-released in August by Hometapes and White’s label, Spacebomb. He’s referring to the fact that, of the 30-plus musicians who put their hands on Big Inner, all but four of those hands belong to musicians who, like him, are from Richmond, Virginia. “There may be 35 people playing at one time,” says White, “but I know who’s playing every note. This record sounds like Richmond, and it could’ve only been made in Richmond.”

See Also:

The Mountain Goats Cover Jawbreaker, And Lo, It Is Wonderful
The Mountain Goats Continue Their Uphill Climb

]

For at least the past decade, when people think of Richmond music, they tend to think of metal-jokers Gwar and punk/hardcore bands like Avail and Strike Anywhere. Big Inner is a completely different beast; it is an album of painstakingly composed Southern pop music filled with elegant horns, colorful strings, uplifting choir crescendos and White’s hushed, soulful and beatific singing. When I ask about the album’s influences, White’s quick to give props to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and the music of Brazilian Tropicália artists like Jorge Ben (the ecstatic final track, “Brazos,” borrows lyrics from a Ben tune). Also evident on Big Inner are traces of Dr. John, the Band, Brian Wilson, Allen Toussaint, Randy Newman and Curtis Mayfield. Of the song “Steady Pace,” which has a laid-back, cool and rascally bounce like Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime,” White says, “It’s like a Meters thing, and then after the chorus it becomes a Jackson 5 thing.” The numerous historical reference points are clear, but even clearer is that Big Inner‘s a Matthew E. White thing, and a Richmond thing–there’s really nothing else in recent memory that sounds anything like it.

Though recorded in a two week period last year at Spacebomb Studios (A/K/A White’s attic), Big Inner is a decade in the making. It’s a product of multiple music scenes in Richmond coming together, in part because of the Patchwork Collective, a concert promoting organization White co-founded in the mid-2000s with the aim of building a united front from the city’s disparate jazz, rock, folk and experimental music corners. While studying music at Virginia Commonwealth University, White and some fellow students started a band called the Great White Jenkins as an outlet for their more rock-oriented urges. White refers to that band, whose members all contributed in some way to the making of Big Inner, as the “skeleton” for the music he’s making now.

When the Great White Jenkins dissolved around 2008, White created Fight The Big Bull, a large free-jazz ensemble that released a solid album called All is Gladness in the Kingdom on the venerable avant-jazz label Clean Feed in 2010. This band brought together some of the finest musicians from Richmond’s small, but vibrant, jazz scene; all of them play on Big Inner–an album, White says, that he didn’t initially intend to be the first Spacebomb release.
[
White sees Spacebomb as a label/studio-hybrid that includes string and horn arrangers, engineers, producers and a house band (with horn, string and choir sections). Like Stax, Philadelphia International, and many labels of yore, the idea is that artists will come to Richmond to work on their records with the Spacebomb team. “We wanted to create a record-making process that could become a stable enterprise,” says White. “Trained musicians, and a studio group, can still be beneficial and exciting to use, though it’s rare these days. When talented people bring their own special skill sets to the table, I think it adds so much to the creative process. There can be a lot of efficiency and excitement when you’re working with actual musicians who can read and write music.”

Employing this model, the first Spacebomb album was supposed to be one by Karl Blau (Microphones, Earth, D+, et al). Blau came to White’s studio to work for two weeks with the full Richmond ensemble, and since White had everyone under one roof, they also recorded the tracks for Big Inner. “Everyone was in the studio already, so I figured we’d try to make my record, too,” says White. “I had all the arrangements worked out, and by the end of the session, we had two records. I thought of mine as a demo that maybe we’d release at some point, but then people seemed to really like it, so we put my album out first.”

Considering how focused, singular and impressive Big Inner is, it’s absurd to think it was an afterthought. Though White’s songwriting has deep roots in diverse American music traditions–soul, Southern rock, jazz, gospel, country–he adds his own modern flourishes so his songs don’t sound derivative or nostalgic. “I’m appreciating regional music history,” he says, “but viewing it through this weird, avant-garde kaleidoscope. There is some complexity to the music, but I took that complexity and made it so that it’s rewarding for any listener. When you’re in a free-jazz band for awhile, you get tired of playing critically-acclaimed music that nobody wants to listen to. I love playing really crazy stuff, but there’s also a place for a well-crafted, well-arranged four minute song. It’s very smooth music, really. So much of what’s considered indie music comes out of punk rock, and there’s absolutely no punk rock influence on Big Inner.”

Big Inner is definitely not punk. And it’s way too good to be indie. Working within popular contemporary music categories, it’s not easy to place Big Inner into one, or many, of the available options. Even when White played the astoundingly diverse Hopscotch Festival a few weeks ago in Raleigh, N.C., there was nothing on the bill quite like the 30-piece ensemble White brought down from Richmond for its big debut. (For the four New York shows, White’s working with a 9-piece touring group, but he hopes to get the big band on stage again one of these days.) Based solely on the music’s glacial beauty, intricate grandeur and religiosity, the only comparable act at Hopscotch, I think, would’ve been the doom metal band Sunn O))). But, as Kanye once said, that’s “fuckin’ ridiculous.”

What White says makes more sense. “It is regional music.”

Matthew E. White plays Music Hall Of Williamsburg Saturday and Sunday nights (9 p.m., $25), and The Bowery Ballroom Monday and Tuesday nights (9 p.m., $25).

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

IMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR

You can spot the orange-and-black spines of the Impulse! label in any record collection, but their impact goes beyond design. The music, which defined ’60s jazz, still feels terrifically present tense. To celebrate the imprint’s 50th anniversary, the Standard takes a repertory romp with Impulse! Nights, a string of shows dedicated to key titles. Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth is both moody and playful, and Roy Hargrove’s update should make ditties like “Hoe-Down” crackle. Gil Evans’s cinematic charts for Out of the Cool will be plushly re-upholdstered by Ryan Truesdell’s large ensemble. A two-trombone team led by Robin Eubanks zigzags through the tunes on The Great Kai & J.J., and there’s even a math lesson: Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz was the label’s first hit. Wonder if Henry Butler will have any trouble duping it sans orchestra?

April 20-24, 2011

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A Yankee Stadium Concert, And a New Face at the Voice

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

June 16, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 35

Pop Eye: Soundblast ’66

By Richard Goldstein

Federico Fellini came to the Bronx last Friday night — in spirit anyway — when an assemblage of rock ‘n’ roll musicians took over the giant diamond at Yankee Stadium. Under the title “Soundblast 66,” they staged a pop-happening masquerading as a concert. Participating were a battalion of public relations men, 66 (three and a half tons of) go-go girls, squads of city and private police, and a bored, restless, chilly crowd of fans.

The concert was billed with some of the biggest names in Pop. The acts spanned the spectrum of the American rock scene (an increasingly expansive spectrum it is). The Beach Boys brought their California surfsound, with its emphasis on material fun and games. The Marvelettes an Little Stevie Wonder came heavily doused in soul and negritude. The McCoys handled the double-entendre and rauc-rock. The Byrds were appropriately long-haired and psychedelic. And Ray Charles came along for the class.

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So, “Soundblast 66” should have been a gratifying combination of jazz-folk gospel acid-dance-rock. But the potential got lost somewhere in the stadium’s mammoth infield. The end product sounded like a cross between a Jehovah’s Witness revival and a drag race. The Fellini touch hung heavy over the whole affair like oily Bronx pasta.

It began an hour and 15 minutes late, with the go-go girls. Fresh from rehearsals at the Riverside Table Tennis Club, they seemed confused by the open green. They circled the baselines on bicycles. They screamed and waved streamers like switched-on cheerleaders. They frugged and jerked in mid-riff drag.

From the home-team dugout, 16-year-old Randy Zehringer, who plays with the McCoys, watched the wiggling arms and torsos, and looked bored. He had sen it all before. Playing the stadium, he confided, was “awful, terrible. It’s like singing in the middle of a freeway. With all the noise and open space, you can’t hear the audience reaction and you can’t hear your own sound.”

But once out of the dugout, the McCoys lost their apathy. With plastic energy, they bounded down the plywood runway stadium officials had constructed to protect the grass. The audience (which one concert official estimated at 25,000) seemed lost in the immense grandstands. Most of the stadium’s seats were unused, and the sound of trickling applause echoing off empty wood seemed anything but frenetic.

The stage was set upon the pitcher’s mound. This initial separation between audience and performer was never breached. Rock ‘n’ roll is a big medium, and the stadium’s acoustics — with its automatic echo and feedback — are immensely discothequable. But for groups like the McCoys, it was a hell of distractions. Fireworks exploded in the grandstand. Fistfights broke out. Autograph hunters roamed wild in the outfield. And a horde of press photographers knelt at the foot of the stage in homage. The sound was lost in the pseudo-event.

As the Byrds emerged from the home-team dugout, a bell-bottomed body burst from a nearby box and tried to leap the fence. She was stopped by a flying wedge of police. The group raced down the plywood path to the stage, but they had to wait a full ten minutes before their equipment could be assembled. Finally connected to their amplifiers by electrical umbilical cords, they began to play. But the sound wasn’t worth the amps. The group seemed incapable of sustaining effective harmony in person, and their ambiguous raga-rhythms lost themselves in a maze of echo and feedback. Priceless details (Jim McGuinn doing a neat two-step as he sang, Gene Clarke’s phosphorescent buttons, the grin on Mike Clarke’s face as he dutifully pounded the drums) were lost on everyone in the audience who had neglected to bring a high power telescope.

The Beach Boys came out of the pitcher’s bull pen in a green armored van. The vehicle stopped short of the stage and was immediately surrounded by police. But it was a false miracle right out of “La Dolce Vita.” The anticipated riot of screaming fans never materialized, because the truck seemed miles away from the nearest female groupie, and males were distracted by the dancers.

Undaunted, the Beach Boys mounted the stage. There were screams. There was cheering. There were signs, placards, and bedsheets. But no fainting, no turmoils no adulation. “It’s too cold,” one reporter muttered. “I want a riot with racial overtones,” whispered his photographer. “I’ve still got half a roll to shoot.”

But all went well — and dull — as the group careened thorugh “Surfer Girl,” “California Girls,” and “Sloop John B.” They finished with “Barbara Ann,” waved goodbye in the general direction of the floodlights, and climbed into the armored van to be whisked away.

The management tried to fan the dying flames during the intermission. They gave away a couple of lightweight Suzuki cycles, a gross of albums by the Gentry, and other material goodies. But the audience, bored by the delays and chilled by the weather, wilted and grew thin. They were only mildly impressed as Miss Soundblast ’66 (16-year-old Sherry Se-Bor, a sophomore at Massapequa High) came on stage to take her bows.

For the second half, the tempo changed abruptly. The go-go girls were gone. Their bicycles lay stacked along the foul lines. Their streamers littered the infield. The grandstand was virtually empty and those who remained in the boxes formed a primarily Negro audience.

So, the management gave them soul. Little Stevie Wonder waved in the imagined direction of applause, and smiled for the clicking cameras. But once on stage, he stopped being a blind man and started to sing.

His set was the evening’s most successful. The catcalls ceased and the stadium quieted noticeably as he belted out his soul-scrubbed lyrics. His version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” was magnificent in scope. It bounded off the walls and rows of empty seats. It echoed from the giant scoreboard and made the entire concept of holding a pop concert in Yankee Stadium seem plausible.

Ray Charles ended the evening with a medley of old favorites. By this time, the cold was beginning to get to everyone, and the Raelettes stood in the wings with towels from Consolidated Laundries wrapped around their bare shoulders. But the audience was with this act, and they sang along jubilantly with the evening’s finale: “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”

A 14-year-old go-go dancer from Borough Park, Brooklyn, sat in the back of the grandstand, her head buried in her mother’s lap. “They didn’t pay us at all,” she complained. “They made us rehearse three times. They made us wear our own costumes.”

And, she explained, “I sprained my ankle trying to get a good look at the Byrds.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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Lykke Li+Wildbirds & Peacedrums

Lykke Li has said she doesn’t like dance music—at an October Bowery Ballroom gig, she covered Ray Charles, Vampire Weekend, and A Tribe Called Quest. Yet now, the pouty indie-pop singer, whose undeniably danceable music is mainstream-pop in her native Sweden, has risers for her to climb onstage and show off her latest moves. Maybe it’s this quirky conflict of ideals that pushes her to be such a captivating show-woman. Not to be missed are the similarly ambivalent Sunday night openers (and Li’s countrymen) Wildbirds & Peacedrums, a husband-and-wife duo who alternate between contemplative, percussion-heavy indie rock and convulsive tribal-soul outbursts.

Tue., Feb. 3, 9 p.m., 2009

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Make Obama’s Inauguration a People’s Celebration

Many of us got a little dopey after Barack Obama’s big win on election night. People started talking to deceased friends and relatives who would have dug seeing this amazing thing that America had done. “Allan Pasternack, you won’t believe what just happened . . . ,” I heard myself saying, as though a long-departed friend devoted to civil rights was standing right there. Obama had it wrong at his first press conference as the President-Elect. It wasn’t Nancy Reagan doing the séances. It was all his slap-happy supporters.

In another gesture unworthy of a decent journalist, on the way back from watching voters in northern Ohio make history, I stopped off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to pay homage to a few guys who would be doing handstands if they got the news. Like Sam Cooke. Obama never mentioned him by name, but his great election-night speech in Chicago was like an answer song for Cooke’s haunting hymn, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “It’s been a long time coming,” Obama thundered to the crowd in Grant Park, echoing Cooke’s lyrics. “At this defining moment, change has come to America.” Sam Cooke, raised on the gospel of Chicago’s South Side, would have sung an “Amen.”

As would Ray Charles. The man they called “Brother Ray” always avoided being pegged politically. He tended to favor presidents whose portraits were on large denominations. But that didn’t stop him from turning a tired old anthem into the greatest patriotic tune ever heard, one guaranteed to move the stoniest hearts, left or right. Ray’s special genius made him start with the third verse of “America the Beautiful”—the one only grade-schoolers ever get to: “O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife/Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!” Ronald Reagan’s team knew something special when they heard it, and hired Ray to perform his transcendent song at the 1984 Republican National Convention. Ray knocked out the crowd. No wonder Reagan won in a landslide. Ray Charles died on June 10, 2004, just a few days after Reagan himself kicked. When they closed the government a couple of days later to honor “a great American,” a lot of us knew who they meant.

James Brown, the late, great Soul Brother No. 1, almost made it. J.B. stepped off the stage for the last time on Christmas Day two years ago. Despite his occasional scrapes with the law, Mr. Please, Please, Please considered himself a true patriot. He also spent a lot of time thinking about his country, which is where tunes like his “Living in America” came from (“Hand to hand, across the nation . . . got to have a celebration . . . Yoww!“). He also called for an Obama-style victory back in 1974, when he cut his “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”: “We gotta get over before we go under,” he declared back then.

Then there’s another magnificent soulster from Chicago who would have written a bucket of ballads about Obama’s achievement were he still around. Curtis Mayfield, more than any other songwriter of his time, used his music to prod people to keep on pushing, as he put it. That’s where his “People Get Ready,” “It’s All Right,” and, yes, “Keep On Pushing” sprung from. Mayfield also wrote achingly about the toll taken by the inner city. You can’t get much bleaker than “Freddy’s Dead” and “Pusherman.” But right up to the end, in 1999, even in a wheelchair, he was still a defiant and upbeat troubadour, singing his “It’s My Country” and “We’re a Winner” with the sure conviction of someone who knew that, given enough pushes, the door had to open.

A couple of days before the election, another Hall of Famer—this one thankfully still around—played to a massive throng of 80,000, who filled the plazas across from the museum for one of Obama’s final rallies. Bruce Springsteen sang “Youngstown,” his ode to vanished blue-collar jobs, and “The Rising,” the chant that sparked many Obama events during the campaign. In between, he sang his reworked take on “This Land Is Your Land”: “We’re at the crossroads,” Springsteen hollered, his rasping voice echoing up and down the lakefront. “We’re at the crossroads.”

On Monday, the day after the rally, union organizer Kevin Doyle, one of the hundreds of New Yorkers who trooped to Ohio to help get out the vote, knocked on a door answered by a young black man. He’d been at the rally the evening before and had heard Springsteen’s songs. “You know,” he said, “I found myself thinking, ‘This really is my land.’ “

Music was obviously the proper way to celebrate this astonishing event. Back in New York, it was everywhere in the air. Saturday morning after the election, rhythm-and-blues DJ Felix Hernandez spun a stream of tunes to mark the occasion on his WBGO show. He played the Whispers’ ethereal “Great Day”; the Pointer Sisters singing Allen Toussaint’s bouncy version of the Obama chant, “Yes We Can Can”; and the Staple Singers’ lofty “I’ll Take You There.” Hernandez will hail the victory all over again at one of his massive and happy dances at Roseland on December 6.

It’s a good idea to do the celebrating now, as the hill Obama must climb becomes steeper each day. The economy sinks further; the Clintonistas, who muffed so many of their own opportunities, cluster around him suffocatingly, like moths to the light.

Obama has already fulfilled one small piece of his campaign pledges by barring lobbyists and corporations from picking up the tab for the inevitable inauguration parties in January. But he needs to go further. The idea was first broached by Denis Hamill in his Daily News column and deserves a strong second: Obama should make this a true people’s inauguration. He should renounce the usual round of obscenely costly insider balls as totally inappropriate, given an economy of hard times and two ongoing wars. He should insist that the tens of millions of dollars usually spent on these affairs is grossly improper, given the need to simply keep people in their homes.

He should go back to his army of small donors and ask them to ante up one more time. He should use those funds to turn Washington’s National Mall, site of King’s prophetic “I have a dream” speech, into one vast public celebration. One where Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and every other living member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be invited to play for a nation celebrating a new day, a party to summon the spirits of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield. If he needs help, he should call Nancy Reagan.

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One More Cup of CD for the Road

It’s a cool night in mid May at the Supper Club in midtown, and the place is crawling with industry reps—of both the music and coffee varieties. “I’d like to give a shout-out to Starbucks and all the baristas and partners here!” Kristen Henderson, a guitarist for Antigone Rising, yells into her mic. About a dozen people in the audience reflexively holler and throw their hands up in the air. “You make a mean soy latte. Thanks for supporting our band!” Not exactly on par with Paul Stanley’s homage to “Cold Gin,” but the New York-area hottie female rock quintet is getting from Starbucks what Kiss never got from Bombay Sapphire. The week before, the coffee behemoth had begun selling Antigone’s acoustic major-label debut, From the Ground Up, which it co-released on its own Hear Music label and sold exclusively out of its 4,400 U.S. stores. In its first week the record SoundScanned 10,656, more than well-known artists such as Mars Volta, Mario, and Queens of the Stone Age. Pretty impressive for a “baby band,” but for Starbucks’s next release, that figure would barely amount to a hill of Sumatran coffee beans.

On June 13, 10 years to the day Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill came out—the second biggest album ever by a female artist—the java corporation will begin peddling a new acoustic version of the 16-times platinum CD. Hear Music is banking on Jagged being its bestseller since Ray Charles’s spectacularly successful Genius Loves Company. The coffee establishment even worked out an exclusive if controversial deal with Morissette’s label, Maverick Records, to carry it for six weeks before it’s available in other stores.

“Your Alanis plan is not very cool,” the president of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, Don VanCleave, wrote in a vitriolic open letter to Starbucks. “Securing yourself a six week window of exclusivity on the Alanis before everyone else gets it is only gonna make you a moving target.” Music retailers across the country, facing a declining market, are furious with Maverick and are threatening to pull its titles and/or remove them from advertisements. With sales down 7 percent in the first quarter from last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, it’s no wonder record shops sound a little desperate.


The anti-Starbucks: Dancing to the beat of the Mudtruck at the Howl Festival in 2004
photo: photo: Nora Szilagyi

“It’s really hard to run a successful business selling records these days,” says Josh Madell, co-owner of Manhattan’s Other Music, a store that 10 years ago had the cojones to open up across the street from Tower Records, which was still the city’s dominant music retailer (before it filed for Chapter 11). “There’s definitely a lot of financial problems in the music industry right now, but the bottom line is that the markup on music for retail is much smaller than any other type of retail. The markup for clothing is 100 to 200 percent or more. For CDs you’re lucky if you can get a 30 percent markup.” Most successful music retailers, Madell explains, make their money on selling peripherals. Best Buy, for instance, sells new releases as loss leaders to get people to buy electronics.

Not so for the coffee leviathan, which now shifts units (3 million Ray Charles fans can’t be wrong), tops music charts (Brother Ray hit No. 1, Tina Turner No. 2), wins anachronistic Grammys (eight for Genius Loves Company), and has its own label plus 33 million weekly customers with disposable income to burn. The chain store is filling iPods and CD carousels of the time- challenged and overcaffeinated at full retail price, which is why the majors are lining up to get their CDs in the cardboard containers next to the cash registers.


Alanis Morissette
photo: Chapman Baehler

Starbucks’s entertainment division significantly ratcheted up its game in the third quarter of 2004. That’s when Hear Music released Genius, launched an XM satellite radio station (to complement corporate partnerships with United Airlines, T-Mobile, Hewlett-Packard, and The New York Times), and began rolling out its digital-downloading Hear Music media bars. Since then, the corporation has opened its first Hear Music coffeehouse—essentially a full-fledged music retail store with a Starbucks—and announced a deal to produce Herbie Hancock following in Ray Charles’s footsteps, complete with an obligatory roll call of milquetoast collaborators: John Mayer, Sting, and Carlos Santana. In spring, the store began carrying some of the major labels’ biggest sellers, including Beck and the Dave Matthews Band. In July comes a live album from Carole King. And then, according to industry scuttlebutt, the caffeine monger plans a live album by venti-rock icon Bob Dylan, culled from his 1962 performances at the Gaslight Café.


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“Basically it sounds like they’re doing to the small record stores what they once did to the small cafés,” says Anette Baldauf, professor of sociology specializing in globalization and culture who teaches at the New School for Social Research. “They have very aggressive business strategies. . . . They’ve made it really difficult here in New York for the small coffee shops to survive. Naomi Klein calls it ‘cluster politics’—they take over entire neighborhoods, like what they did at Cooper Union, where they have three or four locations so any alternative or small coffee shop wouldn’t have a chance to make it.” Witness Starbucks’s 341-store carpet-bombing of our fair metropolis, from Bay Ridge to Riverdale.

“For us,” says Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, “it’s always been about great music.” He sounds like a press release when he speaks, especially when asked about selling more underground music: “We are expanding the genres and recognizing that our customers, who have given us permission to go beyond coffee, love music in a wide variety of genres. We don’t exclude Top 40, but it’s our objective to go beyond that.” Translation: Don’t expect to hear Mastodon, John Zorn, or Luther Campbell anytime soon. The coffee shop still won’t play or sell music that might cause you to jostle your java or to look up from your laptop. For chrissakes, even Bruce Springsteen’s new Devils & Dust was reportedly deemed too risqué due to an anal-sex allusion—apparently the mermaid doesn’t like her customers to use the back door. (Starbucks claims it didn’t stock the album due to shelf space.)

The brewmasters’ straight-up-the-middle music taste is coupled with sheer marketing muscle. Madeleine Peyroux, a relatively obscure torch singer on the independent Rounder Records, put out her first album in 1996. Her latest, Careless Love, was released last September, but in mid March Starbucks started prominently displaying it. Suddenly sales more than tripled in one week, from 4,849 albums to 16,636, pushing the album to No. 81 on the Billboard Top 200. “People are so busy these days,” says an elated Sheri Sands, vice president of sales and marketing at Rounder Records. “To have music in a store you visit every day is just that much more convenient.”

Starbucks’s Hear Music label’s first release was a 1995 jazz compilation with Blue Note Records. The company subsequently expanded its music roasts to include everything from opera to Afro-pop, classical to children’s music, and of course rock, blues, and soul—but still nothing too abrasive or hard. Its Artist’s Choice CDs, which feature legendary artists like the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Cash, most often feel like an exercise in licensing clearances for the canonical. More useful are the Hear Music Playlist compilations, featuring slightly off-the-beaten-path performers like Magnetic Fields, Calexico, and Sondre Lerche—choices suggesting corporate headquarters may be more musically savvy than your average label exec.

“I think the biggest challenge for labels is breaking bands,” says Antigone’s Kristen Henderson, whose band will release its major-label studio debut in August. “The situation with Starbucks is perfect for us because it’s going to get us into 4,400 stores, front and center, and expose our band, our music, our name to a whole group of people who have never known us.” The acoustic Starbucks release doesn’t do the band’s accomplished hard-rock chops—which at times recall the Allman Brothers or the Black Crowes—justice. Still, the twentysomething guitarist feels no shame in having her band associated with the coffee store. “There’s always negative spin, people get like, hate the Man, the corporation—but we’re signed to a major label. We were an indie touring band, but we consider our band a small business. We want to grow our business. . . . It doesn’t really freak us out.”


Madeleine Peyroux
photo: Andrew MacNaughtan

Nor does it freak out the most loyal Starbucks customers, who visit 216 times a year. How many other yuppie-oriented businesses can make a similar claim? “We’re a nation of people that likes to get takeout in the best form,” says legendary music producer Phil Ramone, who co-produced and won two Grammys for Genius Loves Company. “I don’t think 20 years ago people would have said, ‘I’m going to buy my music in that store.’ But the store is inviting. . . . There’s no indignity. It’s a cool place to go. Almost everybody I’m in touch with goes to Starbucks.” Except perhaps those who want to know more about whatever music they’re purchasing for $15.99.


On several occasions I ask baristas what the CD sitting two feet from their noses sounds like. Each time the question is met with blank stares and a colleague consultation, inevitably resulting in a mutually agreed-upon two-word genre description like “sorta jazz” (Michael Bublé), “kinda r&b” (John Legend), “rock ‘n’ roll” (Beck), “like folk” (Antigone Rising). “We will continue to work very hard with our baristas to be able to help them build awareness around which titles are part of the offerings,” says Ken Lombard. “That’s a big part of our music strategy right now, but with over 9,200 stores worldwide, you can imagine it takes a lot of work.” Don’t expect “partners,” who are basically higher-paid fast-food employees, to ever appropriately describe what Sondre Lerche sounds like.

[

In late April barista Daniel Gross, an employee at the 36th and Madison store, organized a benefit to support the first Starbucks workers union. Last January, following allegations of Starbucks’s aggressive union-busting tactics, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against the company. The benefit’s headliner was David Rovics, a folk singer described by no less an authority than WBAI’s Amy Goodman as a musical version of her progressive politics show, Democracy Now! Rovics receives the evening’s loudest applause for a song entitled “Minimum Wage Strike”: “There was no one flipping burgers/All the grills were cold/Onion rings were in their bags/Fries were growing mold/There were no baristas at Starbucks/Asking, ‘How many shots would you like?’/When all the minimum-wage workers went on strike.” After the show I ask Rovics, a thirtysomething Woody Guthrie acolyte with nine independent releases, if he wouldn’t mind selling his music out of the megalith coffee retailer. “I really don’t think Starbucks would be interested in selling my records,” he answers. “I’m not going to refuse to sell my records to any store. If Starbucks wanted to promote pro-union, anti-war music that is directly in contradiction with the basic principles of the people who run the company . . . it just seems extremely unlikely.”

Most New Yorkers I speak with assuage their blue-state guilt for imbibing the corporation’s delicious black crack, secure in the knowledge that workers there make two to three dollars above minimum wage and may be eligible for health insurance benefits, stock options, and 401(k) plans. Many customers are also convinced the store concentrates on fair-trade coffee. But how sure should they be?


Antigone Rising
photo: James Minchin

“Starbucks is the perfect example of a contemporary corporation,” Professor Baldauf explains. “They are very aware of educated consumers and their concerns. They use a certain language and are incredibly successful in presenting themselves as being consumer and worker friendly; at the very same time, they are the fastest growing corporation.” Union organizer Daniel Gross claims all baristas are part-time and none make a living wage. And fair-trade coffee, it turns out, makes up less than 5 percent of the stores’ sales (which totaled $5.3 billion in 2004, according to their financial statements, up 30 percent over 2003). Every day, three new Starbucks open up somewhere in the world. So where does that leave us? What coffee store big or small can ever compete?

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday at Astor Place. As usual, eight or so bleary-eyed commuters stand aside the bright orange Mudtruck awaiting their daily caffeine fix. Abstract hip-hop beats blare from the speakers hung off the side of the converted Con Ed truck. “We play everything—RJD2, Prince, the Small Faces, anything,” explains Shoshana Ami, the energetic and gregarious worker inside the motor vehicle. “Also Rare Earth, Aphex Twin, Prefuse 73, and sometimes death metal,” her co-worker Kyle Lawrence calls out. It would have been only too easy for any of the cued-up workaday weary to hit one of four Starbucks that lie within a two-block radius of here. “Sometimes,” Ami says. “I even make mix tapes for the customers.”

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NY Mirror

It’s high time for some blind items—no, not late-breaking gossip about Ray Charles. I’m talking about those nameless tidbits that leave you slurping, panting, and begging for the answers, all while anonymously posting on some website, “He’s the lowest, most tawdry excuse for a journalist on this or any other planet.”

So ya ready, Miss Hypocrisy Pants? Good: What cartoon creator is supposedly gay friendly? (Make that very gay friendly: A few years ago, he hired a hustler for six months, and not to do animation, either.) Which breakup was apparently partly fueled by a little nose candy problem on the part of the lovely lady? What unbelievably minor radio personality once taunted me on the air for being gay but turns out to be a big, duplicitous, chicken-lovin’ flamer to end all flamers? What longtime arty film director does big-budget script doctoring on the side and is lucky he doesn’t get credited? What superstar’s brother went out with a pier queen who developed AIDS, so the brother gave him the dump and the superstar served up a $50,000 check to keep him away and quiet? (And they say she doesn’t support charity.)

What aged socialite-actress feels that the tycoon who bought her mother’s Palm Beach house is a vulgar and tacky excuse for a human? Any arguments? What tireless party boy was once caught getting fucked on all fours in the bathroom at a house party when everyone else had wrapped up their socializing and the hostess was announcing, “Party’s over!”? What music biz manager has a reputation for not showing up for meetings and for being impossible to track down to find out why the fuck he didn’t make it?

What British star, according to someone who ratted to a tabloid, is averagely endowed and performs straightforward missionary-position sex that’s over in 10 boozy minutes? How can I get his number? What art figure has gone gay again, though he apparently never really stopped? What late multi-sexual artist liked girls so young he could have easily been the subject of an Amber Alert? What hideous ’80s rock band lead singer—still trying for a comeback—can almost only do it with girls up the ass (their ass, surprisingly enough)? What cute gay writer has a profile on bigmuscle.com and specifies that he’s “smart, but with a well-developed fantasy shadow side”? (Though one person who took him up on it claims the experience was rather vanilla—picky, picky.) What long-running comic, whose biggest shtick is about his wonderful wife, used to prance around the Continental Baths back in the day (no doubt for role research)? What star, when she got the script for her gala comeback, started putting all kinds of notes in the margins, until her agent said, “What the fuck are you doing? Stop!”?

Strap on your vomit bags

What campaign personality is as gay gay gay as Republicans are anti anti anti? What new-ish restaurant, says an ex-patron, “has caviar that’s really tapioca soaked in a soy vinaigrette, and the owner is so clueless he thinks it tastes like real sturgeon roe. Then again, he probably thinks his nose looks real too”? What ailing legend, despite his public image, is a real dick—and took graft for years, by the way? What slumming actress did a half-naked theater performance, thereby revealing what looked like highly unsettling lipo scars? (Though they may have worked for the part.) What Oscar-winning actor said of that younger Oscar-winning actress, when they performed together a couple of years ago, “I’ve worked with a lot of cunts, but she takes the cake!”? What Tony winner is pretty agreeable when “on,” but when it comes to mere human interaction, she really takes the cake? (Though others swear she’s a doll—no, really.) What actor, thought to have dropped out of that diminishing role, was actually let go for not being up to it?

What anchor has a taste for the dark meat? What ’80s game show host has a taste for the tranny meat? What young star of that hit series for the kids was so carefree until recently that he was actually spotted at the Roosterfish gay bar in Venice Beach, California, when the show had already begun airing? What power broker has a new boyfriend, which is probably OK with the power broker’s wife, a fag hag hall of famer? What ’80s teen star works the autograph circuit, posing nude for old men for $50 so he can nab his next batch of crack?

You’ll never believe this whopper

What star’s daughter called Mama to say, “Are you watching me on my show tonight?” only to have Mama say, “What show? Oh, I have to go out to dinner, but I guess I’ll tape it”? Which beloved club survivor will never tire of telling the story about the amputee who tried to fuck him with his stump? (And Lord knows, I’ll never tire of hearing it!) What married TV star in her mid-thirties has repeatedly gone lesbo with someone I know, to the consternation of the usually open-minded hubby? What two stars of an upcoming retread were blitzed on coke at a party for the movie, the main star groping a woman and elegantly asking, “You’re not gonna let me put it in?” What same actor—married, by the way—once tried to fondle a female friend of mine, who couldn’t believe her thighs and also did not let him put it in? What gay opening-night critic’s official bio vaguely states he’s “single and lives in New York City”? What columnist fulminates against teen single mothers, but doesn’t always blare the fact that she once was one herself? What upcoming revival is CHERRY JONES‘s fabulous new girlfriend in?

What did Sweet Charity co-star ERNIE SABELLA crack to Theater Talk co-host SUSAN HASKINS at a playbill.com party? (Free answer: “I took this job to work with Cy Coleman and Neil Simon. What happened?”) Are we there yet?


LITTER BOX
Interview with the vampires

Celebrities are generally delightful, once you push past their pustular publicists and get to them, but a handful of stars have been less than felicitous in their dealings with me—i.e., they’re total dicks and ding-dongs. I could name them—I long to, actually—but let’s keep this week’s blind gimmick going and make it another tortuous guessing game for your devilish delectation.

And so my worst interview encounters through the years have been with: ’70s drag disco star (he taped the interview to throw me off, and didn’t reveal anything anyway); ’70s soul singer (made not one iota of sense); female r&b star (in her drug phase, could barely keep her eyes open or her head off the table); ethnic TV diva (charmless and self-serving); her small-screen mother (kvetched and circled contact sheets all through the interview); ex-supermodel (started screaming demands in the middle of our session); has-been sitcom lady (bristles when you mention the co-star she supposedly has no problem with); pretentious actor who’s played villains and gays (rudely lost interest mid-sentence); black, once nominated actor (ditto); actress’s movie star brother (canceled to hold out for a larger piece, which he never got); young female folk-rock-pop singer (stared into space, mute and helpless without her flack nearby); foreign director (freaked at the one personal question and canceled the whole thing—though we made up); male superstar (“Where are you from? . . . no interviews,” he snarled at a premiere); fab British lady currently on Broadway. (She was my very first interview and boldly said, “You’re not going to go into journalism, are you?” But you were right, CAROLE SHELLEY, you little doll!)

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It’s a Shame About Ray

For 20 years or more America’s most beloved blues wailer as well as its most thoroughly forgiven celebrity junkie, Ray Charles is a Hollywood biopic grand slam, a walking, talking, grinning triumph over disability and poverty and dope and discrimination. Taylor Hackford’s Ray, for its part, never drops a stitch, methodically working the rise-and-fall-and-rise formula without a single consideration for the viewer’s self-respect or the possibility that even famous lives rarely have the shape of stories. Ray is so reflexive that it often seems to be about the procedural mechanics of biopics. Of course, goodwill is in absurd abundance; owner of the biggest smile and one of the most distinctive voices in 20th-century pop history, Charles is a charmed figure, easy for us to love (Hackford gets ridiculous mileage out of the man’s victorious reaction shots) and easy for the resourceful Jamie Foxx to impersonate.

From Depression-era Georgia to the fame-peak of the 1950s-’60s, Charles’s tale does not want for melodrama—but did Hackford (and co-writer James L. White) have to provide their hero with bad-acid-style hallucinations (water, corpses) to express the man’s childhood guilt over his younger brother’s drowning? Did Charles’s righteous defiance of his first club manager have to be explained via a flashback of his washerwoman mother standing up for her own shortchanged pay? Hackford trusts us to notice very little, least of all the musical performances, which feature original recordings and mostly last for no more than 10 seconds. Instead, we’re fed montages atop montages (“To show it all would take too long!” as the Team America boys sing it), briskly summarizing Charles’s career achievements and challenges instead of dramatizing them.

Once Charles moves his contract from sassy indie Atlantic to corporate ABC-Paramount—a deracinating shift that impacted his music the same way the Marx Brothers defection to Thalberg’s MGM castrated their films—Hackford’s movie falls into a meandering saunter. As the music grows dull, so does the movie, dawdling with Charles’s infidelities (Kerry Washington, as his indignant wife, shines) and inevitably reaching a climax of sorts with his clinic dry-out, shot like a Korn video and peppered with even more flashbacks.

Foxx is such an impeccable Ray Charles mimic that the role feels like a softball easy-pitched to him as reward for the solid job he did showing up the stars of Ali and Collateral. Among the real pleasures of Ray is, predictably, the music, which rip-snorts out of its stock eureka moments even when truncated. (The bogus improv story of how “What’d I Say” came about represents the film’s only patient spell.) The period context is also engrossing; we haven’t been here—the meticulously re-created urban mid-century America—in quite a while, and the stew of lovable retro design and archival establishing shots is comfortable and sweet. A revitalized yen for Charles’s gospel-plus-r&b Atlantic vinyl is a probable outcome of the movie’s experience, but will the biopic, pounding lugubriously along as it does this weary awards season (Guevara, Kinsey, Hughes, Barrie, Darin, Alexander, etc.), ever generate good movies? Or just rote exercises in gearwork?

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The Resurrection and the Light

As all poetry aspires to the condition of hiphop lyrics, all American musicians aspire to the condition of Ray Charles. That ability of his to speak the nation’s vernacular truths as if he’d invented them. Echoing Whitman more than any other of our Tiresian crooners—so that when Ray Charles sings of America he’s singing of himself, no matter what the RNC thought, then or now. God bless my Black American ass muckafuthas, how about that? Sangin’ like you’d expect an African American blind man with a pistol and a lion’s heart of gold to sing, sangin’ about all that good warm light holed up in the darkness.

See, only in Black America could a blind man seem less handicapped and more agile in spirit than his sighted brothers. Blindness, in black and in blue, has been good to American music—Blind Tom, the Blind Willies Johnson and McTell, Art Tatum, Brother Ray, Stevie. Making a body wonder if Ellison’s Invisible cat wasn’t pursuing a vision in his hole but trying to understand the blindness of his countrymen—their inability to see nothing but black when faced with the sight of a negro in broad daylight. Brother Ray avoided the common negro malady of seeing yourself as the others saw you—as a thing not really there and all too present all too real at the same time. A figment of their fascination. The eyed and the unseen element in the room. The black world of Ray Charles was different from yours and mine. Certainly a world far less of a spectacle and therefore less prey to the interminable negro anxiety of being seen as a racial spectacle, of Being While Black. But I digress.

About Brother Ray’s swansong album, Genius Loves Company, know that an album of duets with Ray Charles must be a moment of self-revelation for the other singers involved. The weight of their souls being thrown into question by his mere shadow in the room. Because even knocking on death’s door, Ray remains Ray, as you must remain whoever you are. Ray remaining Ray in spite of losing the Pepsi challenge and becoming a product of the product, a subspecies of branded and canned Americana in the bargain, but hey, we’re all slaves to commerce one way or another and we all got to sell something for somebody. So these duets beg we ask, “In going head-to-head-toe-to-toe with Brother Ray, who are you, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Johnny Mathis, and Gladys Knight? Who are you, Elton John, Michael McDonald, Natalie Cole, and Bonnie Raitt?” (B.B. King and Van Morrison excepted. Them we been knowing.) Some of their answers will surprise you.

Surprise you even though now is perhaps also the time to properly lament the death of the American popular song, the death of rhythm and blues, the rise and fall of soul, the disappearance of conscious lyrics. Since the singalong campfire classics of this generation are hiphop lyrics, no singer other than Martina Topley-Bird in my reckoning has been able to interpret them as if they were classic examples of the songwriter’s art without risking self-parody. It’s possible that Prince, Sade, or Bob Marley is the last great popular songwriter in the American tradition (yes, transplanted extensions count too), a writer with a body of work in English the whole world loves to sing along with. But it’s certain that today there are more remarkable singers than unforgettable songs.

Brother Ray was of course one of our most sublime interpreters of such songs, of their music and lyrics alike, and in this he showed the way for legions of cats Black, pink, and British, for how much one can modernize, vernacularize, and funkatize songs and not come off mad corny. Brother Ray was more like Miles and Trane in that regard than Sinatra, who à la Louis and Billie could make any song seem noteworthy as long as he was singing it. But Ray had the jazz gene, the jazz genie too, that urge to pull stuff out of a song’s crevices stuff the builder barely knew was there. So that when Ray and Willie Nelson take on Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” you realize how spectacularly Ray could make a moment out of lyrics that were just a stepping stone to the big chorus bangout for every other singer in the world. Likewise on “Fever,” because while Natalie Cole is playing her Sapphire-coquette role as cast, Ray is out and out moving the center of the thing from “Fever all through the night” to “Fever isn’t such a new thing, fever started long ago.” Meaning that from that moment on the song is not about hot It girls and unscratchable rashes and stuff, but about Ray’s blood ties to boogie history. (For the record, let’s recognize that these duets were done live in Ray’s studio and not hotmailed in, with a band featuring Billy Preston and the human-touched orchestrations of Phil Ramone and Concord’s John Burk.) When Willie Nelson sings of being 17 and 35 and good years for blue-blooded girls of independent means, you envision Willie in his own Elvis movie, hellion rockabilly gatecrashing and all. But when Ray sings of being 21 and her perfumed hair coming undone, the thing becomes literature, you’ve arrived on the stage of a memory theater more epic for being so personal, one all the strings, harps, and oboes in the world couldn’t overwhelm, squashed down like a black hole. At the same time Ray’s voice could effortlessly turn a romantic lyric into a cry for his people. Genius Loves Company contains so many moments where you hear him render Civil Rights Movement pride, wrath, and hurt, they can’t help but seem calculated, self-conscious and affected and still no less effective. He and B.B. on “Sinner’s Prayer” is almost an overdose of How I Got Over-ism, but I ain’t mad.

Part of Ray’s power lay in how cunningly he could slip Black pathos into Tin Pan Alley sentiment, a routine that hasn’t gotten old, since we’re not out of the woods yet per George Clinton’s declaration that he who is truly free is free from the need to be free per James Brown’s money won’t change you but time will still take you out, bling be damned. You also get to witness Brother Ray’s grace in collaboration on Genius Loves Company. He lets Elton John and Michael McDonald sing themselves silly on “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and “Hey Girl,” saving his gusto for the word “hardest” on the John tune and not even bothering to come alive until he pimpishly drops a spoken “Come here” on the fade of “Hey Girl.” With his women guests he of course becomes the paternal sidearm, Big Daddy on the husky, melodic prowl but leaving a girl plenty of breathing room. The Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, and Norah Jones songs wouldn’t sound wrong on their own recent albums, though Jones shows there’s more Dinah Washington in her bones than we ever knew. (That’s the power of the Ray, Yo. Let you stand next to his fire. All kinds of Dinah might start breaking out on you too.)

What you’re not ready for is Ray Charles and Johnny Mathis. Everybody knows there are only two versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Judy’s and Patti’s. Up until now that is, because Johnny and Ray serve a whole other blend of yearning. Neither lost innocence nor the Metropolitan Opera were ever priorities in their worlds. Those in need of subtext get to imagine all kinds of monkeys and loves that dare not speak or be spoken of, all kinds of Harlem shooting galleries and Hollyweirded closets, all kinds of needs and thangs and thangs and needs best kept out of sight because no way they can be kept out of mind, being so dug in under the flesh, the popped skin, where Babylon gets surveillance webcast eyes poked out and only the wings of song can be heard lightly tripping the air via these two deep-thrusting golden-throated songbird brothers of yore, coming together for the first time to form their own kind of Black Millennium centaur, the billygoat’s gruff of androgyne. Yeah yeah yeah, that staple of nigra harmonizing, the abject sublime, one more time Mr. Jafa and one more again and peace be upon you Brother Ray and Brother Rick while we’re at it and get well quick Brother Ronald they’re still holding that date for us at NJPAC, yeah, no matter what a drag, flat on your back and damn near the last real soul man left standing.