Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Holding Back the Years

By Mark Jordan

MARCH 1, 1999:  I>t was bandleader Lionel Hampton who tagged Jimmy Scott, the wildly emotive jazz singer who will be at Borders Books and Music Thursday to promote his new CD and a television documentary on his life, with his appelation “Little” because of his 4’11’’ stature. But in a life marked by hardship – the early death of his mother, foster homes, and the ups and downs of a career in music – if Scott’s height or lack thereof has ever been an obstacle, it has been one he has easily overcome with the towering presence of his voice.

Oddly, the origin of his voice, the very thing that has allowed him to persevere, itself springs from a disability. Born in Cleveland in 1925, as a teenager Scott was diagnosed with Kallman’s syndrome, a now-treatable disease that blocked Scott’s sexual development. One of the results of this was that his voice never changed.

Trembly, high, often mistaken for a woman’s, Scott’s voice made him a successful singer in the ’40s and ’50s, first with Hampton’s group and then briefly as a solo artist. But changing musical tastes and poor management put the brakes on the promising career of a singer Frankie Valli called a “talent as big as Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughan.” By 1965, the year Jet magazine published an erroneous obituary on him, Scott had all but disappeared from the scene.

“I still sang with groups, but I stayed pretty close to home,” says Scott. Following the disappointment of his arrested career, he spent most of ’70s and ’80s at his home in Cleveland, caring for his ailing father and raising a family. It was his wife Earlene who encouraged Scott to return to music following the death of his father.

A radio appearance led to a successful engagement at Newark, New Jersey’s Mirage Club and a rave article in The Village Voice. In 1989, Scott went into the studio for the first time in 14 years to cut Don’t Love Me Anymore, a still-unreleased project. Three years later he released his comeback album All The Way.

Shortly after, Scott sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” at the funeral of his friend, the song’s composer Doc Pomus. As a result of his powerful, emotive performance, an executive with Warner Brothers records offered him a five-record deal.

Though Scott began his return to music more than a decade ago, the attention has intensified recently with the release of the much-trumpeted CD Holding Back the Years, which finds Scott interpreting the works of contemporary songwriters such as Elvis Costello, John Lennon, and the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. There was also a recent highly praised appearance on the public-television music series Session at West 54th.

“Though I had never left being around the business, this is a comeback in the sense that I’m in the media spotlight,” Scott says.

The comeback continues this month. The Bravo cable channel aired a documentary on Scott’s life as part of its Bravo Profiles series. The program debuted last Monday and will be repeated on March 30th at 9 p.m. A companion CD to the Bravo program has been produced featuring Scott’s interpretations of such standards as “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” “For Once In My Life,” and “Stay With Me.” Titled Bravo Profiles A Jazz Master: Little Jimmy Scott, the CD will be available at his Memphis Borders appearance.

While the prospect of seeing your whole life flash before you on a television screen while you are still very much alive would be disconcerting to most, Scott says the experience was oddly comforting.

“There were painful memories that the show brought up, but it’s not like I’m the only person those things ever happened to,” Scott says. “When you look at it like that, you don’t feel so bad, and you realize it’s just part of the struggle of life.”


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