Jimmy Scott, whose unique, high-pitched voice has had a haunting effect on listeners for decades, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 88. Mr. Scott began singing in the 40s and had one minor hit during his career, with “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” in 1950. (His name was not on the record. Credit was given to his bandleader at the time, Lionel Hampton) Yet, he was a major influence on generations of singers, like Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, Frankie Valli, and Marvin Gaye.
“Jimmy Scott is the only singer who makes me cry.” – Madonna
(I have to admit when I learned of the news of his death, I inexplicably burst into tears. Silly. I didn’t know him and the man was 88 – so it’s not a big shock – but I truly loved his music, as many did.)
He disappeared in the 1960s, when the album long considered his masterpiece, “Falling in Love Is Wonderful,” was pulled from the shelves in a legal dispute between record labels. It wasn’t until the 1990s that his career revived, with a series of new recordings and performances that continued into his 80s. Arts writer Joseph Hooper said of Mr. Scott in the New York Times that he was “perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century.” His music was an acquired taste and his records sold in small numbers but Mr. Scott became something of a cultural touchstone. Documentary films were made about his life, a biography was written, and critics praised his idiosyncratic singing and his resilience after a life of adversity.
People who hear Scott for the first time are startled by his striking and preternaturally high singing voice, which was the range of a high alto but with power. Because of his hereditary condition called Kallmann syndrome, Jimmy never went through puberty, and his voice didn’t change when he reached adolescence. He was slight, had no facial hair and stood just 4′ 11″ (He inexplicably grew several inches in his mid-30s.) He was billed as “Little Jimmy Scott” for years. He was married 5 times and had a number of girlfriends, but he had an androgynous quality that led to some painful encounters. He told David Ritz in his biography, Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott:
“In my adult life, people have looked at me as an oddity. I’ve been called a queer, a little girl, an old woman, a freak, and a fag. As a singer, I’ve been criticized for sounding feminine. They say I don’t belong in any category, male or female, pop or jazz. But early on, I saw my suffering as my salvation.”
He sang at VERY slow tempos bringing fresh meaning to oft-heard standards, with his eyes closed, his arms and hands danced, as if giving the music shape. His singing seemed to be the expression of a broken heart. Music producer Quincy Jones, in a 1988 interview, recalled seeing Mr. Scott perform in the 1950s:
“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.”
Mr. Scott spent his final years in Las Vegas and continued to perform, sometimes in a wheelchair, until his mid-80s. Even then, the one-of-a-kind voice was still there, penetrating and clear, filled with pain and grace.
“All I needed was the courage to be me. That courage took a lifetime to develop.”