Jimmy Scott, Legendary Jazz Singer


It's hard to say the name Jimmy Scott without preceeding its utterance by "The Legendary." Now in his 80s, Scott is a survivor and a phenom, and his roller-coaster life is evidenced in his voice. To hear Jimmy Scott sing is to undergo an experience unparalleled in music. His voice is at once angelic and earthbound; his unique phrasing is intuitive and emotional, giving the song lyrics extra potency and passion. As one critic has said, "He can carry a vowel into forever." Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye are among the many better-known singers who have praised Scott.

The son of a seamstress and an asphalt worker, Scott was born third in a family of 10 children in Cleveland in 1925. Early on he sang with his siblings and knew he wanted to be a singer who could tell a story, modeling himself after Paul Robeson. But the heartbreaks began early for Scott with the death of his mother when he was 13 and the onset of Kallman's Syndrome, a hormone deficiency that stopped his body from going through puberty, keeping his voice a haunting high alto.

Although he tasted fame in the 1950s singing with the Lionel Hampton Band and had several R&B hits, including "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," Scott spent the next four and half decades gigging in small clubs. He has probably cleared as many dishes in his stints as a busboy as he has sung songs. He's also worked as an elevator operator and in shipping and receiving at the former Sheraton Hotel in Cleveland.

It was until 1980s, when he moved to New York, that his career re-ignited. There he signed with a major record label, released several critically acclaimed albums and performed with Michael Stipe and Lou Reed. He is now famous in Europe and a phenomenon in Japan.  According to the New York Times Magazine, Scott is "perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century."

Scott has been nominated for Grammy award, is the subject of a documentary film, and has had a biography released. He has made appearances in films and TV shows, including David Lynch's Twin Peaks, where he sang "Sycamore Trees" in an eerie star turn. It's often said that you cannot be a prophet in your own land, but Cleveland now recognizes and honors this native son, "Little Jimmy Scott," a jazz cat with a few extra lives.

—Amy Sparks
Summer 2006

Cleveland Arts Prize
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