The white baby grand piano in the living room is where Scott, soon to be 75, sits for rehearsal. He's been singing jazz and pop standards for six decades, and he knows plenty of songs -- some 500 that he's performed with a variety of artists, ranging from jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea. One of Cleveland's best-kept secrets, Scott -- who sang at the wedding of Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin in 1993 and counts actor Joe Pesci among his dearest friends -- doesn't act like a celebrity. Instead, he has the demeanor of someone who was hip back in the '50s and hasn't changed to suit the times.
"Hey, baby," he says as he comes down the stairs, dressed in loose pants and what looks like a surgeon's smock.
What sets Scott apart goes beyond musical talent. He stopped growing at age 11 because of Kallmann's syndrome, a hormone deficiency that stalled his development and kept his voice from deepening. A deeply androgynous stylist, Scott has a voice that, if you didn't know any better, would make you think he was a woman. Simply put, he sings like nobody else.
Soft-spoken and spidery, Scott has big, cupped ears, a splayed nose, and a face furrowed by history. He tilts from the waist up, likely due to a nasty fall he took in 1971. He seems taller than his 4 feet, 11 inches, and even though his frame is bent, he carries himself with dignity.
A tight 'do rag gathers his unusual features into sharp creases. "Don't let me get near an ocean," he says. "My hair is . . . ptooh."
On a humid mid-June day, he sits at his bleached white dining room table, fishing out a cigarette, while his brother Kenny and Larry Goins, a family friend with Coke-bottle glasses and cornrow hair, retreat to the kitchen to watch TV on a small tabletop color set. Scott is considering recording Goins's vocal group of blind singers and regularly spends afternoons with him.
"It's one of the works I like doing, helping kids develop things," he says.
One of 10 children of Arthur and Justine Scott, James Victor Scott was born on July 17, 1925, in Cleveland. The siblings all sang to their mother's piano accompaniment in church, and Jimmy, with Kenny and sisters Nadine and Adoree, formed a "home quartet" and performed in their parlor.
Arthur worked as an asphalt contractor for the Works Progress Administration and raised his family on the city's East Side, which was far more integrated than it is now.
"Back then, the whites had not moved out of the area," says Scott. "We were neighbors. I didn't know about prejudice until I started going on the road. When I was eight, nine years old, I was living on 101st Street, and it was very much mixed. There were cliques and gangs, but it was never discussed as a racial problem in my home."
Scott realized early on that he was different -- and not because he was black.
"I remember, before my mother passing, her taking me to Lakeside Hospital for treatment for something," he says. "Come to find out they were just experimenting, and she took us away and wouldn't let us complete the treatment, because she didn't want anything to happen." Kenny also has Kallmann's syndrome, though no other members of the immediate family did.
"I never remember my mother discussing it," Scott continues. "In other words, she left you to live your life as normally as she could -- and embraced you, of course, because any time you needed to know something, she was there to answer a question. But this particular thing was never played up. You lived a normal life like all the rest. After you get older, you talk to someone older, you come to find it came down the line. And that line it came down was on my mother's side."
Justine Scott died when she was struck by a car on Carnegie Avenue, after she dashed into the street to yank one of Jimmy's sisters out of danger. Shortly thereafter, Arthur Scott allowed the family to scatter. After Jimmy finished ninth grade at the former Outhwaite Junior High School on East 55th Street, he, Kenny, and the younger kids -- the older ones stayed with relatives -- shuttled between foster homes in Cleveland and Youngstown until Jimmy began to work and make the rounds as a professional vocalist.
"At 16, I could leave the [foster] system, which I did," he says. "My first job, I think, was at Barton & Oliver's, making precision machines here in Cleveland."
He spent the early '40s in Cleveland factories, working overtime because of the war. At the same time, he was developing his career as a singer, thanks to Jocky and Mildred Gray, a dance-comedy team who helped him find work in Cleveland clubs such as the Bluegrass and the Cedar Garden, where Mildred worked in the chorus line. Scott and other East Siders, such as trumpeter Benny Bailey and pianist-arranger Willie Smith, began to find gigs all over, from Cleveland to Milwaukee and Detroit.
"Me and Benny Bailey brought [Scott] up, got him going years ago," recalls Smith, a Motown session arranger who lives in Cleveland and has worked with the likes of jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and saxophonist Joe Lovano. "He was pretty shy. This was way back, when he was a kid. We played all over Cleveland. We used to take him with us; we wanted to get him into it, because he had that voice."
Scott's style "got him over" as a young man, Smith says. "It was unique, him having that high voice. He was one of the first male singers that sang high, like a girl's voice."
He would go on to influence other singers. "When the bird groups started coming years ago, Jimmy was doing it," Smith says, referring to such pre-R&B combos as the Ravens, the Crows, the Swallows, and the Orioles. "They really got their style listening to him. He started what they call that bird singing."
If those "bird groups" were contemporaries, the more popular Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers ("Goody Goody," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love") and Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons were descendants.
Early in his career, Scott's distinctive voice secured him work with Estelle "Caledonia" Young, a dancer who featured him as a vocalist on the chitlin circuit tours of the South between 1943 and 1945. For Scott, the main attraction of Young's revue was watching as the "girls would get up and shake their butties." Among the kids in Caledonia's band: organist Brother Jack McDuff, then a boogie-woogie pianist before he became a Hammond B-3 master.
"This was the beginning of a career," Scott recalls. "We learned how to put a tent together, how to put a stage together."
He also came in contact with the vices of the day. He smoked a lot of reefer, drank, and briefly carried a gun. Later, at a 1948 gig in Milwaukee, he tried heroin, sniffing it off the thumbnail of a showgirl's boyfriend.
"I felt it coming over my body," he says. "I thought I was dying. I tell kids today it will take you away. It has a mind of its own."
His size was a factor in some of his experimentation. "Everybody was bigger than me," he says. "Silly, crazy crap. A lot of it was fun, but there were bad days, too. I've done it. I've been through it."
At the end of World War II, he heard that the clubs were booming back home, so he headed back to Cleveland and began performing around the Midwest. In 1947, a reporter for the Call & Post caught Scott at a Dayton gig and told him he ought to contact vibraphonist Lionel Hampton at a date in Cleveland. He auditioned with Hampton that year and had a second audition the following year in Milwaukee. In 1949, he hooked up with Hampton, who was the first to marquee him as "Little Jimmy Scott." In 1950, Scott notched a hit on Decca, "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," which reached No. 6 on Billboard's R&B charts that fall. Sparked by Hampton's lambent solo, it features Scott at his most natural, mastering a slow, introspective ballad with his honeyed voice and distinctively languorous phrasing. Mistakenly credited on the record to another Hampton vocalist, Irma Curry, "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" became a mainstay of the live shows. When Scott eventually left the band, Curry would end up singing it after all.
"When you sang with Lionel Hampton, it was "Lionel Hampton and vocalist,'" Scott recalls. "People would call the disc jockey and say, "Who is that?' DJs would start to ask anybody to tell them who that was. Once somebody called and said, "That ain't nobody but Jimmy Scott.'"
Miffed by the stinginess of Hampton's wife Gladys, who managed the band, Scott left to make more money and joined Paul Gayten's band in 1951, recording several tunes for the Roost label. Between 1955 and 1975, Scott recorded primarily for Roost and Savoy, along with other labels such as Regal and Universal. Most of these songs can be found on Little Jimmy Scott, the Paul Gayten Band, Regal Records: Live in New Orleans (Specialty); Everybody's Somebody's Fool (GRP/Decca), and the three-disc The Savoy Years and More (Savoy Jazz).
Unfortunately, what many consider his crowning achievement remains in limbo and highly collectible. Arranged by Marty Paich and Gerald Wilson, with Ray Charles himself on piano, Falling in Love is Wonderful, a swanky disc Charles produced for his own Tangerine label in 1962, features Scott at the peak of his powers. According to Joel Dorn, a producer who would go on to work with Scott at Atlantic, Charles "knew full well the kind of cushion and complement that Jimmy needed."
But as good as the collaboration was, it was suppressed almost from the start. Tangerine had to pull Falling in Love off the market after Savoy owner Herman Lubinsky threatened litigation. Lubinsky had signed Scott in the '50s and claimed the lifetime contract barred Scott from recording for any other label.
"Lubinsky was threatening so many of the other record companies because they wanted to record me, and he was known as a sharpie in the business," Scott says.
Lubinsky's stranglehold on Scott's career loosened after the former's death in the mid-'70s. Now, Scott is trying to wrest control of the album from Charles, who hasn't re-released it.
"Falling in Love was the most requested record I ever had in all the years I was on the air," says a frustrated Dorn, who was a DJ in Philadelphia in the '60s and '70s. Afterward, Scott wound up on Atlantic, but his troubles with record labels continued. The Dorn-produced album The Source was briefly released in 1969, then withdrawn from circulation after Lubinsky again intervened. A second Atlantic album, also produced by Dorn, was made in 1971, but never came out.
Frustrated by his inability to record freely and hurt by a nasty fall at work, Scott retired from music. Between 1976 and 1989, he didn't release a single record. He's free to make new records now, but his old stuff is hard to get.
In his liner notes to Lost and Found, an Atlantic/Rhino CD of selections from the two "lost" Atlantic albums of Scott's, Dorn writes, "Somewhere along the way Jimmy had been cast in between R&B and jazz. Although there were elements of both in his singular style, he was and is neither of these. Rather, he is a category unto himself."
Despite his distinctive talent, Scott has often been victimized by commercial demands. He has not always received the support he needs.
"Working with Jimmy is very simple," says Dorn. "First of all, you have to get a sympathetic group of people in the room who understand how to play for him. The best way to play for Jimmy is to play the changes, stay out of his way, give him a bed underneath to do his Jimmy Scott thing on top of, and everything's perfect."
The way Scott sings "is not only about slow; it's about what he makes the song into," Dorn says. "He's the sum total of who he is and where he's been and what he's done while he's been there."
Scott has had his frustrations, not only with the music industry, but in his personal life as well. Three marriages ended in divorce, and he doesn't live with his fourth wife.
His first marriage, in 1945, lasted six months. "Remember, this girl was 16, and I was 19. What experience did we have?"
Some 10 years later, Scott married Chennie, a hairdresser. She caught Scott's act at Jack's Bar, a well-known club at Clarkwood and Cedar.
"She came in; you see girls in the audience who attract you. We got to talking and -- boom! -- started a relationship behind that."
Chennie traveled with Scott and "cut my hair all the time" until they divorced in 1959. He met his third wife, Ruth, while both were working at Medi-Care, a nursing home on Euclid Avenue near Green Road. Scott was a nurse's aide there, and Ruth was in charge of his shift.
Toward the end of that marriage, he worked in shipping and receiving at the old Sheraton on Public Square. In 1971, he was pushing a cart carrying a load of powdered soap to the hotel's laundry department when the cart slipped on spilled, wet soap powder, causing Scott's legs to split and ripping his pelvis. While he has a pension today from that incident, it tore him up, literally.
"Now I live with spasms," Scott says. "Weather gets bad and I'm caught in it, I have to deal with the pain of it."
He and Ruth divorced in 1979. He has known his current wife, Earlene, since 1949, when he met her at the Coleman Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. She was a waitress at the hotel restaurant. Shortly after they met, "She began treating me like somebody who was going to die," Scott says. ""You're not big enough. You've got to eat, eat, eat.' The relationship started as a joke, about I wasn't big enough."
Over the years, Earlene would catch his act in New York-area clubs, and their friendship deepened. They married in 1985, though Earlene still lives with her mother in Newark.
While he's waiting for Earlene to come around, he's not optimistic. "It's not a life," he says of his marriage. "You're married, person-to-person, but not sharing the marriage. I've made a home; it's not like that home isn't available to her. The door's open."
Another reason for their distance is sex -- or a lack of it.
"There are many women who are small-minded about the sizes of penises," Scott says. "It's not the importance of the relationship so much as the sex involved.
"That's one of the effects of the syndrome," Scott says. "It makes a penis small."
His wives had a problem with that, he says.
"You don't let it hold you down," he adds. "What's to hide? It's an incident in life, and it's there, and either you live with it or you run away and die. And who wants to die? Life is not about dying; it's about living. When you look at blind folks or people who have lost limbs, is it any different? I'm quite sure they bear sadness in their lives."
While Scott's romantic relationships have ultimately collapsed, his musical career has undergone a revival in recent years. Friends such as Newark native Joe Pesci, R&B diva Ruth Brown, and singer-songwriter Doc Pomus helped rejuvenate his career. By the mid-'80s, he began to sing again, in clubs in New York, Newark, and Cleveland. Scott also produced and financed Doesn't Love Mean More, a 1989 disc that features three of his six original songs and some ballads. While Scott doesn't know how to write music, "Cats in the band, if they hear it on tape, they can give me a lead sheet," he says.
If Doesn't Love Mean More signaled his return to the scene, his performance at Pomus's funeral in 1991 resonated far wider.
"[He was a] beautiful little guy," Scott says of Pomus, who wrote such pop and R&B classics as "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Viva Las Vegas," "This Magic Moment," and "Lonely Avenue."
"I met Doc in 1943 at the Baby Grand in New York," he recalls. "He'd come to hear me sing. I had just come into New York myself."
Even though Pomus used crutches -- he'd had polio as a child -- he walked Scott around New York, and they became friends. At Pomus's funeral, Scott sang "Someone to Watch Over Me," and afterward Sire owner Seymour Stein signed Scott to a three-album contract. Sire released his comeback album, All the Way, in 1992.
Tommy LiPuma, chairman of the Verve Music Group, says Stein arranged to have him produce All the Way. "I had known of Jimmy for years," says LiPuma, a Cleveland native who now lives in New York. "I was aware of him as Little Jimmy Scott and really loved the way he sang."
Eventually, Scott and LiPuma worked up some 30 songs, nine of which wound up on the record. "A House Is Not a Home," a Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune, was supposed to be the 10th song on the disc, but Scott simply couldn't handle it.
"All of these Bacharach songs have strange time signatures," says LiPuma. "Sometimes, it'll be 4/4; then there will be a 5/4 bar or a 7/4 bar in the middle. It was enough to sort of throw him."
But it was the way Scott handled the situation that impressed LiPuma.
"I remember, as I was backing up the tape, I was thinking to myself I was just going to let this cat do it one more time, let Jimmy try it one more time," says LiPuma. "Then Jimmy said over the microphone, "You know, I just can't seem to get a relationship going with this song.' I went out, hugged him, and said, "Man, hey, I can dig it, I understand it, that's OK.' A lot of times, artists get frustrated and start abusing everybody around them or say the earphone mix isn't right or "I can't hear the piano player.' He just got right to the point, and that was it."
All the Way became a key jazz release of 1992. Scott subsequently made an appearance in the David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks (and sang on its soundtrack), guested on Lou Reed's album Magic and Loss, and serenaded Basinger and Baldwin at their wedding at the Westhampton, Long Island home of Billy Joel with "At Last (My Love Has Come Along)." He even cut a cover of the Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. The song appeared on the 1997 album Lounge-a-Palooza, which featured artists such as Ben Folds Five, Edwyn Collins, Fastball, and Combustible Edison doing renditions of lounge songs. But none of this has made Scott a household name in the pop world.
After All the Way restored Scott to the jazz mainstream, two other albums followed: 1994's Dream, produced by Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Soul Coughing), and 1996's Heaven, produced by Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson). In 1998, the Artists Only! label yielded Holding Back the Years, with Scott singing a collection of pop tunes by the likes of Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, Prince, Bryan Ferry, and Elvis Costello. During the past two years, various Scott anthologies have been issued. Most recently, Milestone released Mood Indigo, a luminous album featuring Scott alongside saxophonist Hank Crawford and harmonica player Grégoire Maret.
Todd Barkan, a Columbus native who produced Mood Indigo and has known Scott for 25 years, says the singer has often been trapped in inhospitable musical situations.
"A lot of times, Jimmy has been placed in very stultified types of environments, where he was force-fed material and wasn't consulted sufficiently about the way the material was arranged and recorded," says Barkan, who also booked an April tour of Japan for Scott. He will return there in November, Barkan says.
"The Japanese, I think, are the first culture to get [Scott] to the extent that he should be received," Barkan says. "Scott is, without a doubt, among the greatest jazz singers left in the world. We have to take into account that we've recently lost Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae. So who's left is Jimmy Scott and Freddy Cole and Ernie Andrews and Ian Shaw."
Shaw is a British singer whose debut CD Barkan recently produced; Barkan also has produced Freddy Cole, Nat's brother.
What makes Scott's singing exceptional is "his patience and depth with a lyric," Barkan says. "You have to create the right kind of setting, so he can do his thing with maximum effectiveness. He sings "ih-maj-in-ay-shun' and makes one word a five-syllable experience. Not every musician can support that with the maximum amount of sensitivity and creativity. You don't just play the chords. There has to be real telepathy between the musicians and Jimmy to make that music come out with the greatest impact. And it's still gotta swing, no matter how slow it is or how patient it is."
The seasoned Jimmy Scott of Mood Indigo isn't the same as the precocious, youthful Little Jimmy Scott of the Gayten or Hampton sessions. Pianist-arranger Willie Smith, for one, thinks Scott's power has diminished.
"He's kind of lost his voice a little bit from age, you know," Smith says.
Barkan sees it differently.
"Jimmy has replaced certain qualities of his voice with others," he says. "He doesn't sound as youthful or ingenuous as he once did, but I think that has been replaced with depth and power. He has more emotional power than he's ever had, and that, to me, is the whole ball game. It's touching your listeners' hearts through your music."
Scott agrees that music should not only provoke thought, it should nurture and move the listener.
"Singing is a form of speech, so hey, you utilize dramatics of expressing a thought in the song," he says. "If I want to say it sweet, or if I want it to mean something important, I have time to give a vocal expression that makes it sweet, that makes it understandable. Everything in a song is not sweet, but it helps to sweeten the pot. There you go. It's just the timing and being able to express it like you want it to be heard."
For Jimmy Scott, life has not always been sweet. But as he turns 75 -- looking forward to a Lionel Hampton tribute concert in New York in August and to the Japanese tour in the fall -- he finds he still has plenty to say.
As for the music business, "I would like to encourage the better side," Scott says. "The fun is there, yes. And to those who are serious about creating music, the opportunity is there, with the proper support."
He may not always have gotten the support he needed, but it looks as if he's getting it now.