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Meet Little Jimmy Scott

By Published: February 20, 2008
AAJ: Do you feel that they took advantage of you?

JS: They would. Actually, the business was new to a lot of people back then. They were out there hustling. They found that they could make a fast buck by working with different artists. If a singer wasn't hot, they'd drop you like a hot potato. You just got lost in the shuffle. If you didn't have determination to stay with it, hey, you couldn't make it. I know lots of people who came out with one record. Then after a while, they didn't have the get-up to continue. So they ended up quitting the business.

AAJ: How did you get your determination?

JS: Singing is something I've wanted to do all of my life since I was a youngster. Then the opportunities came. You've got to love it. I enjoy singing. It's my life.

AAJ: Do you see that kind of dedication among young singers now?

JS: Well, no. No. There are one or two that I've run across who are interesting. We had to be serious when we were coming along. The old-timers wouldn't let us get by by doing just anything. They would always give a little boot and say, "Hey, you can't do that." That kind of guidance is not available today. It used to be that you could walk around the corner to a club in a neighborhood. Not anymore. When I came along, they had emcees, chorus girls, big bands and the whole entourage. That's not available to the youngsters today. It has become more commercial. Extremely so. You've got to live with it, but that shouldn't stop anyone from getting into singing if they love the business.

AAJ: How did you develop your style?

JS: As a kid, I used to listen to Paul Robeson's music. It was as if every song he sang was real. It was a story about life. I thought, "You know, that's the way to sing a song." I always felt that if a singer wasn't saying something meaningful in the song, it was useless. There were other great singers then. We had Herb Jeffries back in those days, one of the old-timers that I used to listen to. Listening to radio was a big thing when I was young. Ivey James was another very interesting singer. People like Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith kind of led the way for me. Pops was another one. On occasion, we didn't have a radio to listen to because the old man had to pawn it to get some beans on the table. [Laughs] I remember that one time I saw our radio in a pawn shop. I thought, "That looks just like my radio." When I got home, sure enough, it was. But that was life. Back then in the late '30's and early '40's, Woolworth's used to have a department where you could buy sheet music. A person would play the piano there. After you selected some music, he would play it for you. Then you would buy it. They also had a booklet of all of the latest popular tunes. I bought the booklet and used it while I listened to the radio to learn the melody.

AAJ: You've inspired a couple generations of singers by now, including Nancy Wilson.

JS: Her father always told me that she would steal my records from him and take them to her room. Actually, when Nancy started as a young singer, she loved Dinah Washington. Basically, she liked the ballads. She has said that I was the singer who encouraged her to do all ballads. I appreciate the compliment. She's a beautiful singer.

AAJ: How did you develop your style of holding out the tones?

JS: Well, that was always the way I sang. The feeling of a song has a lot to do with the way I phrase the lyric. The lyric is almost like notes to me, collaborating with the melody.

AAJ: You convey so much emotion in your voice too.

JS: I think you have to live the life to understand it. You have no other way to release your experiences, and so you go within yourself. There are time when we have pain. There are times when we have love. There is a variety of things about life you can express. The singer has to collaborate with the writer and find something within the song.

AAJ: Was a song ever written for you?

JS: No, but Regina Adams out of New York gave me Everybody's Somebody's Fool. She had brought it to the Apollo Theater, and none of the other singers were interested in it. She was finally sent to my dressing room. When I saw it, I said, "Well, I'll take it." Hampton had heard that I had taken the song, and he decided to record it with the band.

AAJ: You joined Coral after Royal Roost.

JS: Teddy Reig was affiliated with Coral, and he got me to do a few records for Coral.

AAJ: Did your work with Hampton inspire you to use vibes?

JS: Oh, yes. To me, he and Milt Jackson can make the vibraphone sing. My harmonica player's brother plays the vibes. I was quite surprised. Their names are Gregoire and Nicholas Maret, and they're from Geneva. Look out, Toots! Gregoire can swing on harmonica!

AAJ: You recorded with Charles Mingus. Did he really walk out of the recording session?

JS: He thought I was lagging, and he didn't know I would catch up with the beat. I vocalized behind the beat. Mingus couldn't understand why I would do that. I thought, "Here he is a genius, and he didn't catch it." Some of the guys in the band said, "Whoa. Don't leave. Jimmy will be there when you get to the end." They called him back and he finished the session. We laugh about it. I saw his son, Eric, and we just crack up when we talk about that incident because he knows about his father's temper.

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