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Meet Little Jimmy Scott

Meet Little Jimmy Scott

Courtesy Skip Bolen


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Some singers had managers who were interested in helping them develop their career. I just happened to get with some people who were interested in money instead of developing the creativity of a career.
All About Jazz: You've been out of the country recently?

Jimmy Scott: Yes, I was in France and Italy. I was there with my regular group. Hilliard Greene is on bass, Michael Keenan is on piano, and Victor Jones is on drums. Hilliard has been with me for twelve years, and the other two have been with me for at least four years. I organized a band in '85, and Hilliard was with me then.

AAJ: Was the restart of your career in '84?

JS: Yes. I was in Cleveland, and I was intending to go back to New York. I married a young lady friend, and we lived in New Jersey for a while. I got myself together, organized the band and started working again.

AAJ: Had you returned to Cleveland to take care of your father?

JS: Around 1976, I moved back. In '77 and '78, he began to have strokes. The last one crippled him.

AAJ: Did you take care of him?

JS: Yes, myself and my sisters and brothers. Six or seven of us lived in Cleveland then. Since I was the only one who didn't have an ordinary day job, I spent a lot of time with him. My brothers and sisters had children and their regular day gigs. I did work at the Cleveland Sheraton in Shipping & Receiving.

AAJ: Did you sing on weekends?

JS: Oh, yes. I ran back and forth to New York and Philadelphia.

AAJ: Did you sing in Cleveland too?

JS: Not that much. There wasn't that much happening here at the time. Earlier, in the '50's, everything was swinging. In the mid-'50's, the trend changed. Until then, Cleveland was a jazz area.

AAJ: Was your mother still alive when you returned to take care of your father?

JS: Oh, no. My mother passed when I was thirteen in 1939. It was a terrible loss. She was supportive with all of the kids. My father was there, but he wasn't the kind of father who hung at home. He would be in the streets playing pool and different things.

AAJ: What type of work did you father do?

JS: He worked for several of the local asphalt contractors. He helped build some of the area roads and parking lots, and he worked on driveways when it became popular to pave them.

AAJ: You were born in 1925?

JS: Yes.

AAJ: July 17.

JS: That's right.

AAJ: The only reason I ask is that it's amazing how often the wrong birthdates are documented in reference books.

JS: Well, one time my birthdate was all twisted around. They had twenty-five as my birthdate. Actually, it was 7/17/25.

AAJ: Your mother made sure you had a religious upbringing.

JS: Of course. She kept us close to the church. We had a strong bond.

AAJ: And she played piano.

JS: Yes. She was quite a talented young lady. She was also a seamstress. Her loss, of course, put the family in chaos. We never recouped the family atmosphere, and that's the sad part. She was in her thirties when she died.

AAJ: What did she die of?

JS: She was hit by a car in Cleveland. She was taking my sisters to school. On the way, my sister stepped in the street, and my mother reached to grab her because the car was coming so close.

AAJ: Was your sister hurt?

JS: No, my sister wasn't hurt at all. But my mother reached out to push her back from the curb. When she reached out, the car caught her by the arm and tore her arm off. It was tragic. The worst part was that we loved her so much. The other kids were so young, and her death took its toll on the family.

AAJ: Are you the oldest?

JS: I'm the third oldest.

AAJ: What happened after she died?

JS: Well, we all went into foster homes. I lived in one of them because I was thirteen at the time. I stayed in the foster home for three years. By getting a work permit, I was able to leave school early and support myself. Also, through my interest in music, I developed singing locally. I got a pretty good following in the clubs at that time. The older entertainers used to sneak me in to the clubs.

AAJ: You met Estelle Young at that time.

JS: Yes. She was a wonderful person, who was another great loss in my life. I credit everything I know about show business today to her.

AAJ: What happened to her?

JS: She died of old age. I was on the road when she died in a nursing home here. A friend of mine who also worked with her sent me the papers about her death. A lot of artists had the opportunity to learn about show business with her.

AAJ: Are there any artists whose names we would recognize?

JS: Well, Eli Adams for one—a young man who played tenor saxophone on the road with us. A baritone singer in Cleveland named Jimmy Reed was another one. Then a few of the ladies called "shake dancers" were in the show. That's where I met Ruth Brown; she worked with us too.

AAJ: Estelle's nickname was "Caldonia."

JS: Louis Jordan used to make those "nickelodeons." If you went into a club, a machine would play the movies of Louis singing each of his songs like Friday Night Fish Fry or Caldonia. He had worked with Estelle Young on a double bill, and he named her "Caldonia" after his song. In Estelle's day of entertaining, she was a contortion dancer. It involved more body forms than a shake dancer. She did body poses and the splits. Also, she did a little comedy.

AAJ: Did you sing with her?

JS: On occasion, after I joined the troop that worked with her. She was like a mother to so many of us. So many kids had the chance to learn what it is to be a part of show business from her. She traveled through the South doing tent shows with us.

AAJ: You had developed symptoms of Kallman's Syndrome around that time?

JS: Oh no, that is from birth. It is hereditary in my family.

AAJ: You had refused treatment for it?

JS: Well, yes, because my mother had taken me to the doctors to see if anything could help the hormonal development. We came to find out that the doctors were working on it, but they hadn't gotten it to a point where it would have been helpful. They were more or less experimenting on folks, and she wouldn't allow us to be experimented on. That's why I refused to be bothered by the treatments. It's a hormonal deficiency in the system. The syndrome came from my mother's side of the family. Her brother had Kallman's Syndrome too. I had other uncles who had it too. I have another brother, who's still living, who was afflicted with Kallman's Syndrome.

AAJ: Didn't the syndrome turn out to be a benefit for you?

JS: As far as the singing goes? Yes. I had the high voice to deal with, but it's all in a person's mind. You know that you have to live. So you go ahead and make a life for yourself, regardless.

AAJ: You joined Lionel Hampton after leaving Estelle.

JS: That's right. Exactly. I had worked many a time with the fellows in his band around here. Whenever they found out I was in a town where they were playing, they would bring Hamp. They'd say, "Come on, man. We have to go hear Jimmy." In '49, Hamp asked me to join the band. I became known across the States with Hampton's band.

AAJ: Then you recorded Everybody's Somebody's Fool.

JS: Yes. In fact, I recorded my first songs with Hampton: I've Been A Fool, Everybody's Somebody's Fool and I Wish I Knew. Now, How Come You Do Me Like You Do? was recorded after I left Hampton.

AAJ: And the masters to those sessions are lost?

JS: Well, I'll tell you who should have them. The masters would have been in the Savoy set-up. Cherry-of course, that was Don Redman-had come here from Paris, where he lived. While he was here, he did both arrangements.

AAJ: Didn't the producer have to put your name on Hampton's albums?

JS: No one ever knew who the singers were. One thing about Hampton's band was that it always listed "Lionel Hampton and vocalists." That's what you would see on the label. Singers' names weren't put on the labels until later.

AAJ: So singers couldn't become known unless they went out on their own.

JS: Exactly. Or if you were known publicly as the singer who was with the band, through word of mouth, you could get a reputation that way. But if the band did a date, the singer's name would be listed. Other than that, the singer didn't get any name recognition. That was one of the things that caused me to leave the band. In a way, it takes away your identity. But Hampton's point was, OK, if you left the band, he could get somebody else to sing the song. Most bands did that back then. But most people knew I was Hampton's singer, even though my name wasn't on the label. They knew my voice. Right away when people heard the Hampton records, they'd say, "That's Jimmy."

AAJ: Did you join Paul Gayten because of the lack of recognition?

JS: Paul's agent used to send out packages to promote Savannah Churchill, Larry Darnell and myself. So that's how I was able to join Paul.

AAJ: And that's how you met Fred Mendelsohn too.

JS: Yes, and also Teddy Reig, who was on the road a long time with Count Basie's band. Teddy was in charge of Royal Roost Records. Teddy was involved in so many things that he didn't focus on the promotion of the records. He was more into going around to dances and what-not. It wound up that Lubinsky of Savoy got all of those masters from Teddy. Stan Getz and myself really started that label. I had four recordings on that label.

AAJ: How long did you stay with Gayten?

JS: Not too long-a year or two at the most. We were in road shows together, but I was singing in clubs the rest of the time, if not in Cleveland, then in different places across the country.

AAJ: Were you well paid?

JS: Back then, what kept you going was your desire to be a singer. We didn't make the money that's being made today. No way. Today's singers don't know how lucky they are to be making that level of income.

AAJ: And that has changed for you only in the last ten years.

JS: Actually, yes, in terms of making any money. I had no one to help me who knew the business end of things. I didn't have that kind of guidance or cooperation. Some singers had managers who were interested in helping them develop their career. I just happened to get with some people who were interested in money instead of developing the creativity of a career. I had some ideas about my music, but they wanted to drive me toward the rock-n-roll. That wasn't my interest. There's nothing wrong with rock-n-roll, though.

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.

AAJ: You recorded with Savoy until around 1960?

JS: The last recording with Savoy was in '76. You're right, though. This was around the time that Lubinsky was getting ill. Fred asked me to do one more recording for him while he had the opportunity. That's when we did the record, All Over Again, in Chicago.

AAJ: Didn't Lubinsky keep you from recording?

JS: Lubinsky was slicker than all of them. He had me under contract for a while. But at the time he interfered with my career, I had no contract. No one knew it. He bluffed everyone. The Tangerine label, of course, was Ray Charles.' Ray had gotten the label to invest in a few of his friends, including Louis Jordan, Percy Mayfield and Betty Carter. And so he recorded my record too, Falling In Love Is Wonderful. We got Gerald Wilson and Marty Paich for it. At the time, it was just the beginning of his success. Naturally, he didn't want to tangle with Lubinsky. So Ray was bluffed out of releasing the album.

AAJ: So he must have lost money on the album.

JS: No, there was under-the-table money. People have told me that they paid $300 to $400 for one album. Warner wanted to release the album, as have other companies. But I guess it's being kept as a collector's item so that they can make more money. Of course, that doesn't help me.

AAJ: Do you have a copy of the album yourself?

JS: I do, yes. In fact, a guy in Germany just made a CD out of the album, and he brought me a copy of it. It would be considered a counterfeit CD, but it's not being sold. Only a couple thousand copies were released, but that couple thousand didn't go anywhere. Much of the public had heard about the record, but no one could buy it. It was a beautiful record, though, with some great material. Lately, I've been planing to re-record some of that material. It can't be released to the market, so what can I do?

AAJ: Didn't Lubinsky try to stop your Atlantic album in '69?

JS: He was friends with the people at Atlantic. You can bet they paid some money to Lubinsky. He would block everything. I wasn't the only performer he used.

AAJ: Who else did he hurt?

JS: Little Esther. She came into the business as a rock-n-roll singer, but they tried to turn her into a ballad singer. There again, he owned her.

AAJ: When were you free of Lubinsky?

JS: In '78 or '79. But he was off my back when I did the last album for his company because Fred Mendelsohn wanted me to record once more for them. Even after Lubinsky died, Fred wanted me to do some things. He did all he could to make things as pleasant as possible for me. But what could he do? He was just an employee of the company. I respect him for at least trying.

AAJ: You recorded again in the seventies?

JS: Right. I lived in Cleveland, but traveled occasionally on weekends. Around 1986, I became more persistent about my work, and then the public still didn't know much about me until the nineties. I recorded an album called Does She Love Me More, but it hasn't been distributed yet. Some of the kids in the band or myself wrote the compositions for the album. A friend of mine, Arthur Lee, wrote three or four songs for the album too. Of course, I produced that record myself, and I do have vinyl copies of it. I would love to have someone distribute it because it has some good music on it. I made the album to expose the group: Jimmy Scott and the Jazz Expressions.

AAJ: How did it feel to finally get a Grammy nomination in 1992?

JS: It was really amazing and beautiful. I have to thank Tommy LiPuma for that. There aren't many producers as great as he is. He turned Natalie Cole's career completely around with Unforgettable. He's brilliant.

AAJ: Did he go to the Grammy ceremony with you?

JS: Yes he did. And he went with me for the Monk Foundation's singing competition in Washington D.C. I was a judge with Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln and Shirley Horne.

AAJ: You've become a cult figure among actors like Joe Pesci.

JS: Joe's my boy. I enjoyed being around him because he's so sincere and creative. No one really know how well Joe could sing.

AAJ: And you sang Under The Sycamore Tree on Twin Peaks too.

JS: Yes, I had the opportunity to meet David Lynch. He came to hear my performance at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles once. The Roosevelt has a history too because that's where they held the first Academy Awards as well as the first Jazz At The Philharmonic.

AAJ: And Bill Cosby helped you by giving you residuals from his show.

JS: Yes. He played Evening In Paradise, written by Robert Banks. I still get royalties from it even today. This was the first time I received royalties or consideration of any kind. Bill Cosby was always great to meet when he lived in Philly before his career took off. He has done so many things to help people with their careers. He gave Shirley Scott a big job when he did a revival of You Bet You Life. The man is just wonderful.

AAJ: It's good to hear that you're getting the recognition you deserve.

JS: It'll work out in the end. You gotta believe.

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