It may be a cliché to state that a singer has to live before he or she can sing about life. But the hardships that Jimmy Scott has endured in a long life of struggle and injustice could, to quote another cliché, test the patience of Job.
Yet, Jimmy Scott has endured. Without bitterness. Without regret. With optimism. With humanity.
Possessing a hugely influential voice that has gone straight to the heart of some of the last half century’s greatest jazz and R&B singersnot to mention cult followers like director David Lynch and actor Joe PesciScott suffered the misfortune of signing a contract with one Herman Lubinsky, “a hemorrhoid of a human and close personal friend of The Devil,” as then-Atlantic and now-Label-M producer Joel Dorn calls Lubinsky in one of his more diplomatic moments. It seems that Lubinsky held Scott unjustly to a Savoy contract, preventing him from recording for literally a generation. Shamefully, listeners were deprived from enjoying one of the most original and inspirational voices in the business. As a result, Scott moved back to his hometown of Cleveland to care for his ailing father, whounjustlyabandoned his family, in effect orphaning Little Jimmy and his brothers and sisters. Not long after his father fled his familial responsibilities, Jimmy Scott’s mother bled to death when a carunfairlyripped off her arm as she tried to save Scott’s sister from running in front of it.
Yes, life has been unfair to Jimmy Scott. Even though his irresistible voice tears to the heart of any lyric, the personal tragedies behind his heartfelt rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” help him make the song his own, as perhaps no other singer will.
Even songs like “Day By Day” or “On Broadway” contain a ruefulness and sense of irony that less explorative versions miss. While most performances of “On Broadway” express ambition and energy, Scott’s attention to the meaning of every word stresses “They say” in the phrase “They say the neon lights shine bright on Broadway.” And who else captures the mixed emotion of “They say the girls are something else on Broadway. But looking at them gives me the blues”?
“Exodus,” which sold stacks of records in the 1960’s by the likes of Ferrante and Teicher or Percy Faith, receives a definitive interpretation by Scott, even after the song, and the movie, are forgotten. Evoking a sense of proud possession and religious appreciation, Scott expands the lyrics from the specifics of Israel to the stewardship of the entire planet.
So strong is Scott’s sense of staggered rhythm that Mingus became frustrated with his elasticity with lyrics, provoking Scott to tell him, “I’ll catch up with you.” Yet, that sense, like no other singer’s, means that Scott, in spite of his size, towers over the other musicians in any recording session. In the case of The Source,
Scott towers over an entire string orchestra, patiently letting it go along its course as he catches up after wringing meaning from the songs. The Source
may never have made it to listeners’ ears without the sagacity and fortitude of Dorn, who recorded a mid-career Scott in spite of the implicit, and then real, legal threats of Lubinsky’s. Absolutely determined to allow audiences to enjoy a to-be-legendary Jimmy Scott performance, Dorn blended five cuts from The Source
with other tracks he recorded, releasing the result as Rhino’s Lost And Found.
Finally, under the auspices of Dorn’s new label specializing in the re-release of never-heard-before recordings, The Source
is available intact for the first time since it was recorded in 1969.
The experience of hearing a younger Scott’s voice reveals that the late-career voice of his revival has deepened in implied wisdom and emotional content. Ever aware of hurt and injustice, Scott nevertheless chose then, and continues to choose, uplifting tunes that bespeak hope in the midst of the awareness of cruelty. Since he joined Lionel Hampton’s band in the late 1940’s, Scott has been consistent in that belief communicated through a voice that inspires awe among even accompanying musicians like Jacky Terrasson.
Would that there were a larger Jimmy Scott discography to re-release. Instead, we have to savor what we have. Fortunately, we can finally enjoy The Source,
even if it has
taken 32 years.