I first heard the great jazz singer Jimmy Scott as a boy, in 1952. My truck-driver dad took me along on a pretzel delivery to a bar in Newark, New Jersey, where Scott was performing. His voice, awash with mystery and pain, mesmerized me. I heard Scott for the last time in 2009, in the studio as he cut an album that has at long last been released: I Go Back Home, the final recording before his death in 2014 at 89.
Though he rarely sang 12-bars blues, Scott lived the blues life and trafficked in the blues aesthetic. Like all blues people, his essential act was the mystical transformation of misery to joy. I Go Back Home, recorded when Scott was confined to a wheelchair, is testimony to his history of heartbreak. The two greatest sources of sadness happened when he was 13: the violent death of his mother and the onslaught of Kallmann’s Syndrome, an emotionally debilitating disease that impeded his hormonal growth and permanently left him with the voice and physical traits of a teenaged boy.
When, in 1949, the 24-year-old Scott joined Lionel Hampton and hit the charts with “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” a song eventually covered by a young Michael Jackson, his name failed to appear on the record either as singer or writer. Many live audiences thought he was a woman in drag. Record buyers assumed they were hearing a female voice.
Female singers from Billie Holiday to Big Maybelle to Dinah Washington adored Scott’s style. Nancy Wilson adopted that style, and Marvin Gaye called him one of his deepest influences. Yet widespread public acclaim would elude Scott throughout his seven-decade career. In the early ’60s, Ray Charles produced and played on Scott’s ballad masterpiece, Falling in Love Is Wonderful. But a lawsuit from Scott’s former label kept Ray from releasing the record. (Rhino issued it 40 years later, in 2002.)
Scott’s hard luck only got harder. For years, he toiled in his native Cleveland as an elevator operator and orderly at a home for the aged. He made a few gems along the way, most notably The Source, a 1969 album that includes the heart-stopping “Day by Day,” the version used by director Denzel Washington at a pivotal point in the film Fences. It wasn’t until Lou Reed took Scott on tour and Sire Records signed him in 1992, resulting in the Tommy LiPuma-produced All the Way, that Scott, then in his 70s, was able to work regularly in small clubs. Virtuosos like Flea took out time to accompany him. There were European and Asian tours and, though the money was slim, critics lavished him with praise. But after a superb series of albums on Fantasy failed to sell, he was without a label.
Enter producer Ralf Kemper, a German businessman and musician who took it upon himself to produce one final and enduring Jimmy Scott project, I Go Back Home. Kemper flew to L.A. and employed a cast of top-tier jazz artists, including pianist Kenny Barron, organist Joey Defrancesco, saxophonist James Moody, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and drummer Peter Erskine. He also invited guest vocalists — Dee Dee Bridgewater, Monica Mancini, Renee Olstead and the actor Joe Pesci who, a remarkable jazz singer himself, ranks as Scott’s greatest acolyte.
Scott’s voice was frail. At times, he recited rather than sang the lyrics. But his phenomenal behind-the-beat phrasing and ultra-sensitive reading of classic standards were intact. At these final sessions, joy was in the air. At 84, his wife Jeanie by his side, Scott was still singing his heart out. I Go Back Home gives that heart new life.
David Ritz wrote the 2002 Jimmy Scott biography Faith in Time.