Jimmy Scott, the jazz star whose small stature, romantic phrasing and distinctly high voice helped make him one of the most unique vocal stylists of his era, died in his sleep on Thursday at his home in Las Vegas. The singer was 88.
His death was confirmed by his biographer, David Ritz, according to the Washington Post.
James Victor Scott came into this world on July 17, 1925, and considering the struggles that he faced in his professional and personal life, the empathy his unique soprano voice conveyed was impressive, generous, and even noble. Jimmy and his brother Kenny were just two of ten children born to Arthur Scott and his wife Justine in Cleveland, Ohio. As the two brothers were approaching puberty it was determined that they both suffered from a rare hormonal deficiency called Kallmann’s Syndrome, which caused them to experience a sustained state of (physical) pre-adolescence. It was this sad and unusual circumstance that contributed to Jimmy Scott’s high-pitched voice.
Scott transformed that voice into a marvelous musical instrument, one that was as expressive and as nuanced as any other in the history of jazz. “Little” Jimmy Scott’s first taste of fame occurred in 1949 when he got a job singing with Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra but it wasn’t until January 1950 that Jimmy and the Hampton band recorded Scott’s one and only hit, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”
Jimmy Scott began releasing records under his own name in the 1950s but in the decades that followed he was up and down, in and out, gone and back, and for a time, literally lost to the music business. A one-time contemporary of great talents like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, as well as more obscure musicians like Big Maybelle, he remained a jazz singer nonpareil across seven decades.
Scott’s many different “comebacks” over the years served as a testimonial to his bad luck and his endurance, as well as his consistency as a recording artist. He was once “rediscovered” singing at the funeral of his friend Doc Pomus, and was signed to Sire Records by Seymour Stein, making the 1992 recording, All The Way. Scott sang on the wonderfully poignant Lou Reed album, Magic and Loss and appeared on David Lynch’s cult program Twin Peaks, singing the song “Sycamore Tree,” written by the show’s creator. After Sire Records, Scott made several worthwhile albums on the Milestone jazz label until the early 2000s. In 2007, Jimmy Scott was named a NEA Jazz Master.
Although he lived in obscurity for decades, new generations repeatedly discovered the legend of Jimmy Scott — everyone from Ray Charles to Marvin Gaye to David Byrne lauded him. In 2002 there was a documentary film produced entitled Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew. In David Ritz’s as-told-to biography, Faith In Time: The Life Of Jimmy Scott, the singer is contextualized alongside brilliant saxophonists Lester Young and Stan Getz, as well as legendary friends like Bird and Lady Day. Much like his talented peers, Little Jimmy Scott inhabited a world where the line between thought and expression dissolved night after night and year after year. There won’t be another like him again.
Scott moved from Cleveland to Las Vegas in 2007 for health reasons.
Marc Schneider contributed reporting.