Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F
  7. G
  8. H
  9. I
  10. J
  11. K
  12. L
  13. M
  14. N
  15. O
  16. P
  17. Q
  18. R
  19. S
  20. T
  21. U
  22. V
  23. W
  24. X
  25. Y
  26. Z

Scott, Little Jimmy (James Victor)

Little Jimmy Scott's unique vocal qualities made him the preferred singer of Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton and Ray Charles. Overcoming setbacks and long absences from the public eye, the diminutive vocalist has been rediscovered by a new generation of fans, who praise his unerring musical sensibility and the emotional power of his song.

James Victor Scott was born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 17, 1925. The nickname “Little Jimmy” comes from his short stature (about 4’ 11” at maturity), one of the distinctive features of Kallman’s syndrome, a hereditary condition that Jimmy shared with several family members. Boys born with Kallman’s do not experience the usual effects of puberty, including facial hair, voice change, and maturely operating sexual organs.

Ironically, the effects of Kallman’s syndrome helped create many the distinctive qualities of Scott's singing voice. He has the natural range of a female contralto, without a hint of falsetto. People hearing Jimmy sing for the first time are often incredulous that this voice belongs to a man. A radio show in the early 1950s asked the audience to call in and “name that singer.” Guesses for Jimmy included Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Maxine Sullivan.

As a teenager in Cleveland, Jimmy listened to all the records he could find, familiarizing himself with such vocalists as Frank Sinatra and the young Judy Garland. His biographer David Ritz notes that “Jimmy related to Judy Garland because she expressed the pain of an adult in the form of a child. She was a musical oddity whose emotional genius helped shape Jimmy’s sensibility.”

Scott paid close attention to the developments in jazz, from swing to the beginnings of bebop, including “Hootie Blues," recorded by saxophonist Charlie Parker with Jay McShann's band in 1941. As a janitor working for theater owners, he got to know some of the performers hanging around backstage. Eventually he hooked up with two tap dancers, Lem Neal and Dickie Sims, who hired Jimmy as a valet and took him with them on tour.

In Meadville, Pennsylvania, an eighteen-year-old Jimmy heard and was deeply affected by saxophonists Ben Webster and Lester Young, who were featured on the same bill. Of Lester Young, he has said, “Lester was like those painters who drew outside the lines. He was abstract. Others played solos that sounded like stories; his solos sounded like dreams.”

Eventually, Jimmy got permission to sing two numbers along with Young and Webster: “Talk of the Town” and “It Had to Be You.” Jimmy recalls that the audience loved him, but Lester Young reminded him afterwards that he was still “just a valet.”

Back in Cleveland in the mid-forties, Jimmy began gigging around town with a borrowed rhythm section. He was beginning to form his own style even then, with his relaxed sense of syncopation and the unusual timbre of his voice. In 1945, he toured the South as the featured singer for a variety show headed by a dancer known as Caldonia, whom Jimmy called Mother.

Rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown remembers hearing Jimmy Scott for the first time as a 16-year-old girl in Newport News, Virginia when Caldonia’s troupe came to town. “This boy brought down the heavens," she recalled. "Phrasing for days. Sang a song, for example, called ‘So Long’ that took him so long to sing I thought I’d died...He wasn’t a little boy, he wasn’t a grown man, but you knew held lived other lives and suffered in ways we could never understand.”

After he parted from Caldonia, Jimmy joined Lionel Hampton’s band, alongside singer Betty Carter. Scott recorded three songs with Hampton for Decca in 1950. Settling in New York, Jimmy became an active figure on New York’s jazz scene. He often sat in with Charlie Parker's groups. One session, on which he sang “Embraceable You,” with Bud Powell on piano and Art Blakey on drums, became a bootleg recording that was prized by collectors for many years.

Jimmy’s 1952 recording on Decca with Hampton’s band included one of his signature ballads, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” Jimmy signed on with Savoy Records in 1955. A highlight on his first Savoy album was “When Did You Leave Heaven,” with Charles Mingus on bass. Jimmy recorded for Herman Lubinsky's label for the next 20 years, but his loyalty to Savoy was rewarded by little more than mistreatment, bad management, uneven production, and little profit to the singer.

In 1962, Jimmy teamed with Ray Charles on the Tangerine label to make Falling in Love Is Wonderful. Ray Charles was at the top of his career, and Jimmy was still waiting for his big break, which looked like it was about to happen. His sessions with Charles in Los Angeles went quickly and well, with little more than two takes on each song and lush instrumental arrangements that Jimmy loved. Among the most memorable cuts were another Jimmy Scott signature ballad, Cy Coleman’s “Why Try to Change Me Now.” Unfortunately, Savoy’s owner, Herman Lubinsky, forced the record off the market soon after it came out, claiming it violated his contract at Savoy. Fortunately for listeners today, Falling in Love was reissued by Rhino in 2002.

This was one of the saddest moment’s in Jimmy’s early career, especially since it coincided with a crisis in his personal life. Jimmy’s father, an emotional tyrant, was now living with him in California, and Jimmy needed to get him back to Cleveland. Scott only intended to briefly visit his hometown, but he ran out of money, and his ties to the music business were not strong enough to spring the trap. He remained in Cleveland for the next twenty years, and worked at a variety of day jobs, though he recorded two albums with Atlantic in 1969 and 1972 and gigged around town whenever he could.

Jimmy’s father died at the age of 87 in 1982. In 1984, Jimmy’s old friend, Earlene Rodgers, called WGBO, a jazz radio station in Newark, suggesting they arrange an interview with Jimmy. Dorthaan Kirk, the widow of Rashaan Roland Kirk and the station’s publicist, told Earlene that Jimmy was dead but was thrilled to be proven wrong. Jimmy then left Cleveland for the interview in Newark, where he stayed and married Earlene (his fourth wife) in 1989.

In 1987, blues singer Doc Pomus wrote a long letter to Billboard magazine about Jimmy that appeared under the headline “Before It’s Too Late” and urged Jimmy’s fans to “do something now” and not to “let such tragedies happen again and again.” In 1991, Jimmy sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” at Pomus’s funeral. There, a chance meeting with a producer from Sire Records led to Jimmy’s major comeback album, All the Way, in 1992.

Since that time, Jimmy has toured Europe and Asia and performed in clubs and concert halls across the United States. He no longer has to settle for a pick-up band. Recently he has been backed by jazz notables including Ron Carter, Grady Tate, and Wynton Marsalis. Lou Reed and the members of the eclectic pop group Pink Martini are among the younger performers who have featured him on their own recordings, and helped bring his work to a wider audience.

Jimmy has also received well-deserved recognition for his four recent CDs on the Milestone label. 2002's But Beautiful, features the singer on six songs arranged by keyboard player Renee Rosnes, which highlight his ability to convey emotional warmth through a simple delivery of the lyrics, rather than the melodramatic settings that sometimes undermined his nuanced efforts on earlier recordings. Along with the title song by Jimmy Van Heusen, other standouts included “Darn That Dream” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

The Jimmy we see now has a joyful stage presence and a welcoming spirit. He still sings in the alto range, and he still takes his time. In a feature article from The New York Times, Joseph Hooper noted that the characteristic sense of loss in Jimmy’s ballads is “more than compensated by the smoke-cured timbre of his voice, by a phrasing so idiosyncratic as to become a private language. No one sings slower or farther behind the beat than Jimmy Scott; his long, melismatic flights freeze conventional time. “

Today Jimmy lives in Cleveland with his fifth wife, Jean McCarthy, who accompanies him on tour and warmly greets Jimmy’s adoring fans after his shows. In 2007, he was named a Jazz Master by the United States National Endowment for the Arts, the nation's highest honor for a jazz musician.

Select Discography

Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool (Decca and Coral, original issue 1950–1952; Atlantic reissue, 1999). Includes tracks with Hampton big band.

Little Jimmy Scott: The Savoy Years and More (Savoy Atlantic, original issue 1952–1975; reissue 1999). Three-CD boxed set.

Falling in Love Is Wonderful (Original release, 1963; new release by Rhino, 2003). Produced by Ray Charles and taken off the market due to contract dispute until recent reissue.

All the Way (Sire/London, Rhino, 1992)

Lost and Found (Atlantic, 1993)

But Beautiful (Milestone, 2002)

Contributor: Sue Russell