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A Quietus Interview

If You Only Knew: 'Little' Jimmy Scott Interviewed
Nicholas Abrahams , December 8th, 2011 12:19

Nicholas Abrahams talks to "Little" Jimmy Scott about his music, his muse and singing for David Lynch

I asked Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons what he makes of Jimmy Scott, the 86 year old jazz legend with the voice of an angel, with whom he has shared the stage at the Carnegie Hall.

"Jimmy Scott, peerless, spirit brother of Billie Holliday, sings like a sobbing diamond. Now a great elder, he is untouchable, his sense of timing is mystical."

It is true that, in more ways than one, Jimmy is Billie Holliday's 'spirit brother". She said he was her favourite singer. When I spoke to Jimmy at his home in Las Vegas, he was sleepy, but perked up when I mentioned his one-time muse.

"Billie was more like family to me... I knew she had a rough life and she struggled through it and it was a struggle for her, but her associations, friends that she had, and you couldn't pull her away from them - they drew her into using dope and all that, and it kinda hurt to see her be taken advantage of in that way. But, oh yes, I loved to hear her singing, it was quite an attraction to me, being a young man and all, listening to her and learning from all those people...."

This month, one of the most unique voices of our time will be heard in London, on the 17th and 18th December at St Stephens Hall in Hampstead. Small in stature, but huge in style and charisma, "Little" Jimmy Scott has one of those voices that once heard is never forgotten. Ask Madonna, who said that Jimmy's voice was "the only singer who makes me cry", or Nick Cave, who asked Jimmy to perform at his wedding party, or the New York Times, who dubbed Jimmy "the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century".

Lou Reed said that seeing Jimmy sing was "like seeing Hamlet or Macbeth all rolled up into a song", and that "we all bow at the altar of Jimmy Scott", consequently employing him as a backing singer on tour. Word has it that Jimmy was such a mellowing influence on the notoriously grumpy Reed that his band begged Jimmy to stay touring with them for of long as possible, which I mention to Jimmy.

"Well, ha ha ha, Lou is.. something else! It was... showbusiness! Just another job that I had got in the business, and it was totally different to what jazz was all about. I wasn't into what he was doing, it wasn't music that I had a love for but it was... something else, it was... interesting! And it gave me an opportunity to understand another person... which is a challenging business..."

Imagine all of the interview being conducted in a leisurely drawled voice by Jimmy, so that it is never certain that the end of a sentence, or thought... will... be ... reached... a stroll through a conversation as close to his manner of singing as anything, as if he is always behind the beat, whether on stage or off. The pauses were many and lengthy....

Alone Together A short portrait of Jimmy Scott

Jimmy's uniquely androgynous voice is thanks to being born with a medical condition known as Kallman's syndrome, a now curable disease, which meant that he never passed through puberty. Consequently has a singing voice which is part neither quite male, nor female, but floats pleasingly and ambiguously in between. What on one hand is a curse - Jimmy, married four times, was unable to father any children - is also a blessing, giving him a natural pitch closer to a castrato than any other singer.

"What can I say? I was born with it... and as far as marriage, it was a problem, of course. But my mother taught me to never drop my head about it. And it was never talked about, never discussed amongst the family".

But he combines that otherworldly voice with an out of space delivery, so sleepy and behind the beat that sometimes one worries the next word might not be forthcoming. It is a delivery unique in jazz. How did he develop his laidback vocal style?

"I've always liked the drums, as an instrument. In school it was my instrument, I played drums in a marching band and I got a connection with the timing from playing the drums and... it was always there and I used it accordingly... and it has never bothered me, or interfered with what I do as far as singing, so I continue to express myself in the manner that I do, and the way that I do when I sing.. I just continue doing it... what can I say?..."

Has this ever been a problem for those playing with him?

"All the great musicians, like Yardbird, Dizzy, and all of them, I came up with that thing... and they covered me very well... I have always accepted their interest in my timing, and I've never had a problem with any of the bands that I worked with. Fortunately it all panned out for the good for me.. as far as the music goes!"

These casual name drops of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker as Jimmy's musical collaborators points to the caliber of musicians he has performed with. Each generation seems to need to rediscover Jimmy for themselves, whether it was Ray Charles back in the 1960s or Antony Hegarty today.

Jimmy's mother was the biggest influence in his life:

"I was raised in a spiritual church as a kid, and all our singing in church was in a gospel style. Gospel was the first music I sang, and my mother taught me to sing. Gospel is as much a part of Jazz singing as anything else. It's creativity being expressed and it is within the person who is doing it, knowing what they can say, it is born in most of the figures that sing with the gospel spiritual attitude." Other influences he mentions are Paul Robeson and Judy Garland.

Another influence, but of a more sartorial nature, was Nat King Cole:

"He was another one I could learn from... He was a dresser, liked to dress! Oh yeah... he was a sharpy out there! I remember when he got a contract for Murray Hair Cream, they had a picture of him on the can of hair cream and it stayed there for years... it might still be in some stores today, Murray's Pomade, oh yeah! Anyhow, he taught me how to dress just so for your public. In a way presenting yourself to yourself to your public, for me, is show business. And I learnt how to keep a wardrobe for showbusiness from being around him. He dressed neat and simple, he didn't go for extremes, nor did he go to any ignorance in dressing himself. You have young artists today who dress ignorantly... money can buy you a lot of things but it can't buy you a natural attitude, that god given attachment that you have in presenting yourself, much like we said a while ago about the spiritual element in our singing, that keeps us away from the ignorance that is going on in the business."

Jimmy's career took some disastrous turns, as an early contract he signed with Savoy Records came back to haunt him in the following decades, leading to the release and sudden recall of two breakthrough albums, firstly his 1962 Ray Charles produced album Falling in Love is Beautiful and then The Source in 1969. These bitter blows to Jimmy's career are still evident in his thoughts today.

"(Savoy MD) Lubinsky didn't promote the things that I did! And even today, I have people request songs that I recorded on his label, Savoy... People will ask me: "Why don't you sing this no more?" And I say "Well...!" You know, with respect, I try to explain that it's not in my book anymore! I'm trying to build myself, you see.. and I have to explain to them without hurting anyone or trying to destroy anyone. OK, I had problems, but I don't have to use those problems to hurt anyone."

The necessities of life mean Jimmy, well into his 80s, is still singing.

"I'll be doing this as long as possible, until I get satisfaction, you know... for my welfare, income, I will be doing it until I can afford to relax. All my life I've worked somewhere... When I wasn't singing or didn't have dates, I did my best to get little jobs to keep things caught up. You know, I had to pay rent and other jobs and I would get little jobs, yeah, in hotels, and other places, restaurants, in a nursing home, I did those things and they were necessary to keep my life in order and pay my bills as I went by."

This disappearance from public life led many people to believe that Jimmy Scott had died. Fate intervened when, in 1991, Seymour Stein heard Jimmy singing at the funeral for their mutual friend Doc Pomus, and signed him immediately. When Jimmy's relaunch yet again appeared to be going nowhere fast, David Lynch stepped in, featuring Jimmy in the final episode of Twin Peaks. Lynch says that Jimmy "does things to a song that nobody else does. So he's an original, an original voice. It's haunting. And it's so pure soulful."

Jimmy Scott sings in David Lynch's Twin Peaks

Yet when I asked Jimmy about Lynch he sounded wistful, and just a little bit let down.

"It was nice working with David Lynch, who was interested in what I was doing... but I don't see those folks anymore! And I sort of miss that atmosphere of the interest they had in what I was doing, and we were trying to develop and create interest in my songs and my way of singing the songs. David Lynch... well, I miss that kind of thing! There are directors I would like to work with, Martin Scorsese... and there are a couple of directors interested in my life story..."

Despite such a fragmented career and life, Jimmy stills seems to revel in future possibilities.

"I mean, you give out, but you don't give up! That's my method and my motto for life.... you give out with all you have, your heart, your soul.. and you try to do the best to make it enjoyable for the audience..."

Jimmy doesn't want to give details about his future plans, keeping deliberately vague and open ended:

"It's about the music, and that's the thing… it's music and you want to get in and be a part of what it is... there's just something that draws you deeper into the music. This, THIS is the thing. The music teaches you how to live, how to be, how to treat others, how to respect others in the business and... " [Jimmy's wife/managers voice can be heard somewhere in the background] ".. and how to love my wife, ha ha ha! I had to get that in there! Because she'll chop my head off!"