Growing on you

Sep 13, 2000 at 12:00 am
“Smile … though … your … heart … is … ach-ing. …”

The voice is tender and high, feminine. A piano faintly pings and bass notes toll in crisp contrast to the silences between words — the instruments underscore the slowness of the words.

It’s the opening of Jimmy Scott’s new record, but it could be the story of his life, baby — and that’s the way he’d address you, ’cause that’s the way he addresses everybody. Not that you believe he’s always smiled. But that’s his rap: rolling with it, going with it, never giving in, never giving up. And talk about heartbreak to smile through.

At 75, Jimmy Scott is nearing a decade of success, the best run of his career. He has gigs across the States, tours abroad, reads about himself and his records in major magazines. Long unavailable material is being reissued.

Call his home near Cleveland and he’ll tell you there are no hard feelings about dues paid in obscurity or phantom lights at the end of the tunnel. No bad feelings about the years he played for the pimps before he could play for the president, nor about the years when he was a jazz-world trivia question: Whatever happened to the great Little Jimmy Scott?

“I kind of can enjoy it now,” he says of success. “Whereas being younger, had it come …” and there’s one of his trademark pregnant pauses “… what would I have done with it?

“At least I have the sense now that if things are going to blossom to an extent that I can be a help to the business or to someone’s career. …” And there’s another of those pauses, and he talks about helping younger musicians “because there were friends who pulled me along.” Then it’s on to talk about friends such as Joe Louis and Dinah Washington — and Redd Foxx who scooped up the bills and change hookers threw in appreciation when pimps brought them around.

But even with big-hearted friends, the kid from Cleveland had a long haul. Kallmann’s syndrome, a hormonal condition, left him a perpetual preadolescent, 4-foot-11 with soft features and a voice pitched like a choir boy’s, but with nearly operatic force. And he put such feeling and longing behind a melody that he’s credited as a progenitor of soul music. “Jimmy used to tear my heart out every night,” Quincy Jones once said.

There’d never been anything like him. Rock ’n’ roll would make stars of men who would in a sense follow Scott with their falsettos: Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson, Eddie Kendricks. For Scott, there was no other way to sing. “It’s my natural voice,” he says emphatically.

He got a big break when he joined the Lionel Hampton band in 1949. His recording of “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” was a Top 10 R&B hit — but the record label credited the vocal to the band’s female vocalist Irma Curry.

In the 1950s, he signed with the Savoy label; producers had only modest success mining for hits despite repeated attempts. Those sides are the core of last year’s acclaimed three-CD set, The Savoy Years and More …, but Scott quickly details their shortcomings as rush jobs.

“A taste of an oboe and all the tasty things weren’t allowed,” that was “an excess expense.”

Far worse, into the late ’60s, Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky used his contract to smother Scott’s progress. What could have been breakthroughs on Atlantic and on Ray Charles’ Tangerine label were suppressed. Eventually, Scott drifted from music entirely, working as a shipping clerk and as caretaker for his ailing father.

There were personal woes, too. Troubled marriages and relationships. Heroin rumors (convincingly denied), booze troubles (admitted). And Scott’s condition held back one surprise until his mid-30s when he grew nine inches to reach 5-foot-8: “I felt like my skin was stretching. … And I thought I was hearing myself stretch. And I didn’t know what it was, and I went to the doctor scared to death, and he said, ‘You’re growing,’ and he laughed.”

Whatever the weirdness, Scott says he never gave up. “No, no, no. That’s what I learned about show biz. It’s not over until you decide it’s quits.”

He launched his last comeback in 1990. Singing at the funeral of songwriter Doc Pomus, a longtime friend, he caught the attention of a Sire Records exec. That led to 1992’s All the Way, one of the consummate records of the decade, a celebration of high drama in slow ballads. The voice had mellowed but, like Billie Holiday in her late years, Scott still captivated.

Since then Scott’s become the darling of the Hollywood glitterati, appearing in the surreal finale of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” series, in a Madonna video, on a Lou Reed recording and in Ethan Hawke’s upcoming movie, Last Word on Paradise. A Bravo profile was studded with fans from Alec Baldwin to Ruth Brown. Scott points out that his latest release, Mood Indigo on Milestone, begins a series with producer Todd Barkan, a kind of artistic partnership he’s never experienced before. He talks of great music ahead.

The New York Times Magazine recently profiled Scott and questioned whether there was a problem with his success, whether the sexual ambiguity that helped confer cult status with the in-crowd would also trap him there?

Scott can’t be bothered to question his boosters.

“No, no, baby,” he says on the phone. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, the old folks used to say. It all works out in the end.” W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]