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'Fresh Air' Remembers Jazz Singer Jimmy Scott


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with jazz singer Jimmy Scott. He died Thursday, at the age of 88. He was popular in the 1950s and influenced both male and female singers, including Nancy Wilson and Frankie Lymon. Early in his career, some of his listeners who knew him only from recordings thought he was a woman. That was a result of a rare genetic condition that prevented his body from undergoing the complete process of puberty. Contractual problems helped stall his career, and he didn't make any records between 1975 and 1992. But that 1992 album started a comeback, which included singing at President Clinton's 1993 inaugural ball and being named a living jazz legend by the Kennedy Center. When I spoke with him in 1992, we started with the title track from the album he'd just released, "All The Way," which led to his comeback.


JIMMY SCOTT: (Singing)When somebody loves you, it's no good unless she loves you all the way. Happy to be near you when you need someone to cheer you all the way. Taller than the tallest tree. That's how it's got to go. Deeper than the deep blue sea. That's how deep it goes if it's real. When somebody needs you...


GROSS: When you started singing, were there a lot of listeners who assumed you were a woman?

SCOTT: Yes. Yes. I had people play the records, after doing them with Lionel Hampton. And they'd have contests on the programs to have the public tell them who it was. And many people called women's names. Finally, it was announced that it was not a woman, but it was myself whom was singing with Lionel Hampton at the time. I've even had people in the public question, is he really a guy, or is he - is that a woman standing there, you know? (Laughing) So those things have happened, you know. But being in the business, you learn that opinions are not supposed to affect the work you do in public, you know?

GROSS: Nevertheless, though, how self-conscious where you when people assumed that you were a woman? Were you self-conscious about the pitch of your voice?

SCOTT: Not really. There were times, I could say, later in the career, that I wished that my voice would be deeper for materials that I might've wanted to select to do. But that's the style of my voice. There's nothing I can do about the heighth of my voice. And so I learned to deal with it.

GROSS: I want to play one of your early records. This is from 1955. This was your first session for Savoy. This song is "Don't Cry Baby." And Budd Johnson's on tenor saxophone...

SCOTT: Yeah.

GROSS: Charles Mingus is on bass. Let's here it. This is a great recording from 1955 - Jimmy Scott.


SCOTT: (Singing): Don't cry, baby. Don't cry, baby. Dry your eyes. Let's be sweethearts again. You know I didn't mean to ever treat you so mean. Dry your eyes. Let's try it over again.

GROSS: That's the thing I read about this session - was that Mingus, who was featured on bass, walked out during the session. What happened?

SCOTT: Of all guys to be confused about a singer singing behind the beat, it was quite surprising to know that he was affected by my style of singing - because I do have a delayed, behind-the-beat, you know, expression when I sing a song. And that was one of the things. He just - he couldn't - he couldn't cope with it. (Imitating Charles Mingus) This guy isn't singing on time. You know, what are we doing here? You know, and he was a very strict, arrogant guy about that, you know.

GROSS: Some of the people who were influenced a lot by your singing style include Nancy Wilson and Frankie Lymon. Did you hear yourself in them when they started to record? Did you notice the influence?

SCOTT: Well, you know, it was mentioned to me. I didn't pay specific attention, but it was related to me by others. Oh man, Nancy sings that song just like you would have sang it. Or, Frankie Valli - he's using those high notes just like you would do them, or something like that. And of course, Nancy's was surprising because her parents have often told me how when they would bring the records I'd do home, she would get herself - lock herself in her room and just listen over and over and over.

GROSS: One of your big breaks was in 1948 when Lionel Hampton asked you to sing with the band. And after he hired you, Hampton changed your age from 25 to 17. Why did he do that?

SCOTT: (Laughing) I don't know whether you remember, but Sugar Chile Robinson...

GROSS: Right. He was a dancer, wasn't he?

SCOTT: Yeah. Little pianist and a boogie-woogie player. This little kid. He was out of, I think he was out of - if I'm not mistaken he was out of Detroit - out of the Michigan area. And Hamp had picked him up. Well, he had done great with Sugar Child. She had toured him all over, and he was quite successful with it. Well, he was into a thing of giving young persons opportunities. I looked young, and he wanted that young appearance on stage, and I think that's really the gimmick that was being used, you know?

GROSS: Well, how'd you feel about that?

SCOTT: Well, it didn't work too well with me because, all right, OK - I'm a grown man, you know. So I couldn't develop an attitude of childhood, as far as being in the public, you know? It didn't work.

GROSS: Well also I can imagine, you know, a lot of 25 - you want to meet women, too. And if you're...

SCOTT: Well, see - one thing about it - I had the first wife. (Laughing)

GROSS: Oh, you were married already?

SCOTT: I was married already. Hey - we were separated, but I was married. That means I was dating women, you know. And how could you go around dating women, and the public see you with women and what not. And they say, oh, that kid - because I had many people tell me, get out of a bar, because they thought I was a kid.

GROSS: How tall were you then?

SCOTT: I was about 4'11''.

GROSS: So that must've made it even more difficult?

SCOTT: Yes. Yes. Because I didn't start to growing the size I am now until - oh, I was darn near 40 years old.

GROSS: That's really unusual, isn't it?

SCOTT: Yes, yeah, yeah. But that was a glandular and a hormonal deficiency that caused that syndrome thing that caused that. And then when it did react, then I started growing.

GROSS: Were you taking any kind of hormonal pills when you started to grow?

SCOTT: No, none. It was like...

GROSS: So it's just, like, that your hormonal balance changed?

SCOTT: Yes, yeah. It was just like a delayed thing, you know?

GROSS: So how tall are you now?

SCOTT: I'd say 5'10." Or, we'll say 5'8" really. Yeah, about 5'8''.

GROSS: Now, when you were undergoing this hormonal change, it didn't affect your voice at all?

SCOTT: Not at all.

GROSS: Were you glad that it didn't affect your voice?

SCOTT: Afterwards, yes. After I realized just what was happening I said, well thank God it didn't affect - but now, it did make it stronger. I project stronger. If you notice the old records - they're much lighter - vocally much lighter in sound than the records that I'm doing today.

GROSS: Did you ever feel like you would never record again? That you had made your last record?

SCOTT: No, no. I never felt like - that it would be the end. I've had statements made - who in the heck wants to hear a 60-year-old singer? That statement was made - it's disheartening, you know, because you say, well, hey, why should a guy feel like that about it? But then, I mean, the answer was there. They're listening to Frank Sinatra. They're listening to Toby Bennett. They can listen to Jimmy Scott, too.

GROSS: My interview with Jimmy Scott was recorded in 1992. He died Thursday at the age of 88. Here's a recording he made in 2000.


SCOTT: (Singing) There will be many other nights like this. And I'll be standing here with someone new. There will be other songs to sing - another Fall, another Spring, but there will never be another you. There will be other lips that I may kiss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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