© Jeffrey Kliman
Venerable vocalist Jimmy Scott does it all, from soulful spirituals and R&B grooves to passionate ballads and popular song. Scott’s big, soul-stirring sound defies his diminutive size and projects a powerful will to overcome adversity. Despite a career beset with heartaches, Scott has relentlessly pursued this very personal form of expression, achieving a level of artistry that is unparalleled. From the very first number, Scott’s distinctive, warm tone wins the hearts of an enthusiastic Kennedy Center audience. They take him up on his impassioned plea, “[Take] All of Me.”
Scott’s singular sound has been sought after by artists from a wide range of musical styles. Peppered throughout the show are references to collaborators as varied as vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton, R&B legend Ray Charles, and pop and rock artists like Lou Reed and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Scott says that his musical training was equally varied. After learning classical music theory, Scott found opportunities to branch out and practice numerous styles, and has continued to do so. By the same token, he resists categorizing other artists, explaining, “Music, number one, is effective in all types.”
Scott grew up in the Cleveland, Ohio area, and says he was fortunate to have pianist and bandleader Tadd Dameron and trumpeter Benny Bailey in his local club scene. As a child, he says that jazz and vaudeville shows were his primary sources of entertainment; they may also have influenced the variety in his work. Jimmy reminisces about hearing the powerful voice of Paul Robeson singing spirituals on the radio. Later, Scott attributes his lyrical approach to Billie Holiday’s influence, noting, “How she told a story…it always meant something.” In order to complement a song, Scott feels it’s important to relate to the lyrics on a personal level.
The profound spiritual quality of Scott’s style draws on another important influence: Jimmy’s mother sang spirituals at church. Dr. Taylor indulges Scott to demonstrate his own interpretation of the heart-wrenching “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” This emotional performance exemplifies the sincerity in Jimmy’s approach to spiritual song. Later, he explains his sensitivity to his forerunners, who “were portraying [their] background…[and] our plights in life.” Scott feels that spirituals demand such meaningful expression, and shouldn’t be performed merely for dramatic effect.
Scott got an early break when he was discovered by Lionel Hampton, with whom he toured. Later, Scott’s long-time friend Ray Charles helped him to make a record. Good fortune took a tragic turn when Scott and Charles “got mixed up in a confrontation” with Scott’s previous record company. Through cruel legal tactics, Scott's former label prohibited Charles from selling Scott’s new record and impeded upon Jimmy’s career for over 20 years.
Though his story epitomizes the terrible mistreatment of artists that has occurred in the record business, Scott doesn’t dwell on his misfortune. Later, he recalls his friend, bluesman Doc Pomus, and relates the story of how he was recently rediscovered by a sympathetic record executive. The strength of Scott’s will to overcome is even more evident in his uplifting rendition of “Dream”, a song he recorded with vibraphonist Milt Jackson.
In responding to audience questions, Scott relates a funny story about his first overseas experience. Performing with Lou Reed in London, Scott was bowled over by the roar of the audience when he was introduced. He couldn’t believe he had such devoted fans in England. He tells Dr. Taylor that such experiences feed his hope and determination; without audiences he says he "would be lonely."
There certainly isn’t a lonely moment during this show. Spirits run high as Scott delivers spell-binding renditions of “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “My Mother’s Eyes.” Jimmy brings down the house with his joyfully up-tempo rendition of “I Cried For You.” As he closes out the show, another elated audience is sad to see Scott leave the stage.
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