Little Jimmy Scott--does the name ring a bell? Probably not. But it should.
He is one of the originals, an oddly unrecognized survivor of the ‘40s and ‘50s when the threads of jazz, rhythm and blues and pre-rock ‘n’ roll were twisting and turning across each other.
Scott, 65, still possesses the almost-eerily high voice that was his trademark identification on such songs as “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” (with Lionel Hampton) and “The Masquerade Is Over.” He is making a rare Los Angeles appearance this week and next at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Cinegrill.
Like many performers of his generation, Scott endured his share of roller-coaster ups and downs. His record catalogue shows bursts of activity in the ‘50s and ‘60s followed by years of virtual music-business invisibility. Much of the ‘70s was spent working as a shipping and receiving clerk for Cleveland’s Sheraton Hotel and pacing the streets as a ward captain for the Democratic Party.
An album Scott considers to be his masterpiece--"Falling in Love Is Wonderful” (Tangerine), recorded in 1962--was held from release because of legal entanglements with Savoy Records’ Herman Lubinsky.
“Black performers were like pieces of machines in a factory to guys like Herman,” said Scott in his room at the Roosevelt, the high, whispery countertenor timbres of his voice perfectly matching his soft, smooth skin and almost fragile-looking frame. “You only played a part when you could be useful. There was no interest in planning a career. No interest in making things happen over the long run. One week you could be recording with all those wonderful musicians, and the next week you might not know where your next meal was coming from.
“It hardened us, as performers. We suffered the hunger of knowing that success wouldn’t happen if we didn’t work. You had to fight--even within yourself--to make it. Because you knew that when you hit the stage, you had to hit the stage right. You had to have those skills.”
“Today, it’s completely different,” he said. “It’s instant. All of a sudden somebody catches you, you’ve got a gimmick and--boom!--you’re a hit. But when that happens, performers never get the actual opportunity to learn their skills, to find out what show business is all about--what its real values are. And that’s sad.”
If time has changed the stratospheric reach of Scott’s voice, it hasn’t changed the intensity of his performances. Still a ballad specialist, still one of the masters of passionately dramatic phrasing, he sings with the acute attention to line and detail.
Scott continues to have his eyes set on the main chance of stardom. His 1985 marriage to long-time friend Earlene Rodgers was the start of a remarkable resurrection.
In 1986, Bill Cosby structured an episode of “The Cosby Show” around Scott’s recording of “Evening in Paradise.” In 1988 and ’89, gigs at the Lone Star Roadhouse and The Ballroom triggered rave reviews from the Village Voice (“the greatest voice alive”), the New York Times (“recalls Edith Piaf”) and the New York Daily News (“a class act”).
A $15,000 lifetime achievement award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation followed, a reissue of his beloved “Falling in Love Is Wonderful” album is in the works, and a major record deal looms.
It’s been a startling comeback for a performer whose name was very nearly forgotten. But Scott, calm, soft-spoken and unflappable, a serene smile on his face, didn’t seem at all surprised.
“Oh, I knew things would change,” he said, his voice as rich with unspoken emotion as it is when he sings his fervent ballads. “They always do. Time changes everything.”