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Jazz Balladeer Influenced Better-Known Singers


Jimmy Scott died this week. The jazz balladeer died of natural causes at his home in Las Vegas. He was 88. His ethereal contralto influenced countless singers, men and women. But his career was a series of up, downs and finally, ups, as NPR's Mandalit del Barco explains.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: James Victor Scott was known as Little Jimmy Scott because he looks so young and small. He had a rare genetic hormonal condition that left growth stunted for many years and prevented him from reaching puberty. His voice never dropped, as he told NPR in 1992.


JIMMY SCOTT: Maybe my voice is not low enough, you know, but this is what my voice is, and I had to develop from what I had.

DEL BARCO: What he developed caught the attention of musicians and listeners.


SCOTT: (Singing) Everybody's somebody's fool. The world is the biggest school.

DEL BARCO: "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" became a top 10 R&B hit in 1950, but the record label didn't name Scott as a singer or lyricist with Lionel Hampton's band. Scott's vocals on Charlie Parker's "Embraceable You" were credited to a female singer.

WILL FRIEDWALD: Most people would assume he was a woman, but he's really the grandfather of soul singing.

DEL BARCO: Music journalist, Will Friedwald, says Scott's unique phasing and romantic feel made him a favorite of fellow artists, including Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke.

FRIEDWALD: All the great rhythm and blues and soul singers who work in high voices and sing falsetto - but even more so, there were tons and tons of female singers that he influenced. And it's rare to find an artist that's that influential on both male and female singers. And yet, you know, he was.

DEL BARCO: Dispite that influence, Jimmy Scott's career was rocky. After "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," his records really never took off, and he battled with his labels over contracts and royalties. By the mid-1960s, he was working as a hotel shipping clerk.


SCOTT: There comes times in your life, you know, when you have responsibilities, family involvements - survival. You have to do what you have to do, and that is get a job, pay the rent, try to keep yourself alive.

DEL BARCO: Will Friedwald says Scott faded into obscurity. Yet, he remained a favorite for anyone who loved jazz and rhythm and blues.

FRIEDWALD: They all knew Jimmy Scott. They all knew that he was the source, you know, the alpha of that whole style of singing. He really captures absolute sort of abyss of despair.


SCOTT: (Singing) Tried to think that love's not around. Still, it's uncomfortably near.

DEL BARCO: Over the years, some fans even assumed Jimmy Scott was dead until 1984 when a jazz radio station in New Jersey interviewed him, and the Village Voice profiled him. A song at the funeral of his longtime friend, songwriter Doc Pomus, led to a record deal. Lou Reid recruited him to sing backup and director David Lynch featured him singing in the series finale of the popular TV show "Twin Peaks."


SCOTT: (Singing) I've got ideas, man. You take me for a walk under the sycamore trees.

DEL BARCO: Jimmy Scott told NPR in 2005 that his love of music and singing gave him the courage to get through all the tough years.


SCOTT: You may fall down a little bit, but get up. Brush yourself off. Start all over again.

DEL BARCO: In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Jimmy Scott as a jazz master. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


SCOTT: (Singing) I've got ten woes - the dew of spring - the leaves that fall - some little thing - I get sentimental.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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