Jimmy Scott’s singing is a triumphant union of opposites. The 76-year-old has a fragile, childlike voice (he suffers from Kallman’s syndrome, which stunts development during puberty), but his full vibrato and mature delivery convey a deep world-weariness. And in contrast to the vulnerability of his persona, his technique–crisply bitten-off syllables, inventive intonation, willfully delayed timing, bracingly long silences–is absolutely masterful. He began performing in the early 1940s as “Little Jimmy Scott,” but not long after making his first splash with Lionel Hampton’s band (most notably an uncredited turn on the 1950 chart single “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”) he was sidelined by record-company intrigues. For much of the 70s and 80s he performed only sporadically, working odd jobs and caring for his ailing father. Since the release of All the Way in 1992, however, his star’s been on the rise again; his recordings are revered, and vocalists ranging from Nancy Wilson to Frankie Valli to Madonna claim him as an inspiration. On his newest disc, Over the Rainbow (Milestone), Scott retains every bit of his audacious, unpredictable genius, dissolving and reshaping the tempos and melodies of a dozen familiar tunes like a musical Dali. He sings “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” so slowly and gently, and with such a loose, languid pulse, that it almost doesn’t have a beat at all. He prods and massages the melody like a horn man improvising on a theme, and sings in swirls and washes of in-between notes instead of sticking to a scale–I can’t think of another vocalist, with the exception of Betty Carter, who’s so good at a crawl. He transforms the title track into a helpless wail of despair; on “Strange Fruit,” the antilynching song made famous by Billie Holiday, the lyrics seem to be spilling out of him with a will of their own, as horrifying to him as they are to us. Scott’s music can be grueling as well as beautiful, but it’s never less than brilliant–this concert is a must-see. Friday, November 9, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.