The Godfather arrived in style. Emerging from a white stretch limo in front of East of the Ryan on Sunday, March 19, the south-side scenester and aspiring R & B vocalist sauntered into the club draped in a luxurious car coat and clutching a bejeweled drinking cup. Inside, a group of matronly women sitting near the stage, sipping fruit juice and still dressed for church, barely glanced at him. But they took note of the many other musical figures who arrived for the show, a benefit for Clarence “Little Scotty” Scott: Otis Clay, Artie “Blues Boy” White, Bobby Jonz, Lee “Shot” Williams, and Little Smokey Smothers, among others.
As the musicians clustered toward the back of the club, WHPK DJ Arkansas Red, clad in a white suit and red bow tie, handed out flyers for his radio show while Carolyn Alexander–a sprightly woman known as the Blues Lady and the Queen of Maxwell Street–sat behind a video camera that was perched on a rickety tripod. Scott himself couldn’t make the party, though. Last October, after suffering from headaches and dizzy spells, he collapsed in his south-side apartment. He was soon diagnosed with a brain tumor and spent a month at Michael Reese Hospital recuperating after surgery. He eventually returned home, but in late January respiratory problems landed him back in the hospital. He’s now at Kindred Hospital–Chicago, where he’s on a ventilator. He has no health insurance, his home phone has been disconnected, and his landlord is trying to evict him.
“We all seem to come together when these kinds of things happen,” Clay said from the stage during the first set. “If you think you got problems, I got the report on Scotty–that’s a problem. So this will be our theme song tonight.” He then launched into his inspirational signature tune, “If I Could Reach Out (and Help Somebody),” and the audience responded with affirmations and applause.
Most events at East of the Ryan, on 79th Street, attract at least a handful of people from outside the neighborhood. But though Little Scotty’s been ubiquitous on the south-side blues scene since the early 80s, he’s virtually unknown among white blues fans in the city. If they know him at all, it’s as the squat, frog-faced black guy with the sleepy eyes and thick southern drawl who shows up at demonstrations and other public events decked out with an array of buttons: plugs for Harold Washington’s mayoral campaigns, portraits of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, antiwar and antidrug slogans, and many more. But on his home turf he’s notorious for the audacity of his performances. There aren’t many singers, even in blues, who’ll segue from an X-rated celebration of cunnilingus to a sermon on community uplift. But navigating the earthly and the divine has been Scott’s lifelong survival strategy.
In the early 60s, when he was about 15, the KKK firebombed his family’s home in Florence, South Carolina. Scott suffered third-degree burns on most of his body. “I probably had over 90 operations,” he told me in 2003. “Blood ‘fusions, grafting skin. People used to die, and when they died they cut the skin off ’em, and I got the skin. They had a worm out of Africa–maggots. They’d put it on you and [it would] eat the dead skin and drop on the floor, and I would look at it and just holler, scream like bloody murder.”
Scott was teased relentlessly by the neighborhood kids, but he found refuge both in church and at local juke joints, where he sat alone steeling his courage before finally taking the stage, astonishing listeners with his commanding, gospel-honed voice. Inspired by the acceptance he received as a singer–not to mention the money–he soon hit the chitlin’ circuit. Though he insists he never lost his faith in God, he still immersed himself in the fast times his new life offered. By the end of the 60s he was living in New York City, where he was an ordained minister and worked as a pimp. “I had four or five girls working for me,” he said. “Had a beautiful apartment, 17th and 8th Avenue in Chelsea.”
But he had a more sober side as well: he studied Islam and took in lectures and speeches by black history scholars like John Henrik Clarke and Leonard Jeffries. When he arrived in Chicago in the early 80s (“to pursue music and ministry”) he got involved with Operation PUSH, Harold Washington’s mayoral campaigns, anti-death-penalty initiatives, and other causes. He kept his music career going too: he cut records in soul, contemporary blues, and gospel styles for a variety of labels, including his own Top of the World imprint; performed in local clubs; and occasionally embarked on a brief tour through the south or along his old stomping grounds on the east coast.
Scott never became so righteous that he wouldn’t do whatever he thought it took to get his music played. [A prominent Boston DJ] “was my man,” he once told me. “Take him some cocaine, and he’ll play your records from now on!” And his friend Gene “Daddy G” Barge recalls that Scott would show up at PUSH headquarters prepared to receive as well as give. “He was a vendor out there, selling his records, pop, water, peanuts, and all of that stuff,” Barge says. “Everybody, Jesse Jackson and everybody, went out there to buy peanuts from him.”
Scott’s most recent album, God’s Got the Last Word, came out on Style Records in 2004. Its centerpiece is a 20-minute-plus sermon where he recounts the ordeal of his burning in harrowing detail; by the end he’s audibly weeping as an organ billows and swells around him. That same year, on March 6, his wife, Ada Allen, was strangled in an alley a few blocks from their home. The funeral was held at Holy Rock Missionary Baptist Church on 59th and Morgan, and the reception was at Lee’s Unleaded Blues, where Scott greeted well-wishers from behind hooded eyes, showing little outward sign of grief or even emotion. When I encountered him a few weeks later on Canal Street, though, he seemed exhausted. “I been through a lot, man,” he told me. “I been through a lot.”
“His appearance either was a blessing or a bummer, because a lot of the people regarded him as a caricature rather than a serious act,” Barge says. “The comment was about size and his looks and the burning. He’s a good singer, man. He couldn’t catch a break.”
Jonz, White, and Clay, who organized the benefit, interspersed their performances with requests for donations. A cardboard box clad in tinfoil sat just inside the entrance, another near the bandstand. Jonz periodically removed handfuls of crumpled bills from the boxes. By the end of the night he’d collected $800 for Scott. (Clay says another benefit is in the works, but plans aren’t finalized.)
“You have to understand art to really understand Scotty,” Otis Clay says. “He got some other things going on, but he’s a good artist. And that says a lot. What you do about your work dictates a lot about your personality. I met Scotty probably around 1980, ’81, when Scotty came to town. One night, one of those off nights, we were in this little place. And he did ‘Hoodoo Man Blues,’ and I’m sayin’, like, ‘Whoa!’ You probably will never hear it like that again.
“He’s a piece of the puzzle of this scene. We’ve lost a lot of pieces, you know? But now Johnnie Taylor’s gone. [Little] Milton. Tyrone [Davis] is gone. And Scotty’s another part of the puzzle. The sad part, when I get the report on what’s happening with him, is that a lot of people would never get the chance to hear him. Because when all this history go down, he’ll be a part of it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.