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Feeling Right at Home 

Cleveland embraces one of its great jazz entertainers.

At 81, Jimmy Scott can still entrance an audience.
  • At 81, Jimmy Scott can still entrance an audience.

In 1992, when Jimmy Scott released the Grammy-nominated record All the Way, the cult jazz figure finally started receiving the widespread attention and success that had eluded him for nearly four decades.

A whole new generation became aware of Scott's talent. Filmmaker David Lynch enlisted him to sing "Sycamore Trees" for Twin Peaks. Lou Reed and Scott recorded the song "Power and Glory" for Reed's Magic and Loss disc. And Madonna and Bruce Springsteen sang their praises of the singer when he reinterpreted such pop hits as "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "People Get Ready," and "Jealous Guy" for his 1998 recording Holding Back the Years.

Now, at the age of 81, Scott is finally receiving some recognition in his hometown of Cleveland. Last July, he received a Cleveland Arts Prize. And on November 17, during the Original Superstars of Jazz Fusion concert at the Agora, he will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Jazz as well as a portrait by Neal Hamilton, official photographer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"I remember scuffling and hustling around here like anybody would to survive," recalls Scott from his home in Euclid. "I had a little paper route for a while, and then when I got older I worked for a war plant after my mother's death. I just worked different kinds of jobs. I've been a waiter, a restaurant worker. I grew up in the black neighborhood around Central, and I've lived in Cleveland Heights and various neighborhoods around Cleveland."

Early in life, he sang spirituals in a quartet at the Universal Hagar's Spiritual Church, where his mother, a huge influence and strict teacher, played piano. But the turning point came when he sang lead in a school play, Ferdinand the Bull, at Outwaite Junior High School.

"That's where the public first heard me," he says. "I've always felt that's where the urgency to become an entertainer came from. After that, I recruited all the kids in the neighborhood to do a show at the Metropolitan Theater at 55th Street and Euclid. Every week, they'd bring in a show to the theater -- dancers, girls' choruses, and all varieties of entertainment. I became a valet backstage for all these artists."

When he wasn't visiting the Woolworth's at 105th and Euclid, and browsing through lyric sheets, a young Scott was listening to his favorite singers -- Lil Green, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Paul Robeson -- on the family's radio and Victrola. His appreciation of their singing styles laid the foundation for his own unique style.

"Robeson as a stylist attracted me to the way he would express these songs," explains Scott, whose notably effeminate singing voice is a product of Kallmann's syndrome, a rare congenital disorder preventing puberty. "You understood what he was talking about in the songs," he adds. "You got a picture about the facts of the music in the songs. That's when I learned the lyric was an important thing."

After appearing with baritone singer Jimmy Reed and dancer Barbara Taylor at the Metropolitan Theater, Scott began to work at long-defunct local clubs such as Jack's Bar, the Bluegrass, the Corner Tavern, and the Cedar Gardens.

"Cedar Gardens used to be the biggest club in Cleveland," he says. "They used to bring in the girls' chorus lines. They had big shows and things."

Scott really started to learn about the business of being an entertainer when he hit the road in the early 1940s, touring the chitlin' circuit with Estelle "Caldonia" Young's Revue. One night, Scott shared the stage with comedian Redd Foxx at Gandy's in Baltimore. Foxx invited boxer Joe Louis to see the show. Louis and his MC, Ralph Cooper, encouraged Scott to audition for a show at Harlem's Baby Grand.

Scott's legacy has been well documented in recent years in film and in retrospective CDs. In 1987, Gary Jardim directed The Ballad of Jimmy Scott. Bravo aired Melodie McDaniel's Why Was I Born? in 1994, and director Matthew Buzzell released 2002's If You Only Knew.

In addition to the surfacing of several bootleg recordings, in 2004 Warner Music U.K. released its two-disc anthology, Someone to Watch Over Me: The Definitive Jimmy Scott. And just last year, London's Union Square Records released The Essential Jimmy Scott.

Scott's life and career became the subject of biographer David Ritz's Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott in 2002. Scott, who has worked with Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Paul Gayten, Milt Jackson, and other jazz greats over the years, is currently negotiating with Hollywood to make a film of his life and career.

Despite lacking a recording contract, he remains busy. A few weeks ago, he flew to Newark, New Jersey, to appear in Be Kind, Rewind, a forthcoming film about the life of Fats Waller, starring Danny Glover, Jack Black, Mos Def, and Mia Farrow. And on January 12, the National Endowment for the Arts will recognize him as a Jazz Master.

More by Robert Hicks

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