The 40-Year Itch

After decades in limbo, a jazz classic from Jimmy Scott finally sees the light of day.

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Top Jimmy: Scott made the greatest jazz vocal album - that no one owns.
Top Jimmy: Scott made the greatest jazz vocal album that no one owns.
A legendary jazz album by the influential, chronically marginal Cleveland balladeer Jimmy Scott is finally being liberated -- largely thanks to Ray Charles, who produced it, released it, and then suppressed it 40 years ago.

Falling in Love Is Wonderful, a sumptuous, highly orchestrated disc that Scott recorded for Charles's Tangerine label in 1962, is being released by Rhino Handmade, the Internet-only arm of the creatively retro Rhino label. Only 7,500 copies will be made, so Falling in Love may well go out of print again. Rhino Handmades, once sold out, are not reissued and only rarely resurface as consumer releases.

"I kept running across Ray Charles from time to time, and he'd mention something, I'd repeat something back to him, and we'd go on about our business," Scott says from his Euclid home. "It was a hope for me that this piece of work would come about. I don't know if it was a misunderstanding. I didn't pay any attention, and many things you find are your own mistakes, because you don't pay attention."

Scott was certainly paying attention when he laid down Falling, however. Charles produced and played piano on the album, which ranks with Stan Getz's Focus, Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, and Charles's own The Genius of Ray Charles as a masterpiece of plush jazz. When it was released, however, Herman Lubinsky, the head of Savoy Records, the Newark, New Jersey-based jazz label for which Scott had recorded numerous tunes, threatened Charles with litigation. Scott, Lubinsky argued, was still under contract to him.

"The thing came about because Lubinsky swore up and down he had a contract with me, and he didn't," Scott says, "totally ignoring the fact that I was saying no." Scott thought he was no longer under contract to Lubinsky, a man whom producer and Scott champion Joel Dorn once called a "human hemorrhoid," but Scott's protests proved less compelling to Charles than Lubinsky's warning.

Charles immediately pulled the album, making it one of the rarest and most coveted recordings among jazz collectors. Over the years, there have been many attempts to license it from Charles, with offers of up to $200,000, according to sources within the music industry. Finally, this year, on September 27, Falling in Love will resurface, thanks to a convergence of events that are raising Scott's profile all over again.

"This is probably the most requested record at Rhino," says James Austin, Rhino's senior director of artists & repertoire/special products. "I've had people in the industry come to me and ask for an entrée to Ray Charles to plead the case. It's all based on what you can project as sales, and the sales department couldn't quite project enough to pass the P&L [profit and loss equation], but I couldn't give up on it." (Scott's best-seller remains All the Way, his 1992 "comeback" record for Sire/Warner Bros., which sold 46,000 copies.)

Rhino had an ace in the hole, however. In 1996, it had signed a deal to reissue and recompile Charles's entire back catalog. When renewal negotiations began last year, "I kept thinking, 'Boy, maybe I can make this part of a deal where I can release Jimmy Scott and Percy Mayfield [composer of People Get Ready, also recorded for Tangerine], and coincidentally, someone here was working on If You Only Knew, a documentary film about Jimmy." In addition, David Ritz, who has written biographies of Charles, Aretha Franklin, and other soul figures, was working on Faith in Time, his biography of Scott (Ritz and Scott will be at a book-signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Shaker Square at 7 p.m. October 15).

Austin, Scott, and Ritz got together for a dinner at Ritz's house in Los Angeles, where Scott told Austin he badly wanted Falling re-released. A short time later, Charles agreed to make the release part of his five-year catalog-renewal deal.

"Ray Charles wants it out," Austin says. "He really loves this record. It's coming out on limited-edition Handmade, and we'll see how that sells."

Regardless of how Falling fares commercially, though, there can be little doubt about the album's place in jazz history.

"Falling in Love is not only the pinnacle of anything Jimmy Scott ever recorded, it's a high point of recorded vocal albums," says Bill Bentley, senior publicist at Warner Bros. in suburban Los Angeles. "Jimmy had just gotten out of a terrible situation at Savoy Records, so hooking up with Ray Charles in 1962, when he was at one of the heights of his creative and commercial career, was like being given the keys to the kingdom."

Last spring, just before Charles signed the renewal deal with Rhino, he met Scott at the Atlanta Jazz Festival. "They really hadn't quote unquote seen one another in a number of years," says Maxine Harvard, Scott's manager. "It was a very, very warm welcome on Ray's side. People had approached Ray to release that master many times over the years, for great amounts of money, and Ray always said no. No one knows why. David Ritz could not get that out of him. But here, a very warm rapport was reestablished. The people at Rhino knew of the Tangerine album; everybody in the record business knew about it, and Rhino asked it be made part of the deal. Ray -- surprise to all of us -- said yes."

Perhaps this is a matter of lions in winter helping each other out. Charles is 72, Scott 77. Both were at their peak when they collaborated on Falling.

"It's not really a jazz record," Bentley says. "It's like a great Sinatra record. It does something to you, like Only the Lonely. That was a lonely record. This is a record about love and romance, and not necessarily lost love. It's the sound of love. That's what it is."

Scott, meanwhile, doesn't have any record deals, even though three lovely, sparse albums he recently recorded for Milestone were well received. With or without a record deal, his sound will remain distinctive: Because of a rare genetic defect, Scott never fully developed, giving his voice a uniquely androgynous quality. He's often been mistaken for a woman, in looks and in voice. It's his gift and his curse.

"No sense kicking, babe," says Scott, who makes hurt sound particularly beautiful on Falling in Love Is Wonderful.

"Complaining ain't going to help, because you're going to get a misery here, a misery there, you just pass on to it, babe. Uh-hmmm. You goin' to get 'em, but you get rid of 'em, too."

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