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Finding Your Voice
By Carlo Wolff

Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott
By David Ritz Da Capo Press, 288 pages, $25

Jimmy Scott’s hard-luck stories and physical idiosyncrasies make him a paradigmatic outsider in the world of jazz. The way those stories infuse his art is the focus of Faith in Time, David Ritz’s sensitive biography of this unique jazz singer.

Born in 1925 in Cleveland, Scott was one of 10 children of saintly seamstress Justine Stanard and asphalt worker Arthur Scott, her egotistic, womanizing husband. Like several others in his family, Scott suffers from what he calls the Deficiency: Kallmann’s Syndrome, hormonal arrest that prevented his testicles from dropping, his penis from developing and his voice from deepening. The Deficiency has kept him short and hairless and boyish-looking, coloring his relationships with his family, his four ex-wives, even his current love. It’s also money in the bank: It gave him a girlish voice perfect for ballads, the form he’s excelled in throughout his 60-year career.

“I was eighteen years old when I first heard it,” jazz singer Nancy Wilson tells Ritz. “I was playing clubs around Ohio and, because of Jimmy’s version [of ‘When Did You Leave Heaven,’ recorded in 1955], fell in love with the song. I had fallen in love with Jimmy’s sensitivity the moment I’d heard ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ [a 1950 hit for Little Jimmy Scott as a singer with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra]. From then on, I followed his career and based my style on his. It was more than his phrasing, which, of course, was compelling and unique. It was what he did with words. The note must serve the word, not vice versa.”

Ritz, who specializes in writing about black soul and jazz singers, has done his homework on Scott, a character of great artistic talent, unworkable emotions and minimal business sense.

“In the course of writing this biography, Jimmy Scott became my friend,” he writes. “I would have it no other way. In fact, the book could be written no other way because, at its heart, Faith in Time is a dialogue between friends.”

From the ’60s to the ’90s, Scott dropped off the jazz map despite pockets of popularity in Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and New York. He married and drank with abandon, had a bad accident at work, suffered awful treatment at the hands of record companies (particularly classic-jazz label Savoy, whose founder, Herman Lubinsky, restrained other imprints from distributing Scott recordings), and finally returned to the spotlight in 1991. That year, Scott recorded the magnificent All the Way for Sire/Warner Bros. Subsequent Warner albums didn’t do as well, but toward the end of the decade, Scott resurfaced on Milestone, where he has recorded three jewellike albums setting his world-weary, androgynous voice among trophy jazz instrumentalists.

Ritz’s book is friendly, though it all but accuses Scott of being an alcoholic and renders his troubled marriages and business relationships in great detail. Ritz, however, also celebrates Scott’s uniqueness, quoting praise from music-industry figures spanning producer Joel Dorn, Ray Charles (who produced and recorded Scott’s legendary Falling in Love Is Wonderful only to pull it after Savoy’s Lubinsky threatened litigation) and literary punk-poet Lou Reed.

At times, Scott sounds too literate in Ritz’s quotes. I’ve interviewed Scott, too, and found his responses rambling and disjointed. Ritz prettifies his language; Scott’s cadence, in conversation and on record, is definitively laid-back and associative, not as linear as Ritz makes it.

Perhaps the Scott quotes read well because Ritz is determined to cast his problematic subject in a fundamentally upbeat light. Scott, both a great singer and an acquired taste, deserves the warmth. This book, the recent albums and the recent rerelease of Falling in Love Is Wonderful (Rhino Handmade is issuing a 7,500-copy run) affirm Jimmy Scott’s singular sense of time—and a voice that can tear your heart out.

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