Jimmy Scott had a voice that could move the hardest heart. The emotional depth, hauntingly high pitch and plaintive phrasing of Scott’s singing earned him a fiercely devoted following, especially among his fellow musicians. Musicians throughout the decades named him as their great influence, from Frankie Valli to Sting, Ray Charles to Lou Reed, Charlie Parker to Elton John. Billie Holiday claimed he was her favorite vocal artist. Madonna said, “Jimmy Scott is the only singer who makes me cry.”
Scott performed well into his eighties, moving and delighting audiences until he could no longer stand on a stage. Yet without the intervention of the Musician’s Foundation and its companion organizations, he might have died homeless.
Scott’s life and career are representative of the tumult and sacrifice musicians endure for their art. The stirring pain in Scott’s voice came from real hardship. His mother died in a car accident that he witnessed as a child and he grew up in foster homes. He suffered from a rare genetic disorder called Kallmann syndrome that interfered with his maturation, accounting for his distinctively high-pitched vocal range.
Despite early acknowledgement as a singing prodigy, circumstances beyond Scott’s control kept him from public recognition. There were critically acclaimed performances with the Lionel Hampton Band for which Scott received no credit. A breakout record produced by Ray Charles was pulled from the shelves due to contractual disputes. Though revered by musicians across genres and generations, Scott remained largely overlooked and undercompensated until Sire records signed him in 1991. His album “All the Way” won him critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination at the age of 73.
Scott enjoyed renewed acclaim in the last decades of his life. He sang at President Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993. The National Endowments for the Arts named him a Jazz Master and The Kennedy Center named him a Living Jazz Legend in 2007. Despite his late-life success and the fact that he was in demand for bookings, his income was just enough to cover his debts and expenses. Without the safety net of a pension or a lifetime of savings, he depended on his income as a performer to get by.
When crisis hit, Scott was economically vulnerable. A fall during a concert and subsequent poor medical treatment left him in a wheelchair. When promoters learned of his infirmity, the bookings stopped. “When the gig ain’t there, you still got to pay the rent,” Scott said. “I learned that a long time ago.”
Scott was directed to the Musicians Foundation, where he found the direct support he needed. Assistance meant that Scott lived his final years with dignity, security, care and the knowledge that his long years of devotion to his art were valued and appreciated.