(This is an excerpt from the chapter 'Degrees of Late Night Music')
The deepest, darkest and quietest moment of the night calls for a supra-human voice, or more poetically, a voice that's not quite of this world. Some people might reach for Nick Drake or the angelic lacrymatics of Orbison, but for sheer and soulful comfort in a world of confusion, loneliness and heartache there is none that holds a candle to the Legendary Jimmy Scott. And he is a pure enigma, a contradictory ambivalence of a different order. He is a man for whom deep soul and directness have come at great personal cost. His voice is astounding in its beauty, reach and control, and his every nuance seems to speak of heartache and loss, and yet...
OK maybe some context is in order.
Jimmy Scott was born with Kallman's syndrome, a hormone deficiency which if untreated means the body doesn't undergo puberty. As a consequence, Jimmy's voice didn't break but stayed high and strong like a castrato. He had an early break singing with Lionel Hampton in the late 40s, and recorded a great album with Ray Charles in the producer's seat, but his career nosedived due to legalities, and didn't fully revive until the early 90s when the confluence of a David Lynch cameo and the funeral of Doc Pomus brought him back to fully recorded glory.
His voice is a wonder. Piercing and possessive, it cuts through paper and skin. Neither Lennon's wail nor Wilson's falsetto approach Jimmy in terms of distinctiveness and instant attention-grabbing. It sounds like a woman's voice — maybe an irrepressible aunt's voice, striking fear and discomfort into relatives gathered round the piano. There's a degree of the masculine in it, just a shade; but its high register is definitely beyond the ordinary [note 5]. For musical ears conditioned to regular gender-vocal norms and the occasional high-pitched male, Jimmy cuts through with otherworldly power.
The voice of a vulnerable, youngish-seeming man singing with a well-aged soul, an experience beyond years — though of course he is that aged soul, that wise old man. This unchanged voice is at variance with time somehow, in seeming to have escaped it. It has matured differently, experientially; it stands outside of time and yet is timeless in the most direct, unambiguous way.
Jimmy sings about death, loss and suffering simply by style and inflection. Once you've heard him sing (the word is too light) a ballad or jazz standard, you'll realise the power of interpretation in soul, of truly owning a lyric's content. And strangely — this must be the calling card of true soul music — his ballads make you feel better, more hopeful.
Listen to his outright ownership of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child", or the way his "Angel Eyes" carries naked emotion and broken despair to a level Sinatra could only dream of. This is a man who has been through the depths of loneliness and loss. For Frank, singing 'scuse me while I disappear' was a cue to back off the stage; for Jimmy it's damn near an existential act.
He strikes a near-absolute grace of sincerity — so total there is no space for irony or sniggering camp. Jimmy is absolutely believable; he occupies the subjective zone so completely you can't imagine him singing anything but aching, soaring ballads.
And if you thought Sinatra was a legend for his timing and phrasing, listen close. Jimmy is the master of delayed pacing: timing every enunciation to fall waaay behind the beat, drawing it to uncommon length, pitching it around his vibrato without ever once seeming delayed or dragging the rhythm. It's a technique that serves to focus listener attention solely on the words and soul of the voice. Hence he's most comfortably at home in the slow ballad where there's room to set up these subtle gaps for the attention to fall into. Technically, it's all sewn up and connected: the effeminate voice, the freakishly skilled technique, and the soul import of heartbreaking balladry.
If you're investigating his records I'd suggest working your way backwards from the pristine modern albums like All the Way, to the solitary 70s masterpiece The Source, and then the (thankfully reissued) Falling in Love is Wonderful, which is 50s Jimmy at his most penetrating and incisive.
With his nurtured phrasing and complete immersion in a song, with that sublime androgynously clear voice, you might still miss out on the visual magnetism and intense focus of his performing style. So personal and performative, singing from the deepest, private heart, with everyone in the audience hanging on to every note.
Such rare genius, such rare and total feel for the material, such faultless execution.
Jimmy's heartbreakingly simple lesson: it all comes from the soul. The broken, suffering, but hopeful soul. And his humble beauty as a person comes, partly, from an intelligence born of that suffering: an articulate, moving, generous man who has been to the ends of suffering and still maintains an absolute grace in singing it.
Jimmy makes conversions. From heartbreak, for hope. That's gotta be true spirit.