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Jimmy Scott: The Savoy Years and More

No male jazz or pop singer, not even Ray Charles drowning in his own tears or Frank Sinatra in the wee small hours, has expressed heartache as movingly as Little Jimmy Scott. After joining Lionel Hampton’s band in 1948, the diminutive balladeer hovered at the margins of the music business for over four decades before starting to receive the recognition he deserves in the ’90s. Although his expressiveness remains undiminished, his cracked, quavery voice makes listening to more than one or two tracks of his recent CDs a daunting experience.

The Savoy Years and More, a three-disc collection, contains 66 sides Scott cut for that label and for Royal Roost between 1952 and 1975. It resurrects considerable material unfamiliar to all but the singer’s most passionate devotees-15 tracks previously issued only as singles and eight hitherto unreleased masters.

This is Scott at the peak of his game, his high-pitched voice caressing love songs in the idiosyncratic style that influenced young Nancy Wilson and actor Joe Pesci when he attempted a singing career as Scott-clone Little Joe Ritchie. All but a handful of the performances are ballads; Scott’s technique of lagging far behind the beat ill serves him on up-tempo numbers. Although Terry Gibbs, Budd Johnson, Charles Mingus, Bucky Pizzarelli and other notable instrumentalists appear as accompanists, the spotlight remains fixed on Scott.

Scott and his longtime producer Fred Mendelsohn amassed a peculiar repertoire, combining standards that became signature pieces (“When Did You Leave Heaven?,” “Imagination”) with some of the most inane songs ever written (“Recess in Heaven,” “Am I Wrong”). No matter what the quality of the material, Scott attacked all with total conviction. As a consequence of his piercing, all-out emotionality and the slow tempos, this collection is best assimilated in small doses. Listening to any of the three hour-plus discs straight through could result in tinnitus and depression.

The best introduction to Scott’s art is Rhino’s Lost and Found, a CD anthology drawn from two albums (one never released) that he recorded for Atlantic in 1969 and 1972. Perhaps the finest of all Scott efforts-an LP briefly available on Ray Charles’ Tangerine label then withdrawn because of a contractual dispute with Savoy-has yet to appear on CD. The Savoy Years and More is manna for Scott completists, who deserve better than Isabelle Wong’s amateurish package design and Billy Vera’s self-involved liner notes that devote a page and a half to his own Hollywood social hobnobbing before even mentioning Scott’s name.

Originally Published