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Farewell: Jimmy Scott


Jimmy Scott

There was never a purer spirit. He had such vulnerability, such a haunting sound. When I worked with Jimmy Scott in some New York clubs, I remember it felt a little like a religious experience. When he sang, there was a reverence in the room. The audience listened intently, moved by the raw intensity of his voice. He was a joy to accompany. The soulfulness of his tone and his magical elastic phrasing inspired me. He was comfortable in the silences. He once said, “When I sang, I soared. I could soar higher than all those hurts aimed at my heart.” Every time he performed, Jimmy reached down to his emotional core, and it was impossible not to feel something in your gut.

His life was filled with profound emotional and physical challenges. When Jimmy was 13, he tragically lost his mother in a car accident, and about the same time he was diagnosed with Kallmann syndrome. However, he saw his suffering as his salvation and was liberated by it, and this bravery was always at the core of his artistry: “All I needed was the courage to be me,” he said. “That courage took a lifetime to develop.”

In late August 2001, just days before the tragedies of 9/11, Jimmy went into Lower Manhattan’s Greene St. studios to record But Beautiful, his third album for Milestone, produced by Todd Barkan. I had the privilege of writing the arrangements and playing along with bassist George Mraz, drummer Lewis Nash and a few choice guest soloists. The recording closes with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Years later, I still cannot listen to his performance without hearing the prophetic tone of the lyric: “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand/I am tired, I am weak, I am worn/Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light/Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

Jimmy Scott’s divine talent led him to become one of the most influential vocalists in history, inspiring such diverse artists as Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Nancy Wilson, all the way to Elton John, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Madonna. His life exemplified the power of truth and beauty over adversity. He said, “If we’re in the moment, if we’re truly rooted in what we’re doing when we’re doing it, we can work through all the bad stuff. In that sense, we can all be singers singing away our sadness.” When Jimmy Scott sang, his performances were not just beautiful-they were transcendent.

Originally Published