Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 108 - Jimmy Scott Receives Cleveland Arts Prize
Story filed July 21, 2006

It’s an unusual honor for a jazz singer. Jimmy Scott, the Cleveland jazz singer who won worldwide fame very late in life, is being honored with a Cleveland Arts Prize. He is the first jazz performer in the 45 year history of the award to receive a Cleveland Arts Prize. Past recipients have included classical composers Donald Erb and Edwin London; painter and designer Viktor Schreckengost; writers Toni Morrison, George Condon and Les Roberts; and architect Peter van Dijk. The presentation to Scott, for "superb performance and mastery in an arts discipline," is being made on Public Square just prior to a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra.

The 80-year-old Jimmy Scott, with a very unusual voice and delivery, has made more than 30 albums, been the subject of a biography and a PBS documentary, and has, in a sense, become an international ambassador of Cleveland arts. Strangely, most people in Cleveland, even ardent jazz fans, never knew about him until 1993 when he was nominated for a Grammy Award at the age of 67.

Scott began singing in church in Cleveland to the piano accompaniment of his mother, who was tragically killed when she was struck by a speeding car while pushing one of her daughters out of the way. At the age of 20 (in 1945), Scott helped organize a summer musical festival at the Palace Theatre. In 1948, he went to New York and got a job singing with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.

Ironically, his hit record with Lionel Hampton did not include Jimmy Scott’s name. The 78 RPM record label says simply, "vocal with orchestra." Hampton apparently thought the public would believe he had a new girl singer performing the song written by his wife and band manager, Gladys Hampton. But, because of this record, Scott began to influence such other singers as Nancy Wilson and Marvin Gaye.

Scott continued singing in New York, recorded for Savoy and Roost Records, and one night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem stole the show, which also included Ray Charles and the Coasters, by singing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Charles was so impressed with the Clevelander, whose mother had been killed when he was 13 years old, that he signed Scott to record for his Tangerine record company. With Charles on the piano, Scott made an album called Falling in Love is Wonderful. But, Scott’s big break in 1963 fell apart when Savoy Records went to court and convinced a judge that Scott was still under contract to Savoy. The judge ordered that the new album with Charles be pulled off the market. Giving up hope that he would ever become a nationally-known singer, Scott came home to Cleveland. He sang in a few clubs here and quietly worked in the shipping room at the old Sheraton Hotel.

Then in 1969, Scott got another chance. He returned to New York and recorded another album for Atlantic Records with jazz artists Ray Bryant, Richard Davis, Billy Cobham, and Frank Wess. But again, Scott ran into legal problems. Savoy Records heard about the Atlantic album and threatened to sue again. Again, a Scott album was taken off the market.

Despite the continuing legal problems, Scott recorded again in 1972, an album called The Source with Junior Mance and Ron Carter. But because of the continuing legal problems over his contracts, that record was not released for more than 20 years.

Now, fast forward almost 20 years to 1991. The Cleveland singer who had come so close to stardom, but never quite made it, sang at the funeral of rock artist Doc Pomus. Seymour Stein of Sire Records heard him, was impressed, and signed Scott to a long-term contract. This time, everything was legal. Clevelander Tommy LiPuma produced the album called All the Way. It hit the top ten lists in 1992 and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1993. Finally, after almost half a century of near-misses and legal blockades, Scott, with his old-fashioned and romantic singing, became a hit at the age of 67.

Living at the time in Newark, New Jersey, Scott returned to Cleveland in 1994 to make his first professional appearance here in almost 40 years. He sang "Unchained Melody" and other romantic songs at the jazz club called "Rhythms" on Playhouse Square. After that performance, Plain Dealer reviewer Carlo Wolff wrote, "Jimmy Scott returned to his hometown a winner."

Since then, the singer the New York Times once called "the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century," moved back to the Cleveland area and continues to sing all over the world, making new friends everywhere he goes. There is no way he could have dreamed as recently as 15 years ago that he would be the first jazz performer to be given the prestigious Cleveland Arts Prize.

Copyright 2006 Joe Mosbrook

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