JIMMY SCOTT: If You Only Knew

Jazz & Commerce

The Film

Photo of Jimmy Scott as a baby in his motheršs arms A young Jimmy Scott posing rakishly in front of his family home Young Jimmy Scott sings into a microphone

JIMMY SCOTT: If You Only Knew is a film portrait of the now famous jazz vocalist who was “rediscovered” decades after he disappeared from the public eye. Born in Cleveland in 1925, Jimmy Scott's early years were filled with devastating hardships. At age 12, he was diagnosed with Kallmann's Syndrome, a rare hormonal condition that kept his body—and his voice—from developing beyond boyhood. Seven months after the diagnosis, his beloved mother, the sole guardian of Scott and his nine siblings, was killed in a car accident. Her children were separated and sent to live in foster homes.

Close-up of record label for “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,”
by Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra

Album cover for Charlie Parkeršs One Night at Birdland

Scott, who had inherited his mother’s love of music and singing, began working as a valet at some of Cleveland's black theaters. His dream was to break into show business, earn enough money to buy a house and reunite his siblings. He soon joined a vaudeville review headed by Estella Young and found a new family in his fellow performers. At the urging of his friend Redd Foxx, Scott went to New York and landed a job as one of the Lionel Hampton Band's featured vocalists. In 1950, the band released a recording of “Little Jimmy Scott” singing "Everybody's Somebody's Fool." The song was an immediate hit, but it broke Scott’s heart. His name was not on the record. As he recalls, "It was all about Lionel Hampton and that's the way the package worked."

Scott's uniqueness may have worked against him as well. As his biographer David Ritz says, "In the macho world of jazz, there's not a lot of liberal thought about sexuality. Here comes Jimmy, who's straight, who has an affliction, whose physical manifestations are smallness and smoothness…. It's going against a lot of cultural conventions." Yet while some of the men in the jazz world may have had a problem with Scott, the women in the audience loved him. He fell in love and married, but the relationship ended badly. Three subsequent marriages failed as well.

As for Scott’s career, history repeated itself again when he recorded "Embraceable You" with his friend Charlie Parker. Once again, his name wasn't on the album—nor did he ever receive any royalties. Many of the record companies who controlled jazz music during the 1950s and ‘60s were notorious for exploiting their talent, and Scott had the misfortune of signing with one of the worst execs in the industry: Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records, who, as Ritz says, “was a real albatross around Jimmy’s neck for years.” Twice, Scott was on the verge of finally releasing a hit record, once with the Ray Charles-produced "Falling in Love Is Wonderful" and later with the Joel Dorn-produced Atlantic Records album "The Source." But both times, Lubinsky invoked an old contract and had the records yanked from the shelves.

Photo of Doc Pomus, sporting a beard and a Panama hat
Doc Pomus

On tour in Japan, Jimmy Scott shares a smile with a Japanese woman in traditional costume
Jimmy in Japan


Bitterly disappointed, Scott returned to Cleveland and worked as a waiter at Bob's Big Boy, a dishwasher, a nurse's aide and a hotel elevator operator, occasionally playing small gigs in a local club. The jazz world had all but forgotten him until 1984, when famed jazz station WBGO in Newark invited him to perform on the air. Next came a three-night engagement for Scott, who was then 60 years old. Word began to spread among his fans: not only was he still alive, he was better than ever. After record industry leaders heard him sing at his friend Doc Pomus’s funeral, they were convinced, too. In 1992, Warner Brothers released Scott’s album All the Way, which was nominated for a Grammy. Since then, he has recorded eight more critically acclaimed albums. At the age of 78, he performs frequently, touring Europe and Asia.

Blending concert footage, rare photos and candid interviews with Scott, his family and his colleagues, JIMMY SCOTT: If You Only Knew is a moving testament to one of the most distinctive vocalists of our time and his lifelong attempt to reunite his family and find solace through his art—a bittersweet story as unforgettable as the music he continues to make after all these years.

Update

The film concludes in 2001. Since then, Jimmy Scott has continued to tour and record regularly, releasing new albums and performing internationally.

On December 31, 2003, Scott married his fifth wife, Jeanie, at the Covenant Community Church in Cleveland, Ohio. The couple honeymooned in London, Istanbul, Paris and Austria.

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