JIMMY SCOTT: If You Only Knew

“I’m just trying to support myself as an artist and couldn’t get that respect. But as I say, I wasn’t the only artist who suffered those things…. That’s the way it was.” —Jimmy Scott

Picture: Jimmy Scott smiling in suit with bowtie

It’s hard to separate the stories from the songs. Knowing the details of Jimmy Scott’s life and thwarted recording career certainly makes his current musical successes that much sweeter, albeit bittersweet. Some call it musical redemption: despite his prolific career, Scott only recently achieved the commercial success and widespread recognition his fans expected him to achieve more than six decades ago.

During the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, exploitation of Scott’s talents ranged from his name being left off of recordings for the Lionel Hampton Band to Herman Lubinsky, Scott’s nemesis at Savoy Records, preventing Scott’s albums from reaching the public. Lubinsky asserted that the Savoy label still owned all the rights to Scott’s work, even years after Scott left the label.

“…label owners of the 1950s—the guys who controlled rhythm and blues music—these guys were exploiters.  And I think Jimmy happened upon not just one of these owners or record companies alike Chess and Atlantic, there were sort of honor among thieves, but Jimmy happened among Lubinsky, the one thief that had no honor.”
—Biographer, David Ritz
Herman Lubinsky wearing hat and glasses
Herman Lubinsky

The commercial exploitation of jazz artists is as old as the art itself, and has its roots in racism, ownership and economic power. While jazz musicians were primarily African American, jazz producers and distributors—the media, the record labels, the concert booking agencies—were primarily white. When records became big business in the 1920s, record producers felt that white audiences would more likely buy recordings by white artists, despite the fact that most popular jazz musicians were African American. Black musicians were segregated under the umbrella of “race records,” in which stars like Bessie Smith were marketed to black listeners alone.

Singer Johnny Ray smiles for publicity photo with arms crossed
Johnny Ray

Musician Charles Mingus with stand-up bass
Charles Mingus

When record industry execs realized the economic potential of this market, they began to take on African Amersignican bands as well. But while the record industry flourished in the years following World War II, minority performers in not only jazz but also in R&B, blues and other musical styles were often cheated out of the royalties that they deserved. Jimmy Scott’s vocal style was “stolen” by the white crooner Johnny Ray after Ray saw Scott perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Chicago label Chess Records, which later became Arc Music, was notorious for exploiting its artists, who included Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Arc musicians signed bogus songwriting contracts which gave the publishing company—and sometimes even the label’s owners—the credits and the money that went with it.

Not all jazz musicians were exploited, of course, and those who were cannot all be oversimplified into a case of white versus black. (Jimmy Scott, for instance, was discriminated against by fellow African American musicians because of his physical differences, due to Kallmann’s Syndrome.) As a conscious rebellion against the racism of the music industry, jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie began playing bebop in the 1940s, an underground movement that was centered around the idea of “music for music’s sake,” rather than commercial entertainment. In the 1960s, young African American musicians such as Charles Mingus protested commercial exploitation by staging protest concerts and forming performance collectives such as the Black Artists Group.

With the rise of the American Federation of Musicians, the nation’s labor union for recording artists, exploitation of jazz artists decreased as record industry contracts were brought up to union standards and higher wages were guaranteed. Yet the complexities of who plays, who listens and who buys certainly still exist today, especially when access to music is easier than ever.


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