Jimmy Scott obituary

Jazz singer with a distinctive high voice who first went on the road in the 1940s and was later taken up by Lou Reed and David Lynch

When Jimmy Scott delivered a ballad such as The Masquerade is Over, Angel Eyes or his signature tune, Everybody's Somebody's Fool, in that distinctive high, pain-filled voice, measuring his phrases against a dead-slow tempo, listeners were left in little doubt that the emotion was drawn directly from his own experience. Scott, who has died aged 88, endured a life of hardship – including a rare medical condition – and neglect until well into his seventh decade, when he was led towards the light of public acclaim by a small group of influential fans who included the songwriter Doc Pomus, the singer Lou Reed and the film director David Lynch.

His performance of Someone to Watch Over Me at Pomus's funeral in 1991 led to an immediate invitation from Reed to make a small but striking contribution to the album Magic and Loss. Then Lynch invited him to appear as a singing ghost in the final episode of the second series of Twin Peaks and in the spin-off film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in 1992. That same year Scott's performance of Street of Dreams was heard on the soundtrack to James Foley's film of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. A new audience was about to join the band of cognoscenti who had made a special place in their affections for a singer who first went on the road in his teens in the early 1940s.

"I hear what you're doing, and you're doing it right," Billie Holiday told the 22-year-old Scott when the two met and began a friendship during his residency at Club Baby Grand in Harlem, New York, in 1947. He sang with Charlie Parker (there is a recording of the two of them performing Embraceable You during a radio broadcast from the Birdland club in New York in 1950) and was admired by Ray Charles, who said: "His voice just broke your heart." Marvin Gaye based his ballad style on Scott's pleading delivery. In New Jersey, where he lived in the 50s, he was worshipped with particular fervour by a group of aspiring young singers including Frankie Valli and Joe Pesci.

The last 20 years of Scott's life were bathed in the applause of audiences at jazz festivals, concert halls and night clubs around the world. He recorded a series of albums for which – finally – he received proper financial recompense, and he collaborated with the author David Ritz on a biography, Faith in Time (2002), that laid bare his extraordinary story.

Scott was born in Cleveland, Ohio, one of 10 children (his mother, Justine, had been one of 26). When he and two of his brothers failed to grow at the normal rate, they were found to be suffering from Kallmann's syndrome, a rare hormonal condition that blocks the onset of puberty and its associated physical manifestations. Standing 4ft 11in until a growth spurt in his late 30s took him to 5ft 7in, and frail of frame, he was known throughout the early part of his career as Little Jimmy Scott.

From adolescence, he was often assumed, incorrectly, to be gay. "Kids can be cruel, boys especially," he told Ritz. "I've been called a queer, a little girl, an old woman, a freak, and a fag. As a singer, I've been criticised for sounding feminine. But I grew to see my affliction as my gift."

His voice was located in the contralto register, but there was never any doubt of its effect on women in particular. His control of tone, phrasing and emotional inflection influenced female singers from Big Maybelle to Madonna, who said he was "the only singer who makes me cry". In terms of stagecraft, his early mentor was a veteran entertainer named Estella Young, professionally known as Caldonia, who took him under her wing and became a surrogate mother.

He was a featured singer with the popular Lionel Hampton Orchestra, and his recording of Everybody's Somebody's Fool became a hit in 1950. But his name did not appear on the label, leading many listeners to assume that the voice was that of a woman. Public recognition was further delayed when, although his first recordings under his own name were made for the Roost and Coral/Brunswick labels, he was unlucky enough to sign a recording contract with Herman Lubinsky, the owner of Savoy Records, a man notorious for placing the welfare of his artists well down on his scale of priorities. Scott made some fine recordings for the label in the second half of the 50s, supervised by the sympathetic A&R man Fred Mendelsohn, but they were given scant promotion.

Lubinsky's malign influence on Scott's career was evident in 1962, when the singer made an album for Ray Charles's fledgling Tangerine label. Called Falling in Love Is Wonderful, supervised by Charles himself and with orchestral arrangements by Gerald Wilson and Marty Paich, it was one of the finest of his career. Lubinsky, however, called in the lawyers, claiming that Scott was still under contract to Savoy, and Charles was forced to withdraw the album before it had been released. It would take another 40 years for it to become available. In 1970 Lubinsky again intervened when the producer Joel Dorn recorded Scott for the Atlantic label, and the release of the resulting album, The Source, was held up for more than 20 years.

Before his rediscovery in the early 1990s, he had been living in Cleveland and working outside music as a hotel clerk and a cook, among other things. Many erstwhile fans assumed that he was dead; when a local radio disc jockey casually voiced that belief, Scott's wife telephoned the station to put him straight.

Following Doc Pomus's funeral, he was signed up by Seymour Stein of Sire Records. A budget of almost $200,000 was devoted to an album of standards produced by the experienced Tommy LiPuma and featuring a group of first-rank musicians, including the saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman and the pianist Kenny Barron. Titled All the Way, it sold more than 40,000 copies, received a Grammy nomination and paved the way for his renaissance.

He toured with Reed, sang at Bill Clinton's first inaugural ball, serenaded the actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger at their wedding, and was brought in by Bruce Springsteen to sing on the soundtrack of the film Philadelphia. Later producers successfully broadened his range to take in contemporary songs such as Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U, Simply Red's Holding Back the Years and Bryan Ferry's Slave to Love, but he remained most effective with the kind of classic ballads that he had been singing all his life.

"When I sang, I soared," he said. "Once I knew that, I understood God had put me in this strange little package for a reason. All I needed was the courage to be me. That courage took a lifetime to develop."

He was married five times: first, at 20, to a 16-year-old woman he named to his biographer only as "Angel", second to Channie Booker, Cleveland's first black female barber, third to Ruth Taylor, fourth to Earlene Rodgers, and finally, in 2003, to Jeanie McCarthy. She survives him.

• Jimmy Scott, singer, born 17 July 1925; died 12 June 2014


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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