''Heaven'' has a core of jazz but a gospel approach

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated September 27, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT
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When he went to meet Jimmy Scott for the first time, producer Craig Street caught the wrong bus. He got to Scott’s New Jersey apartment almost three hours late, but the singer never scolded him. ”Don’t need all that getting angry,” Scott quietly explains at Manhattan’s famed Tavern on the Green. ”You’re on a bus, you can’t make the bus go any faster than it’s gonna go.”

At 71, Scott comes to such patience the hard way; his whole career has been a series of maddening detours and delayed arrivals. A jazz and R&B star known as Little Jimmy Scott in the late ’40s and ’50s, he all but vanished from view in 1955 when the owner of Savoy Records got tired of his languid style — and legally blocked him from recording elsewhere. One of the most striking voices of his generation frittered away his time as, among other things, a shipping clerk in a Cleveland Sheraton, only to resurface in 1991 when he lent his raspy, ghostly, feminine pipes to a funeral for songwriter Doc Pomus. The performance led to a five-album deal with Sire Records, and since then both jazz purists and rock hipsters have embraced the elfin crooner all over again. He’s toured with Lou Reed, recorded with Bruce Springsteen, and teamed up with Flea for a cut on Lounge-a-palooza, an upcoming compilation of cocktail classics.

But if success came slowly, the making of Scott’s latest album, Heaven, took long enough to turn Job into a slobbering wreck. Bewitched by church hymns as a child, Scott had always dreamed of cutting an album of spirituals. This year, he sighs, ”I just knew, I’m gonna get this out of my system and off of my mind.” He’s still taking strange detours, though: Instead of sticking to gospel chestnuts, Heaven swings and swoons with ”spiritual” songs by Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, and Talking Heads. Scott gave producer Street — best known for seamlessly integrating pop and jazz with crossover chanteuse Cassandra Wilson — one rule: ”If it tells a story, and I’m interested in the story, then it’s a go.”

That story was Scott’s, and it’s a sad one. His mother was killed by a car when he was 13; he and his nine siblings were whisked off to foster homes. And although it sounds like a shimmery blessing from the gods, Scott’s otherworldly voice is a result of Kallman’s syndrome, a disease that stopped his body from going through puberty. So when Scott sang about ”the wounds this world left on my soul,” while recording his new album, the Manhattan studio fell still. ”It was too much, being in the room,” Street recalls. ”Somebody would break down into tears.” Except the singer, of course. ”This world disappointed me,” Scott serenely concedes. ”But there ain’t no disappointment in heaven.”


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