Few artists were treated as shabbily by the music business as “Little” Jimmy Scott. In this case, the music business means Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records, who continually blocked Scott’s comeback attempts out of pure spite. Ralf Kemper is the anti-Lubinsky. He decided to produce an ambitious album with full orchestra and big name guest musicians, simply out of a love for Scott’s vocal artistry. Initially, his overtures seem to come too late for the ailing Scott, but he was really just in time. Yoon-ha Chang documents the difficult but rewarding recording sessions of the still-not-yet-released album in I Go Back Home—Jimmy Scott (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Harlem International Film Festival.
Scott passed away in 2014 and we will never hear his like again. Arguably, the only other vocalist who could interpret lyrics with such visceral feeling was Billie Holiday. The comparison seems particularly apt during Scott’s initial sessions with Kemper. His voice is so weak, yet still so full of feeling, it leads viewers to expect this project will be something akin to Lady Day’s raw, haunting Lady in Satin. However, he starts to gain strength and enthusiasm as Kemper brings in a stellar line-up to back him.
Sadly, we have also lost the late, great James Moody, but the tenor legend is as jovial as ever around Scott and he hadn’t any of his chops. Scott’s spirits clearly perked up when his longtime pal Joe Pesci sang a lovely duet of “The Nearness of You” with him. In addition,
Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Barron, Oscar Castro-Neves, Terry Gibbs, David Sanborn, Diane Schuur, Patti Austin, Renee Olstead, and Monica Mancini also contributed their considerable talents. Yet, bafflingly, Kemper could not interest a record label in the project.
According to the film’s website, the album Kemper produced will soon be released—and it is about time. Nevertheless, for the time being, this is the only way to hear Scott’s final recorded legacy. Seriously, how can any label not be interested? Heck, Scott’s last comeback doesn’t seem so long ago, but it was twenty-four years ago Sire signed Scott after he sang at Doc Pomus’s memorial (and basically tore everyone’s heart out) and performed “Sycamore Trees” on the final episode of Twins Peaks. (As someone who was there for a sold-out Scott set at the Iridium, I can attest there will always be a dedicated audience for the truly unique artist.)