Jimmy Scott: The Source
Vinyl Reissue (Import)
Label: Music on Vinyl – Oct. 30, 2015
As singers go, there’s Jimmy Scott, and then there’s everybody else. A genuinely singular performer in virtually every way, Scott slowly draws the listener in, unraveling a song as much as singing it. To paraphrase me last night on Twitter, when you get started listening to Jimmy Scott, it’s almost impossible not to sink down fully into a sea of his songs. His pull is irresistible, his strangely textured high tenor mesmerizing.
Fans are familiar with the details of his travesty of a life story, and on The Source, the melancholy of that story is palpable, despite the fact that only half of it had been told when he recorded the album in 1969. The signature longing in Scott’s voice and delivery marries perfectly with the songs in this collection – primarily torch songs and odes to loss and heartbreak. The latest reissue, out this month on limited 180-gram audiophile vinyl, will thrill fans and audiophiles alike.
As has been noted in most reviews of The Source over the years, Scott’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is particularly poignant, given the fact that his mother was hit by a car and died when he was thirteen years old, after which he and his nine brothers and sisters were sent to foster homes or orphanages. Longing and loneliness tinge “I Wish I Knew,” wrapped in Scott’s stunning timbre and phrasing.
His “haunting high-pitched voice that was neither male nor female but both at the same time,” as bandmate Dexter Gordon described it, would probably have made Jimmy Scott a music industry darling, were he just starting out in 21st-century America, where androgyny is trendy. But in the 1960s, when he recorded The Source, labels so feared the potential public reaction to his perceived peculiarity that they banished him from his own album cover, replacing his photo with that of a young woman. The insult was doubled to injury, when his former label, Savoy, claimed Scott was still bound by his contract with it, causing the record to be pulled shortly after its release. And so The Source sat cloistered away in oblivion for over thirty years, until it was finally rereleased in 2001.
And thank God it was. His rueful vocals lift triumphantly, though still laced with sadness, on “Day by Day” (which is pretty much a perfect first-dance wedding song). Even songs I was never particularly taken with before — “Unchained Melody,” “On Broadway,” and “Our Day Will Come” – become entirely new creations when run through the Jimmy Scott machine. He snatches them out of their mediocre, mid-tempo, FM-radio arrangements, slows them down till they’re barely conscious, rips them open, pours a river of yearning into them, and transforms them into actual songs that make a person feel something real.
As is usually the case with Scott, the most powerful vocal moments are the quietest ones. When he pulls a note out impossibly long, or when he gingerly, almost imperceptibly, sets a note down at the end of a phrase, it feels as though you’re pushing out that note yourself, right along with Jimmy. Before you know it, he’s pulled you in. You’re all the way in it with him, inevitably, when you listen to a Jimmy Scott song.
There are passages on the album when Scott reaches up into the full-throated top of his range. It feels as if he might not make it all the way up to the note, but then suddenly it’s blazing through your head and consciousness, seemingly on the pure force of emotion, not breath.
By the time the closing track, “This Love of Mine” comes along, he’s wringing the last drop out of the song and out of the listener. “I cry my heart out – It’s bound to break. Since nothing matters, let it break.” And there you find yourself, with your head on the floor. It’s classic Jimmy Scott. Put the needle in the groove and let the bad times roll.