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More than 20 years ago, a Bethesda used-book and record shop held an irresistible going-out-of-business sale. For a dollar, a customer could purchase a brown paper grocery bag and stuff it to the max with merchandise. Among the items I scavenged was The Source, a 1970 Atlantic LP by Jimmy Scott. Purloined from, or discarded by, a now-defunct radio station, the album was stamped “File Under Male Vocalists”—to which some wag had appended “Believe it or not!”

The Source’s packaging withheld key information about Scott. It offered no photograph of him—the cover featured a portrait of a striking black woman—and singer Nancy Wilson’s six-sentence liner notes conveyed little, apart from an awkwardly worded claim: “More vocalists, especially females, including me, have patterned their styles from little Jimmy Scott.” Listening to the record clarified Wilson’s assertion. Scott performed eight exceedingly slow ballads in a forceful, high-pitched voice that few would identify as masculine. But his heartrending interpretations of “Day by Day,” “I Wish I Knew,” and, especially, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” overflowed with an aching intensity reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s and Judy Garland’s twilight-confessional performances.

Although he began singing over a half-century ago, Scott didn’t emerge from the music underground until the ’90s, when a string of CDs, a biographical documentary, and an appearance on the final episode of Twin Peaks rescued him from near-obscurity and transformed him into a critically heralded cult figure. David Ritz’s sympathetic, scrupulously researched Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott offers the first extended account of Scott’s life, a tale every bit as unconventional and affecting as the singer’s art.

In a self-aggrandizing introduction, Ritz, best-known for his biography of Marvin Gaye and for ghostwriting autobiographies of Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Aretha Franklin, casts himself as Scott’s advocate and confidant. He befriended the artist over the course of research for the book, living and traveling with him for several years. “Watching him,” Ritz states, “I felt fated to learn this man’s story. I had to know him. I had to give his story the poignancy he gave his songs. I had to write as beautifully as he sang. I had to be with him and learn the strange pain informing his singular style of storytelling.”

Except for the writing part, Ritz accomplishes his mission. Most of the text consists of ostensibly transcribed conversations with Scott and his collaborators, family, and friends. But often their voices sound stilted and colorless, recast to suit the author’s educative purposes. (Scott on one of his illustrious schoolmates: “Tadd Dameron had gone to Central High and played around town—the same Dameron who would become one of the most advanced writers of bebop.”) And when Ritz discusses Scott’s singing, his language turns ostentatious and grammatically slipshod. (About one of Scott’s recordings: “His vocals are stretched out, and, like an impressionist, his pictures move from the representational to the subjective, even the experimental. His pictures are awash in new hues—faded pinks, soft ambers, glowing oranges, hazy blues.”) Still, despite stylistic deficiencies and his excessively worshipful tone, Ritz presents a detailed, gripping, occasionally jaw-dropping account of his subject’s life and career.

Born in 1925 in Cleveland, Scott, the third of 10 children, was the son of a spiritual, nurturing mother and an alcoholic, womanizing father. At 13, he suffered two blows that altered the course of his life. Doctors diagnosed him as afflicted with Kallmann’s syndrome, a congenital disorder of the hypothalamus that prevents the onset of puberty. (Scott candidly explains: “My testicles never descended. My penis stayed small. My voice stayed high. Facial and pubic hair never grew.”) Shortly thereafter, his mother, in an attempt to push one of her daughters out of the path of a drunk driver, lost an arm and died within a few days.

In the Dickensian years that followed, young Jimmy gamely endured placement in a series of Ohio orphanages. At 16, he left school and supported himself by taking odd jobs, including ushering at Cleveland’s Metropolitan Theater, which featured live entertainment along with movies. There he met a tap-dance duo, for which he subsequently toured as valet. While on the road with that outfit, he gave his first public vocal performance, sitting in with an all-star jazz septet led by saxophonists Ben Webster and Lester Young.

At 20, Scott joined a vaudeville troupe headed by a contortionist who called herself Caldonia. An inch short of 5 feet tall and still a virgin, he was accompanied on tour by his bride, a heavyset 16-year-old prostitute. (According to Scott’s longtime friend, R&B singer Ruth Brown, “he went with women who abused him. You’d always see Jimmy with some lady twice his size, twice as tall and twice as wide. He made strange choices.”) This was the first in a lifetime of misbegotten liaisons, including relationships with another teenage hooker, a promiscuous female barber, a check forger, a mother-dominated enabler, and a money-grubbing convalescent-home nurse.

In 1947, with the endorsement of comedian Redd Foxx, Scott secured a booking at the Baby Grand in Harlem, where he met many of the era’s leading jazz artists, among them Holiday, who would become his champion (and cousin by marriage). This engagement led to appearances in clubs around the country, which attracted the attention of Lionel Hampton, who, dubbing Scott “Little Jimmy Scott,” hired him to join his big band. (Although Scott was 26, Hampton claimed that the diminutive vocalist was 16.) In January 1950, Scott recorded his signature song, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” with Hampton’s orchestra. Hampton denied him billing on the disc, which became a hit R&B single. Even so, the record’s success should have helped launch Scott as a solo artist. But instead, naive business decisions, made without benefit of legal representation, set his career into a tailspin.

Leaving Hampton, Scott recorded, briefly and unsuccessfully, for several minor labels before signing what turned out to be a nooselike pact with Savoy, the Newark, N.J., jazz-gospel company run by the notorious Herman Lubinsky. (Ritz quotes producer Joel Dorn as calling Lubinsky “a human hemorrhoid and close personal friend of the Devil.”) Between 1955 and 1975, Scott cut 60 tracks for Lubinsky, who paid only a few hundred dollars per session, did nothing to promote the recordings, and threatened nuisance litigation whenever other companies expressed interest in Scott’s singing. In 1962, Lubinsky’s lawyers, claiming that Scott was still under contract to Savoy—the point is subject to debate—stopped distribution of Falling in Love Is Wonderful, produced by Ray Charles for his Tangerine label, and slapped Atlantic with a cease-and-desist order when the company released the Dorn-produced The Source. After 1970, Scott’s voice was effectively stilled by his indentureship to Lubinsky. Except for a final, misconceived 1975 Savoy album, he did not record for nearly two decades.

To survive, Scott found employment as a busboy, a cook, a nurse’s aid, and a hotel worker. In the hotel job, he suffered a workplace injury that left him with a permanent limp. His private life was equally unfulfilling, marked by tumultuous romantic relationships and intermittent abuse of alcohol and marijuana, which led to violent mood swings. Then, unexpectedly, a long, thoughtful 1988 Village Voice profile reawakened interest in Scott, whom many had thought deceased. The piece led to some little-publicized club and benefit appearances. The turning point came in 1991, when Scott sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” at the funeral of a longtime friend and supporter, songwriter Doc Pomus. Sire executives in attendance were so moved by his performance that they offered him a contract.

Starting with his 1992 comeback CD, All the Way—the greatest commercial success of his solo career—Scott has made seven albums, sung on the soundtracks of several movies (including Philadelphia), appeared as a guest artist on recordings by David Sanborn and the Jazz Passengers, toured Europe with Lou Reed, and even turned up in a Madonna video. His celebrity fans include Quentin Tarantino, Ethan Hawke, and Joe Pesci, who looked out for Scott in his lean years and, before he became an actor, cut a Scott sound-alike album, dubbing himself “Little Joe.” Presently involved in a relationship with music groupie and former wolf trainer Jeanie McCarthy (“She hears my heartbeat,” he says. “She was the first woman in my life who wrote me letters of pleading love”), Scott now appears as a headliner at jazz clubs and international festivals. All of the elements would seem to be in place for his long-awaited contentment.

But Scott’s path remains rocky. His future with McCarthy—who has designed a purple-and-lavender “love nest” filled with Scott memorabilia in their Cleveland home—is uncertain. When drunk or stoned, Ritz has observed, Scott grows irritable, flying into tirades against McCarthy. (Nonetheless, she maintains that she’ll remain with him “as long as I get more of the good Jimmy than the bad.”) And, more than Ritz chooses to admit, the 77-year-old singer’s voice is nearly shot. His wavering vibrato, uncertain pitch, and shortness of breath make his recent CDs painful to listen to. All that remains is his undiminished projection of pure emotion—which is powerful enough to satisfy the cult he has attracted since his comeback.

Ritz does not claim to be objective about his subject, as an artist or as a man. He praises Scott’s snail-like extension of time on ballads without acknowledging the singer’s inability to swing on uptempo songs, and blithely dismisses bassist Charlie Mingus’ and drummer Grady Tate’s complaints about the frustrations of attempting to accompany Scott. Although Ritz is not oblivious to Scott’s musical and personal shortcomings, he chooses to gloss over them in order to justify the book’s sporadic rhapsodies of hero worship.

I treasure the hundreds of hours spent listening to his conversation and music….The plain facts of his story as a jazz survivor over the course of a half-dozen epochs is enough to inspire the most cynical observer of U.S. commerce. To emerge free of bitterness is testimony to the God he calls Jesus.

Faith in Time closes with a wrenching anecdote. Scott goes to a convenience store to purchase a pack of cigarettes. The cashier hands back his change and says, “Thank you, Miss”—a humiliation he absorbs with the equanimity that has sustained him since childhood. As Scott candidly admits in the book’s introduction:

“In my adult life, people have looked at me as an oddity. I’ve been called a queer, a little girl, an old woman, a freak, and a fag. As a singer, I’ve been criticized for sounding feminine. They say I don’t belong in any category, male or female, pop or jazz. But early on, I saw my suffering as my salvation. 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.” CP