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Little Jimmy & Little Joe

jimmy-scott-joe-pesciWhen the great ballad singer Jimmy Scott returned to action in the early ’90s, in a rediscovery primed by appearances on Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss and in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the surge of interest resulted in his recordings becoming widely available. They ranged from carefully curated collections of his work for Decca and Savoy in the 1950s (when he was known as Little Jimmy Scott) to new albums produced for Sire and Milestone by Tommy LiPuma, Mitchell Froom, Todd Barkan and others. There was also, finally, the reappearance of two legendary albums from the 1960s suppressed when Herman Lubinsky, the notoriously vindictive owner of Savoy, claimed that Scott had recorded them in breach of an existing contract: Falling in Love is Wonderful, produced in 1962 by Ray Charles for his own Tangerine label, and The Source, supervised by Joel Dorn for Atlantic in 1969.

Lubinsky’s action cost the singer what should have been the prime years of his career, but we were lucky to have him for the last 20 years of his life, until his death in 2014 at the age of 88. In that final phase, hardly surprisingly, his pipes were not what they had once been, but it wasn’t mawkish to feel that the signs of ageing added an extra poignancy to his interpretations. His marvellous phrasing was certainly unimpaired, and the wide vibrato still touched the heart.

Now, three years after his death, comes an album called I Go Back Home, the fruit of his final recording sessions, held in 2009, in which the German producer Ralf Kemper surrounded him with sympathetic musicians, arrangements, and guests. Sometimes, as in “Poor Butterfly”, Scott speaks the lyric, allowing the French harmonica player Grégoire Maret to add melodic decoration. Elsewhere, as on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “How Deep is the Ocean”, his singing has a surprising strength. There are duets with Dee Dee Bridgewater on “For Once in My Life”, with Oscar Castro Neves on “Love Letters”, and with Renee Olstead on “Someone to Watch over Me”. There are tracks featuring other distinguished instrumentalists: the pianist Kenny Barron, the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the tenorist James Moody, and the trumpeter Till Brönner (who displays a delicate lyricism on “If I Ever Lost You”). There are gentle and wholly appropriate string and woodwind arrangements by Mark Joggerst. There is a beautifully warm and clear mix by Phil Ramone.

The big surprise, however, comes in one of the two songs that do not feature Scott at all but are billed as “tributes” by other singers. It’s a version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, the Kern/Hammerstein song that Scott recorded — featuring the seldom-sung introduction — during a 1972 Dorn-produced session which remained unheard until the release of a Rhino/Atlantic album titled Lost and Found in 1993. But this time the singer, paying tribute to his old friend and influence, is the actor Joe Pesci.

We know that Pesci grew up in New Jersey alongside Frankie Valli, and that he had early ambitions as a singer. In 1968 he released an album under the name Joe Ritchie titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing! on the Brunswick label, produced by Artie Schroeck (who arranged Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”), featuring covers of things like the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. When it didn’t make waves he switched first to stand-up comedy and then to an acting career that took him to the heights of Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino.

His dead-slow version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” — one of my very favourite ballads — is good enough to make you wonder what might have happened had he stuck with the singing thing. His delivery is very much in Scott’s pleading high-tenor register, with subtle echoes of that distinctive vibrato, and occasional manipulations of timbre that seemed to echo the muted-trumpet obligato provided on the track by DeFrancesco, switching to his second instrument. Joggerst’s arrangement exudes a glowing serenity, particularly when the rhythm section lays out for a rubato statement of the six-bar bridge before Barron’s piano, the bass of Michael Valerio and Peter Erskine’s brushes pick it up for the final 12 bars.

I never thought I’d hear a treatment of this song to rival the enchanting version recorded by Peggy Lee with Nelson Riddle in 1957. This one does. I’ve been playing it for friends, without divulging the identity of the singer. They’ve all been amazed.

Pesci also appears in a duet with Scott on “The Nearness of You”, and if you’re only half-listening you might not even notice where one begins and the other ends. So that’s an unexpected reason for investigating I Go Back Home, which stitches the final notes of a fabulously gifted and original singer, one matched as an interpreter of torch songs only by Billie Holiday and Shirley Horn, with tender care into a loving hour-long tapestry of sound.

* The photograph of Joe Pesci and Jimmy Scott together in the studio is from the booklet accompanying I Go Back Home, which is released on January 27 on the Eden River label.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Howard Thompson #

    did you see the film about the making of the album, Richard?

    Quite fabulous



    January 15, 2017
  2. MJG #

    Just watched the trailer to the film, looks extraordinary. Thanks for highlighting this release which even at a premium vinyl-only price seems a must listen

    January 15, 2017
    • MJG #

      further searching beyond the label link in the article proves it’s readily available as a download or CD at a less wallet-stretching cost

      January 15, 2017
  3. Tony Riley #

    I believe that Quincy Jones is recording an album with Joe Pesci.

    January 15, 2017
  4. Geoffrey Cannon #

    Thank you for this, Richard, and for your Guardian commemoration, and the links to Twin Peaks and Magic and Loss. I look forward to all your pieces. Embraces Geoffrey

    January 15, 2017
  5. I’m going to have to try and seek this out if ‘The Folks…’ (one of my favourite ballads too) rivals the Peggy Lee version.

    January 15, 2017
  6. Tim Hinkley #

    Interesting and definitely on my record buying list. My friend the songwriter (and IMHO a great singer), Dan Penn and myself went to see Jimmy Scott at The Queen Elizabeth hall just after his resurgence in the early 1990’s. The story that we got told was that Jimmy’s career had all but vanished after the 1960’s. A radio DJ in the USA was playing Jimmy’s early records regularly, including the recordings he made with the Lionel Hampton band. One night he expressed his sorrow that Jimmy was no longer with us and subsequently received a call from a listener who said that Jimmy was indeed still,alive as he was currently the Janitor in his apartment building. The DJ got Jimmy into the studio, interviewed him and organized a music session which subsequently lead to the revival of his career. The other story is that Jimmy’s voice never broke which is why he has that high tenor, almost soprano range. Neither of these stories are substantiated but maybe your journalistic talents could be put to good use in confirming or denying Richard? Tim Hnkley

    January 16, 2017
    • I was at that gig, too, Tim. Nice to hear that Dan Penn (one of my heroes) was there, too! All the stories are in a really good Jimmy Scott autobiography, written/ghosted by David Ritz, called Faith in Time: published a few years ago, still available, and very highly recommended.

      January 16, 2017
      • Yes Richard, I looked up that autobiography and ordered it for my Kindle. What a story. Movie? After that show Dan asked me to accompany him playing piano on a gig at a pub in Camden Town. It was the start of a friendship that lead to Dan producing my solo album, A Little Bit Of Soul. Recently I asked Dan if he had considered installing a computer in his all analog recording studio…..its like a time warp. He replied, ” I wanna listen to music not look at it!”

        January 16, 2017
  7. I saw the great man at The Jazz Cafe in Camden in the early 90’s – he was incredible – does anyone know the exact date of that show?

    May 18, 2017
  8. Neil McEwan #

    I don’t know whether you’re aware but Ralph Kamper also made a documentary on the recording of this album, which is definitely worth a look.
    I saw it at a small film festival in Betlin last year.

    Very moving,

    March 24, 2018

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