- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

It is safe to say that no one sings quite like Jimmy Scott, and no one ever has. Someone once asked Billie Holiday who her favorite singers were. “Jimmy Scott” was all she said. Madonna was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Jimmy Scott is the only singer who makes me cry.” As is appropriate for an American treasure, Mr. Scott will be performing a free concert (reservations required) at the Library of Congress Wednesday.

For more than 50 years, Mr. Scott has sung with the almost eerie voice of a boy within a man’s body and soul. It’s not just the high range of his voice (caused by a hereditary hormonal deficiency) that makes Mr. Scott the consummate torch singer. The energy and feeling in his voice is captivating and his phrasing and timing are unique.

“If the lyric has a story, you try to tell it,” says Mr. Scott in a quavering, boyish voice. “As a singer, you are more or less a storyteller. If it’s a good writer, then he writes a good story. And, if you’re a singer, you try to convey what you feel the writer might be trying to say to the public.”

In technical terms, he sings behind the beat. But his pauses, lingering words and melodic embellishments portray emotion in an immediate way.

“It’s off time to some people,” Mr. Scott says. “Then to others who are strong listeners, they get the message and get the point of what you are trying to project. You’re trying to project sincerity in the song. And if the lyric reveals any sincerity, I as the singer try to project that sincerity that’s in that lyric.”

Jimmy Scott’s biography is filled with triumph and tragedy. Separated from his brothers and sisters at the age of 13, when his mother was killed in a traffic accident, Mr. Scott has dipped deep into this seemingly bottomless well of pain. As if life in some way stopped there, Mr. Scott never went through puberty. But in some odd way, this was a blessing, too. Possessing a strong voice, he sang his way out of the Cleveland ghetto as a teenage singing prodigy. In 1949, at the age of 24, he joined Lionel Hampton’s big band as “Little Jimmy Scott.” After a few years, he signed a solo contract with Savoy Records.

For the next 25 years, he performed all over the world and made many recordings. Even that didn’t work out right. Two of his finest recordings, including one with Ray Charles that is considered an all-time great, were suppressed in contract disputes with previous record companies. He eventually spent long periods away from the microphone.

It wasn’t until 1991 that fate returned him to the limelight. Mr. Scott sang at the funeral of his old friend, songwriter Doc Pomus. In the church that day was Seymour Stein, an executive with Sire Records, who soon signed Mr. Scott to a recording contract.

At age 78, Mr. Scott’s voice is somewhat worn and it sometimes quavers a bit, but that only seems to add to the emotional strength of his presentation. Forever small in stature, he is frail-looking but still full of energy. He seems to feed off his audience.

Why does he keep singing?

“The joy that the audience might get from it,” Mr. Scott replies. “You’re there to entertain the audience when you’re on the stage. I could never give up attempting to entertain them.”

• • •

For almost 10 years, BR549 has been holding audiences with an energetic mix of rockabilly, honky-tonk and old-time country and having a great time.

“If it wasn’t fun, I’d just get another job,” says singer-songwriter Chuck Mead, a founding member of the group. “It would be another job. That’s not what we want. We don’t want jobs.”

Just like the country music heroes they grew up listening to — Johnny Horton, Hank Williams, Ray Price and such — the band got its start playing in the clubs on Lower Broadway in Nashville.

“When we started playing down on Lower Broad — you can’t really play your own original music for the five-hour sets that are required down there,” says Mr. Mead. “And so we just played what we knew, just kind of winged it. We’ve carried that spirit on in the rest of our career, just kind of winging it.”

They winged it right into two critically acclaimed albums, “BR5-49” (1996), with the hyphen the group dropped from its name some years ago, and “Big Backyard Beat Show” (1998) — as well as successful tours with the likes of the Mavericks, Brian Setzer, Junior Brown and the Black Crowes. Things went well until they were caught up in some record label shuffling that eventually left them without a label. At the same time, two of the original members, Gary Bennett and Smilin’ Jay McDowell, decided they’d had enough of life on the road.

Momentarily adrift, the three remaining members — Chuck Mead, Don Herron and Shaw Wilson — decided to go back where they started. “We did the only thing we knew,” says Mr. Mead. “And that is to go back to Lower Broadway and play.” They started a regular gig, inviting a variety of friends to join them, at the Bluegrass Inn under the name of The Hillbilly All-Stars.

Eventually Chris Scruggs (Earl’s grandson) and Geoff Firebaugh became almost regulars at the weekly gig. At that point, the remaining members of BR549 decided that it was time to get back out on the road and to take Mr. Scruggs and Mr. Firebaugh with them.

“It was like getting a new engine for a really great old car that you loved,” says Mr. Mead. “There was an earnestness in it that really made us remember we had fun playing music.”

Revitalized, BR549 has just released a new album, “Tangled in the Pines,” on a new label (Dualtone) and are winging it again. They will be at the 9:30 Club, with the Mavericks, Saturday night.

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