If You Only Knew

If You Only Knew


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 The foremost reason for believing in Scott’s early demise is that Scott’s commercial career is spotty at best.

Discovered by Lionel Hampton in the ‘50’s, rediscovered by Ray Charles a decade or so later, a twenty-five-year gap in

recording, all made the demise of Scott seem plausible. It literally took divine assistance to get Scott’s career back on track.



Jimmy Scott albums:

 All the Way  /  Mood Indigo  / Lost and Found  /  The Source  / The Fabulous Songs of Jimmy Scott / Someone to Watch Over Me

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Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew: A Film Review

By Amin Sharif


The Maryland Film Festival recently offered several new “independent” films for viewing. Among these films was a documentary of the life and musical career of Jimmy Scott called If You Only Knew. Little known and under appreciated, Scott has always been one of those geniuses who seemed to streak across the jazz heavens and then disappear. In many ways, If You Only Knew reminds the viewer of the film biography of Charles Mingus. The difference is that The Triumph of the Underdog is a more cerebral and moody presentation than If You Only Knew. 

Still both documentaries reveal each artist with a compassion that places flesh upon the skeletal framework of these legends. If You Only Knew goes much further than Triumph in ensuring that Scott’s buoyant personality and humanity come through on the screen. And, in the end, these qualities make If You Only Knew a more interesting encounter than the Mingus film.    

Jimmy Scott, sometimes called Little Jimmy Scott, is one of the rarest of the rare living jazz legends. He possesses a voice that, for me, is the most honest of his generation. And there is simply no one alive who comes close to his sophistication in performance or his sensitivity when it comes to delivering a song. Scott has a mesmerizing quality that holds his audience hopeless at his mercy, whether in the largest of concert halls or the more intimate setting of a club. He is as good at producing this effect today as he was when he first sang with Lionel Hampton so many decades ago.

What is incredible about the film If You Only Knew is that it captures more of the magic of Jimmy Scott than one would ever think possible. Every scene is placed exactly where it should be–neither revealing too early or too late the pertinent facts of Jimmy’s life. Never does the camera get between the eye of the observer and the subject of observation. Scott is always there, literally and visually, in focus for the viewer. 

It is his words and best of all his music that drive this film. Of course, there are other voices in the film. But these voices are muted, restrained tones like the string section of the orchestra that is sometimes heard behind Jimmy Scott’s wonderful singing. These voices only enhance all the beautiful lyrics and majestic visions–the truthful portrait of Scott that the filmmakers wish to make known to the world.   

Those who know anything about Jimmy Scott and jazz would think him to be the last person to be chosen as the subject of a film documentary. In fact, many people thought that Scott died long ago. The foremost reason for believing in Scott’s early demise is that Scott’s commercial career is spotty at best. Discovered by Lionel Hampton in the ‘50’s, rediscovered by Ray Charles a decade or so later, a twenty-five-year gap in recording, all made the demise of Scott seem plausible. It literally took divine assistance to get Scott’s career back on track. But to understand what I mean by this, you need to know something about Scott’s life.

Jimmy (James Victor) Scott was born on July 17, 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, as one of ten siblings. His father was rarely there. Jimmy credits his mother as being the strength of the family. It was by her wit and skill that the Scott family survived the Depression. Smiling, Jimmy describes his mother as “stern but affectionate.” We are presented with several pictures of Jimmy’s mother during the film. She appears to have been a better than average looking black woman. And when Jimmy sings In My Mother’s Eyes as we are given these portraits of Mrs. Scott, we can feel how extremely close their relationship must have been.

Jimmy seems to have been a typical black youngster. He was described by his brothers and sisters as a “talker not a fighter” with at least some already apparent leadership and survival skills. An older sister in the documentary describes Jimmy as a “little hustler” who scoured the neighborhood for bottles to assist his mother in making a living for the family. But, as Jimmy approached adolescence, two events would take place that would forever change his life. The first was the revelation that he was afflicted with Kallaman’s Syndrome, a hereditary hormonal deficiency that prevents those who possess it from experiencing puberty. The second tragedy was the death of Jimmy’s mother in a car accident.

There is a very poignant scene in the documentary that sums up for the viewer what Jimmy’s mother meant to him. He is standing at her gravesite and leans over to wipe the headstone with one of his thin hands. One can still see, even after all these years, the desire on Jimmy’s part to make a connection with his mother. He could, if allowed, wipe away all the years that have divided him from his loved one. Of course, the gesture can not bring Jimmy’s mother back. And one can only wonder if the two events–Jimmy’s lack of puberty which gave him his signature voice and his mother’s death–conspired to make Jimmy the artist we know today. The first tragedy may have given him the means to sing.  The second tragedy may have provided him with his “why” to sing.

The filmmakers are mute on this subject. But they do their best to document the many disappointments, major and minor, that Jimmy Scott endured throughout his life. Wherever the filmmakers take us, we are always given a vision of Jimmy without the personal, sometimes, even sexual love that a man needs to survive in the world. Still, even without such love, Jimmy never comes off as the subject of his own self-pity. If anything, the reverse is true.

Jimmy seems to be more content with himself than most of us with our own lives. His smile beams forth on the screen reinforced by an almost mystical knowledge that his soul is greater, stronger, more enduring than any obstacle put in his path. How the filmmakers manage to capture so much of Jimmy’s humanity is their secret. But the evidence that they possess this secret is clearly revealed in every frame of the documentary.

After the death of his mother, Jimmy and his siblings seemed to have been left to their on. And within a short time, Jimmy found himself separated from his sisters and brothers who were placed in various homes. It was this forced separation that spawned in Scott a lifelong desire to reunite all his family members. Singing, Scott tells us in the film, was the only way he knew how to achieve his goal.

One day Jimmy, who had secured himself a job working with black entertainers, is given a chance to perform before an audience. Most probably, this was the first crowd to enjoy Jimmy’s vocal gifts in a professional setting. It is obvious from the history that follows that Jimmy’s true male soprano voice, a result of Kallaman’s Syndrome, and his showmanship were a success with the crowd.

For shortly afterwards, Jimmy found himself a soloist in Lionel Hampton’s famous big band  in 1948 and records his first hit Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool. Despite this success, Jimmy soon grew tired of being in the Lionel Hampton Band. “The one thing you knew when you were in that band,” Jimmy said of his days performing with Hampton in the documentary, “is that it was all about Hampton.” This comment may have more to do with Jimmy’s desire to develop his own talent than any real fault possessed by Hampton.

After leaving Hampton, Scott played for a short time with the Paul Gayten Band and then in 1950 embarked on a solo career. Jimmy recorded for the Roost label that year. But he soon left the Roost label to record with Decca. Then, not finding his situation at Decca to his liking, Jimmy returned to Roost. Jimmy’s main reason for returning to Roost was that he liked working with producer Fred Mendelsohn. It seemed that the two men shared the same musical sensibilities. Admiring Mendelsohn, that when the producer left for Savoy in 1955, Jimmy went along to the new label with him.

History will no doubt record Jimmy’s move to the Savoy label as the third great tragedy of his life. For it is at Savoy Records that Jimmy meets up with the notorious Herb Lubinsky. It would be Lubinsky who would prove to be the greatest stumbling block in Jimmy’s seemingly ill-fated career.

In 1962, Jimmy Scott recorded an album on Ray Charles’ Tangerine label, Falling in Love Is Wonderful, which was reputed to be a masterpiece. However, the album was withdrawn from the market when Herb Lubinsky claimed that Jimmy Scott was still under contract to him. If Charles wanted the Scott album released, he would have to negotiate with Lubinsky. No doubt, Ray Charles had no intention of having anything to do with a leech like Lubinsky and so he wisely abandoned the project. Seven years later, Scott recorded another album on the Atlantic label. Once again, the album was said to be a wonderful display of Scott’s talent. And, once again, Lubinsky stepped in to ruin the deal for Jimmy. In 1970, Jimmy all but abandoned his musical career rather than do Lubinsky’s bidding.

Scott’s career remained in stasis until 1984. It was when one of his ex-wives (some say ex-girlfriend) called into jazz flag station WBEG to refute the rumor that Jimmy Scott was dead that Jimmy’s career was given new life. WBEG set up an interview with Scott and the jazz world realized that Scott was alive. Eventually, Scott was to meet Doc Pomus, a famous producer/songwriter/singer. And, it would be Pomus’ who would eventually get Scott’s talent recognized by a new generation of record makers.

For years Pomus worked to get Jimmy Scott’s talent recognized by his friends in the music business. But it was only at his funeral (1992) that Pomus’ friends took note of Jimmy. Hearing Scott sing for the first time, Pomus’ friends could not help but be impressed by his talent. Among Pomus’ friends assembled at his funeral was Seymour Stein a producer for Warner Brothers. Stein signed Scott to a contract. A year later Jimmy recorded All the Way, finally receiving the critical and popular acclaim that a genius of his stature deserved.

If You Only Knew takes its audience through every twist and turn in Scott’s musical life. But the film shows Scott not only as an “unrecognized” but also as an “unrecognized” human being. We have said that Kallaman’s Syndrome retarded Jimmy’s physical development leaving him without the experience of puberty. As such, Jimmy’s sexual identity was often questioned by those around him. Scott had to endure suggestions that he was “a woman in a man’s suit.” There were rumors that Jimmy was a homosexual.

Yet Jimmy never thought of himself as anything but a man. Indeed, Jimmy was married some four times though none of the marriages ever worked out. It is this subtext of rejection or near rejection on the most personal, as well as the racial and artistic level, that gives the documentary its added depth. The viewer is given to ask himself if he could walk in Jimmy Scott’s diminutive shoes (he’s 4 feet 11 inches) what path would he have chosen for himself? Could he or she possess the strength of this man given all the odds set against him?

It is the answers that the film gives to all these questions that make If You Only Knew the best jazz documentary out there. The film would have been a success had it merely let us know that Scott was still alive and kicking. But this documentary goes way beyond achieving this goal. If You Only Knew gives us a portrait of a human soul that refuses to be contained by time or convention. The film shares with us a living, breathing Jimmy Scott who amazes us with not only his talent, but also, even more so, with the brightness of his humanity.

Jimmy Scott albums: All the Way  /  Mood Indigo  / Lost and Found  /  The Source  / The Fabulous Songs of Jimmy Scott / Someone to Watch Over Me

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update 15 December 2011




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