The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, January 20, 2003

Feelings of unease make themselves apparent over the CD reissue of Jimmy Scott's Falling In Love Is Wonderful. Nothing to do with the record itself, which is sublime and angelic, but with the words and (in)actions surrounding it. It is certainly wonderful that Scott, at 77, now has the career he always wanted, the career which was more or less denied to him for over three decades, and that his finest 38 minutes are now available again for the first time since the original issue was hurriedly withdrawn from the market 40 years ago. But I remain uneasy about his re-emergence via his cameo in the muddled final episode of Twin Peaks, via Lou Reed and Elvis Costello, via the curators. It is undeniable that it is a million times better that Scott should have his career back than continue to slave away in McJob obscurity, but the Twin Peaks appearance struck me as condescending and patronising on Lynch's part; Scott to be added as yet another post-modern curio to be ridiculed or appreciated ironically. And have our Good Music Society curators written for him, or written at him?

He should of course have had his career when he was artistically at his peak. Not his fault that he signed a rip-off contract with Herman Lubinsky at Savoy; he hadn't followed up his 1950 hit "Everybodys Somebody's Fool" with further hits, and his need to sing and be recorded was greater than his need to have a career. Still, the Savoy sides are the equivalent of Sinatra on Columbia in the '40s; perfectly adequate in themselves, but the voice clearly requires a greater and more inventive dimension in which to wander.

Enter Ray Charles. Having just crossed over big-time with Modern Sounds in Country and Western, he was more or less in a position to do what he liked. And what he wanted was to set up his own record label (Tangerine). Among the first projects for the label was to be an album of "seduction" ballads, performed by Scott with string-accented arrangements by Marty Paich and Gerald Wilson, both more or less following the template established by Gordon Jenkins on Sinatra's '50s Capitol torch song albums Where Are You? and No One Cares, and produced by Charles, who would also accompany Scott on piano (Erroll Garner, basically, with a touch of Tatum).

The record, Falling In Love Is Wonderful, was duly released in 1963. On US radio it took off like a bomb and was set to become a significant best-seller, as big a jazz-pop crossover as Getz/Gilberto. But just as the album was getting into the shops, it was abruptly pulled. Lubinsky asserted, or more accurately bluffed, that Scott was still under contract to Savoy and threatened to sue Charles/Tangerine if the album were not withdrawn. Charles fell for the bluff and conceded. The album disappeared, as did Scott's career. Another album six years later, The Source, met the same fate. Then 20 or so years of scuffling and McJobs ensued until his assisted re-emergence.

Now, the thing is that Lubinsky died in 1983. Thus Scott was finally free of him, as indeed was Ray Charles. Why, then, did the album not immediately reappear? There's a sinister subtext which runs through David Ritz's sleevenotes to the reissue which implies that Charles was not exactly tripping over himself to ensure Scott's welfare. Why did Charles, who had immense clout in 1963, meekly accede to Lubinsky's bullshit? Did he simply not want the fuss of a lawsuit hampering his new label? Why did Charles not put Scott's picture on the sleeve, instead opting for a fireside seduction scene where a middle-aged chap is bending over what looks like a semi-conscious woman who appears to have been drugged by Rohypnol sneaked into the wine glass (with some recent Charles albums helpfully scattered on the rug)? Why did it take 20 years after Lubinsky's death for this record to be reissued? It was clearly not urgent and key for Ray Charles. There are comments in the sleevenotes about a failure on the part of "Ray's men" to come to terms with Mosaic Records for a reissue, so Rhino were ultimately approached. Surely not jealousy? Hatred?

Scott was always doomed anyway. A victim of Kallman's syndrome, which arrests hormonal growth, he looked like a youth and sang in a clearly androgynous register (Nancy Wilson or Johnnie Ray, either would suffice). While preparing my broadcast on the "feminisation of noise" I had a notion to include a section which addressed the "feminisation of masculinity" - the androgynous, almost hermaphrodite delivery favoured by many post-Lester Young singers, but soon realised that there was enough material there for a whole other programme. There's also something in Scott's delivery which very clearly anticipates the singing of Karen Carpenter at her peak - that same selfless, near apostolic compassion.

Bruised also by the early death of his mother and other family issues, as well as his own lack of commercial success, Scott had every right to submit to self-pity in songs like "Why Try To Change Me Now?" or "If I Should Lose You." It is a measure of his artistry that he doesn't. When Sinatra sang "Why Try To Change Me Now?" it was a wounded cry from a former cynic who had lived long enough to venture beyond resignation. Scott sings it as an innocent expression of bewilderment - why should anyone "stare" or "frown?"

What Scott offers in this album is, indeed, selfless compassion and boundless wonder. It's a fine and still unhackneyed selection of songs. Hear his voice trembling with joy following his discovery of the existence of rapture in Irving Berlin's little-sung "They Say It's Wonderful." In terms of love, he clearly sings as an outsider, someone who is excluded from joining in with life. But he does not betray any bitterness or angst; he, more interestingly, is curious, and has love of his own to offer. He views love as stout Cortez viewed the Pacific for the first time, filled with naive wonderment. The album is like being hugged for the longest time, and you can be moved to tears by Scott's embrace.

I've heard few other, if any, American singers capable of invoking the vertiginous giddiness of "I Wish I Didn't Love You So Much" or capable of constructing a devotional hymn out of "How Deep Is The Ocean." But Scott manages it. On the latter, there are clear echoes of Charlie Parker's interpretation on his Verve string sides; the same, almost hyperreal humanity which emerges out of the mere performance of a sequence of notes and makes it into art. Even "Someone To Watch Over Me," usually performed with at least a soupcon of self-pity, conveys the impression of a humble child asking politely for more. I won't slash my wrists if no Other comes, he is saying, but I'd quite like someone. It would be nice. As a Christmas present, maybe. The complete lack of artifice in his performance will reduce you to a wreck.

For an unalloyed expression of fulfilled, reciprocated love, there's little in post-war popular song to match the barely containable ecstasy of Scott's performance of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." Here he turns the song into a Madison Avenue "Amazing Grace." The holy is brought to the foreground. The closer, a comparatively obscure but lovely Burke/Van Heusen song "Sunday, Monday And Always," reveals to us the umbilical link which leads to Marvin Gaye, to Lewis Taylor and to Prince; love spins at 69 rpm, the voice yearns and becomes the Other in its own obsessionality. Gaye in particular did manage to obtain a copy of the album when first out and used it as his template - investigate his Romantically Yours compilation of ballads for proof that he was far closer to Scott than to, say, Nat "King" Cole.

Again, Falling In Love Is Wonderful is a glimpse, perhaps too late, of an angelic Utopia, of a compassion which could have altered at least part of the course of popular music had it been allowed its proper due. Listening to it now, we understand, a lifetime away, that perfection once existed.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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