NEW YORK — Jimmy Scott, a jazz singer whose distinctively plaintive delivery and unusually high-pitched voice earned him a loyal following and, late in life, a taste of bona fide stardom, died Thursday of cardiac arrest at his home in Las Vegas. He was 88.
Mr. Scott’s career finished on a high note, with steady work from the early 1990s on, as well as a Grammy nomination, glowing reviews, and praise from well-known fellow performers like Madonna, who called him “the only singer who makes me cry.” But the first four decades of his career were checkered, with long periods of inactivity and more lows than highs.
After enjoying sporadic success in the 1950s, he had almost none in the 1960s. Albums he recorded for major labels in 1962 and 1969, which might have jump-started his career, were quickly withdrawn from the market when another company claimed to have him under contract. He virtually stopped performing in the 1970s and made no records between 1975 and 1990.
But if Mr. Scott spent most of his career in relative obscurity, he always had a core of fiercely devoted fans — among them many prominent vocalists who cited him as an influence, including Marvin Gaye, Frankie Valli, and Nancy Wilson.
The fact that both men and women considered themselves Scott’s disciples is not surprising: because of a rare genetic condition called Kallmann syndrome, which caused his body to stop maturing before he reached puberty, Mr. Scott’s voice never changed, and he remained an eerie, androgynous alto his whole life.
Standing 4-foot-11, with a hairless face to match his boyish voice, he was originally billed as Little Jimmy Scott, and he was presented to audiences as a child until well into his 20s. In his mid-30s he unexpectedly grew 8 inches taller and, although he otherwise remained physically unchanged, doctors told him an operation might stimulate his hormonal development. He decided against it.
“I was afraid of entering uncharted territory,” Mr. Scott told David Ritz, the author of “Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott” (2002). “Besides, fooling with my hormones might mean changing my voice. Whatever the problems that came with the deficiency, my voice was the one thing I could count on.”
James Victor Scott was born on July 17, 1925, in Cleveland. The third of 10 children, he lived in orphanages and foster homes after his mother was killed in a car accident when he was 13.
After singing in local nightclubs for a few years, he went on the road in 1945 with a vaudeville-style show headed by Estella Young, a dancer and contortionist. He moved to New York City in 1947 and joined Lionel Hampton’s band a year later.
His 1950 recording of “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” with Hampton set the pattern for his later work. A mournful ballad of love gone wrong, the song was delivered with feverish intensity and idiosyncratic, behind-the-beat phrasing. The record was a hit, but because it was credited on the label simply to “Lionel Hampton, vocal with orchestra,” few people knew that Mr. Scott was the singer.
Recordings later in the decade for the Roost and Savoy labels helped establish his name. But with a style somewhere between jazz and rhythm and blues and a voice somewhere between male and female, he found it difficult to gain a foothold in the marketplace.
The vagaries of the record business did not help. An album he recorded for Ray Charles’s Tangerine label in 1962, featuring Charles on piano and a string section, garnered radio play and, with national distribution from ABC Records, seemed likely to expand his audience.
But Herman Lubinsky, the owner of Savoy Records, threatened legal action to block its release, claiming he still had Mr. Scott under contract. A similar fate befell “The Source,” an album Mr. Scott made for Atlantic seven years later.
By then, the frustrated singer had moved back to Cleveland, where he held a variety of nonmusical jobs, including cook, hotel clerk, and nurse’s aide, for the better part of two decades, although he continued to perform occasionally and even recorded an album for Savoy in 1975.
On his first Sire album, “All the Way,” he sang classic love songs by the likes of Porter and Gershwin, accompanied by first-rank jazz musicians. The album garnered strong reviews, sold well, and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
After that, Mr. Scott never wanted for work. He sang at one of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural balls in 1993. He became a popular concert attraction in Europe and Japan. He sang on the soundtrack of “Philadelphia” and other movies and acted in the independent film “Chelsea Walls” in 2001. He also appeared in an episode of the cult television series “Twin Peaks.”
Late in life Mr. Scott continued to record, notably for the Milestone label, and to perform. His last appearance was in June 2012 at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. In 2007, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and a Living Jazz Legend by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Mr. Scott married Jeanie McCarthy, his fifth wife, in 2003. Besides her, he leaves a son, Tracy Porter; three sisters, Nadine Walker, Betsy Jones and Elsa Scott; and a brother, Roger Scott.