PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 23, 2007

Cynthia Scott's Jazz Gumbo

by Jim Newsom

Cynthia Scott has a great voice, oozing with soul, yet with the nuanced finesse of a fine jazz singer. When you hear her, you can’t help but wonder why you haven’t heard of her.

“I didn’t go on to do this big fame stuff,” she told me recently. “I’m sure that I could’ve done it, but it requires so much sacrifice to go out there. You see the results of this business and what it can do to you if you don’t have control of the reins—whether it’s someone like Whitney Houston, who has great talent but she goes off, or Britney Spears—there’s a lot of pressure.

“There’s an old saying: ‘Watch what you ask for or you just might get it.’ I’ve always been a firm believer in that. I always wanted to have control of what I’m doing. I think that it’s necessary to be out there to be heard and be working, but music should be about simplification. Make it good but keep it simple.”

Scott, who opens this season’s Jazz on Granby series Friday night at the Roper Performing Arts Center, has been singing since she was a little girl in El Dorado, Arkansas, a small city near the Louisiana line. She was the tenth of twelve children—six boys and six girls.

“I’m a Holiness preacher’s kid,” she said. “To get out of Arkansas, I took off to Dallas to become an airline stewardess.”

“Ray came to Dallas to do a performance,” she recalled, “and one of the ladies that was singing with him was Mable John, the sister of [R&B singer] Little Willie John. Their family were members of my father’s church down in Arkansas before they moved to Detroit. So I knew of Mable through the family.

“She was a Raelette at the time, and when they came to Dallas she stayed with me. I was working in this group backing up a girl who was kind of like a white Tina Turner. We rehearsed at my house and she heard me there, so she knew I could do the job but she never discussed it with me.

“About two or three months later, at five o’clock in the morning, my phone rang and it was Ray, or as he’d say, ‘Brother Ray.’ They were in Europe. I stumbled over to get the phone and I was pissed off because if you’re gonna call me at five o’clock in the morning, somebody better be dying!

“I picked up the phone and said, ‘Hello, who is it?!?’ And he said, ‘Brother Ray.’ I said, ‘Brother Ray who?’ ‘Brother Ray Charles.’ And I just went numb.”

She worked with him for two years.

“You know the story with Ray,” she continued. “We co-hosted the Mike Douglas Show for a week, and John Bond, who was working with AFTRA [the television union], said, ‘Don’t be one of the Raelettes who let Ray.’ I have six brothers so I kinda knew what he was talking about. But it was a good thing that he planted that in my mind—Ray wasn’t a bad looking man and he was a little bit suave, but if he didn’t get his way he could be treacherous. I got fired because I didn’t play ball with him. I think for him it was about the chase, and he thought that if he fired you he could always get you back. And when you came back, you’d probably be more cooperative. But he did me a big favor by firing me. I found out that I could make more money without it.

“I went to his funeral [in 2004], and I hadn’t seen some of the girls in almost 30 years. I didn’t recognize hardly any of them. That road life is pretty rough.”

When she left Ray Charles’ employ, Cynthia Scott returned to Dallas and resumed performing locally:

“I became the workingest singer that you could imagine in Dallas, Texas. I opened a lot of rooms when integration wasn’t the most popular thing, but for some reason I just opened doors and went in. Dallas is a beautiful city, and there were rooms where blacks had not worked before. I became in pretty high demand. But I was always trying to perfect my music, and thank God for the background that my father gave me with music and coming out of the church.”

She now lives in New York City, where she performs and teaches. She was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2002 and she traveled to West Africa three years ago as a Kennedy Center “Jazz Ambassador.”

“I had a wonderful time giving master classes and workshops all over Africa,” she said. “I didn’t realize I would enjoy it because I always ran away from teaching. I didn’t go back to school to get a master’s degree so I could teach; I did it so I could learn more.”

I asked who her primary musical influences have been.

“Carmen [McRae] is one of my favorites,” she answered. “I can go from Nancy Wilson to Etta Jones to Ernestine Anderson, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick. I grew up with a lot of great singers and I listened to all of them. That’s it—it’s a gumbo. You learn the best you can from each one, then jump in there and stir up the pot and hopefully when you come out, you’ve got a new type of gumbo. I don’t think the journey is ever over for that.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.