"Why Was I Born?" is a 1929 song composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein II.Not a whole lot of information there for a song whose very title invokes one of the central questions of human existence, eh?
It was written for the show Sweet Adeline (1930).
The first time I recall hearing the song was on the compilation album Everybody's Somebody's Fool, which collected some of the early recordings of Little Jimmy Scott. (Here's a long version, recorded more recently, I suspect.)
Jimmy Scott turns 87 today. Over his life, he's had reasons to ask the simple question contained in that song's title: The loss of his mother at an early age, as detailed in his biography Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott, and the subsequent scattering of he and his siblings; the issues associated with Kallman Syndrome (a genetic condition in which males usually do not hit puberty, and I only just now realized it's also marked by a lack of sense of smell); and the circumstances of a career in which he achieved early notoriety but was blackballed by the music industry for the audacity of sticking up for his own interests and thus basically vanished from sight from about 1962 until he sang at Doc Pomus' funeral in 1991.
Even if you're not a fan of jazz music, you should read Faith in Time. It'll tell you as much of the story as possible without hearing the music.
But what music it is, what a voice it is. Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to make us question dichotomies of gender, even if he was pretty clear that he was drawn toward women (including his wife and manager Jeanie Scott, who I'm proud to know through Facebook). The sharp-dressed thin man with a voice some have likened to Billie Holiday was drawing not always friendly attention on the chitlin circuit decades before before Antony Hagerty, Grace Jones, David Bowie, or Laura Jane Grace (born Thomas Gabel, lead singer of Against Me!).
Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to teach us that not only is patience a virtue, but that slowness has its own unique beauty; perhaps in part because of his life's story, a dream deferred that looked for years like it was a dream lost, his recordings since his comeback have tended to be long, luxurious affairs, every bit of emotion examined in the lyric. His voice does big things, but there's a subtlety, a wisdom, a self-discipline that "divas" and "divos" who mistake adding syllables to words for emotional depth could stand to emulate.
Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to show us how to face disappointments in life without bitterness. The gratitude toward life, the faith that things will work out the way they're meant to work out, shown in his conversations with biographer David Ritz is humbling. The man was done wrong like a long line of African-American musicians, but his "faith in time" has allowed him to move past it.
In mystical Judaism, there's the story of the Tzadikim Nistarim -- the 36 hidden righteous people whose purpose is to justify the continuing existence of humanity. I don't really believe that's literally something that is going on in the world, but I do know the world is a better place for having Jimmy Scott in it, that my own life and the lives of everyone who knows and loves his music have been enriched in ways that defy words.
Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to sing "Why Was I Born?" and so many other songs from the great American songbook: "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," "Mood Indigo," "At Last," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "When Did You Leave Heaven?," "You Don't Know What Love Is," "The Way You Look Tonight," "You Never Miss the Water ('Til the Well Runs Dry)," "Smile," and so many more.
Jimmy Scott was born to turn unexpected songs into jazz standards: "Heaven," "Jealous Guy," "The Crying Game," "Nothing Compares 2 U," "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," "On Broadway," "Unchained Melody," and numerous gospel songs and spirituals. He was a show-stopper on Twin Peaks and the highlight of Lou Reed's deeply powerful album Magic & Loss (which was where I first heard Jimmy), he paired with Flea of all people to redeem the Captain and Tenille's "Love Will Keep Us Together," and it turns out his name is the answer to the question "what's the only thing that could make Pink Martini's music even better?"
Why was Jimmy Scott born? He was born to prove F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong, I think: There are second acts in American lives. And like any great concert, some of the most interesting parts come during the encore. I'd say we're tremendously lucky to have been able to hear it; he and Jeanie might attribute it to grace. Whatever it is, I celebrate it, I celebrate Jimmy, and I celebrate his music.
Happy birthday, good sir. May love and happiness dwell with you and Jeanie for all of your days to come. And for the rest of you: Go familiarize yourself with this American treasure if you've not already done so. There's no time like the present.