Jimmy Scott, America's perpetual voice of pain and heartbreak, greets friends and strangers exactly the same, with a cordial icebreaker: "How you doing, baby?"
He's not a verbose conversationalist, but at 78 and having endured more heartbreak, humiliation and misunderstanding than Lady Luck bestows on three average people, we can and should cut the Cleveland-based singer some slack.
Scott became the American musical voice of heartache upon the 1959 passing of the great Billie Holiday. He's been idolized by a litany of other singers, including Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Madonna and rocker Lou Reed, who has called him "the greatest jazz singer in the world."
Scott still sings about heartbreak, but these days, his songs seem more tempered by optimism and hope - sung with his high-pitched, androgynous voice and his knack to sing behind the beat and stretch out words and short phrases until they sound like full, aching sentences - and in some cases, the chapters of a book.
The singer, initially known as Little Jimmy Scott, had one bona fide hit. "Everybody's Somebody's Fool," rode up the pop charts in 1950 when he recorded and tour toured with Lionel Hampton's Orchestra.
Scott was one of 10 children in a Cleveland family. His mother was killed in an accident when he was 14. Scott and his siblings were parceled out to a series of foster homes.
He soon was diagnosed with Kallman's Syndrome, a hereditary hormonal deficiency that stunted his growth and kept him from reaching puberty. That led to decades of everyday misunderstandings from those who thought he was either a woman in man's dress or gay, neither of which was the case.
Victimized by the recording industry of the day, Scott took a break from music. He lived in obscurity in Cleveland, working as a hotel shipping clerk and elevator operator while caring for his ailing father from roughly 1975 to 1990. Many in the music industry thought he was dead - until he sang at singer-songwriter Doc Pomus's funeral in 1991.
His return to the scene brought new recording contracts - and a string of critically acclaimed CDs has followed. The latest is "Moon Glow," just out on the Milestone jazz label.
From the looks of the session, everybody in jazz wants to work with Scott while they have a chance. The CD lists 16 sidemen in combinations varying from duet to septet.
Scott said he loves today's recording environment. "There is some caring," he said. "You would look around and do new things, and say, 'Oh, my God, I never did nothing like this before.' The encouraging and embracing that it gives you is quite something. Thank God for those types of things."
He said his 15 years out of the limelight, while perhaps necessary, were difficult because he does enjoy making music for people.
"I missed it quite a bit," Scott said. "The really encouraging part of the music is to have people who inspire you to think. Estella (Estella Young, also known as Caldonia, was a contortionist who first took him on the road in 1945 with her vaudeville troupe, and whom he soon called "Mother") was that way, she was an encouraging person."
Scott said today's audiences continue to inspire him. He calls the love he receives from new generations of fans "the natural beauty of persons who care. The inspiration they give makes you think, 'Hey, where in the hell did I come from?'"
Anyone seeking a greater understanding of Scott's tribulations and artistic triumphs would be well served seeking out biographer David Ritz's thorough and riveting 2002 book, "Faith in Time, The Life of Jimmy Scott."
From Scott, his four ex-wives, fellow musicians, producers, industry executives and siblings, Ritz has revealed the full Scott story, including his pain, his alcoholism and his difficulties with the recording industry, and his years in obscurity as a middle-aged man working menial jobs.
The most poignant moment on his new CD, "Moonglow," comes when Scott brings new depth and understanding to the classic Duke Ellington tune "Solitude," with the sparest accompaniment of pianist Larry Willis and harmonica ace Gregoire Maret.
The most hope bubbles forth on a Willis-backed version of "Those Who Were," a 1996 ballad written by Nils Henning Orsted-Pedersen and Liza Freeman. Its message is simple and clear: "'Who wouldn't love and lose (rather) than not know love at all?'
"That's was the thing that was so inspiring back in the old days. People always encouraged you to be something. It helped like that. I could have done a lot of things," Scott said of the tune's hopeful message of the need to persevere and take risks.
"I'm just grateful for the good things that did come along," Scott said. "Thank God people are learning things about life.
"We have to. Don't we, baby?"