You’d really really like to think that with all artists, in any field, the work is what matters.
If that were true, you would have heard of Jack Scott.
Okay, if you’re over 65, you probably have heard of Jack Scott. More likely, if prodded, you may remember that in the late 1950s he had top-10 hits like “My True Love,” “What In The World’s Come Over You,” “Burning Bridges” and “Goodbye Baby.”
If you’re under 65, you probably think “Jack Scott” just sounds like one more guy with two first names.
That’s a shame, because he made more good records than a whole lot of rock ’n’ roll artists who have gotten our attention for a hundred things besides their music.
Jack Scott died Thursday in Warren, Michigan, from complications of a heart attack he suffered last Sunday. He was 83, and it had, admittedly, been a long time since he was a presence on top-40 radio. His popularity there had faded even before the 1964 British Invasion swept mid-level American artists off the charts.
Still, he kept playing. He was a fave in Europe, where 1950s artists with a rockabilly connection can still find appreciative audiences, and he recorded his final album, Way to Survive, in 2015.
He seems to have led a satisfying life. It’s just hard to tell, because he didn’t make much news beyond his music.
Producer Warren Gosford, a friend, devoted almost all the liner notes on a 1982 Scott reissue album to lamenting the fact that artists like Fabian and Frankie Avalon got more attention than Scott, simply because they were better copy.
Scott, wrote Gosford, “is quiet, unpretentious, somewhat shy and quite happy to be close to his family.”
Now that line is floated all the time about popular artists. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes it’s a lie.
Scott and his wife Barbara were married for decades and had two daughters. Maybe in this case the line wasn’t just image-building.
Whatever the reason for his curiously low profile, Jack Scott’s music deserves to be remembered more than it often is. Not because he was some sort of mysterious Eddie and the Cruisers phantom, but because the music is good.
For starters, Jack Scott sounds like nobody else. Back in the day he was sometimes tossed into the pool of second-generation Elvises, but the truth is, you’d never confuse either with the other.
Scott did, like Elvis, sing in a range of styles. His first high school bands played country-Western, and he recorded a tribute album to his all-time fave, Hank Williams. He also cut a gospel album.
But at the time he got noticed — while singing with his sister Linda in high school — the best opportunities for potential music biz success lurked in the Wild West territory of rock ’n’ roll.
Scott’s first hit was a flat-out rocker called “Leroy,” the strange tale of a guy who couldn’t stay out of jail. Scott first titled it “Greaseball,” which his record company feared might offend — well, maybe greaseballs. Scott subbed a different two-syllable name and added another character to the roll of 1950s outlaws.
It wouldn’t have been surprising if that song got Scott some bad-boy attention, particularly since he had a handsome-devil face.
But any such possibilities got subverted when a DJ flipped “Leroy” over and started playing “My True Love.”
“My True Love” fit no rock ’n’ roll pattern. It was hypnotic, almost a chant. It was also a plain old love song. Not a hint of bad anywhere in it. Just a splendid record, perfect on the car radio, fun at a sock hop and great for the last hour of a party, when the music slowed down and the lights went dim.
“My True Love” also gave Scott a signature sound, and his biggest subsequent hits — “What In the World’s Come Over You,” “Burning Bridges” — had that same mesmerizing rhythm. While vocal clarity was not always the hallmark of early rock ’n’ roll, Scott’s vocals on songs like those could have been showcased in an elocution class.
His resonant baritone further set the sound of his records apart from everything else on the radio, and his backing vocal group, the Chantones, was almost equally distinct.
A number of Scott’s later songs took darker lyrical turns. Not as dark as “Leroy,” but Scott, like many writers before him, found that bad days sometimes inspired songs more easily than good days.
Jack Scott didn’t go unappreciated. Colleagues like Link Wray loved his work. Robert Plant was such a fan that he sent a jet to fly Scott to a Led Zeppelin concert. Scott made some halls of fame and he had a core of fans who remembered.
These days, though, listening to Jack Scott’s music offers one more reminder of what we can miss when celebrity overshadows skill.