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Shirley Scott - "Queen of the Organ"

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Jazz history is riddled with stories about the tragic consequences of drug use. But organist Shirley Scott was certainly the only jazz musician to succumb to the effects of a diet drug.

Scott was born in Philadelphia in 1934. She played piano and trumpet before settling in at the Hammond B-3 organ. She was an admirer of fellow Philadelphian Jimmy Smith, as were so many other jazz artists. Scott first came to prominence working with  sax great Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis in the late 1950s, particularly on the 1958 hit song “In the Kitchen." Her style encompassed bebop chordal harmonies with a blues and gospel influenced sense of rhythm; she had a lighter touch but punctuated her playing with the bass pedal (as Jimmy Smith did), epitomizing the soul-jazz organ sound. “On the organ, no one knows how many different sounds you can get. It's an infinite number of tones," Scott once said. “The only problem is taste. Most people think of electricity as the ability to drown everybody else out. I don't play like that."

Soul Shoutin'In the 1960s, Scott teamed up - personally and professionally - with sax man Stanley Turrentine, and this collaboration produced winning music over a number of years. Scott's 1963 albums The Soul is Willing and Soul Shoutin' are a great place to hear her play if you don't know her music (they are available together on a Prestige CD). Turrentine's Never Let Me Go, Hustlin' (probably my favorite), and Let It Go are also wonderful albums from this period, mixtures of blues, bop, and pop songs, with great interaction between sax and organ. On her dates from the late Sixties, Scott tended to include a few too may pop tunes, which perhaps tainted her reputation somewhat. Did we really need an organ rendition of “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)" or The Beatles' “Something"?
     Scott recorded less in the 1970s as organ combos fell out of favor, but she returned again in the following decade, including on dates with Al Grey, Jimmy Forrest, and Dexter Gordon. She also did some piano recordings in the 1990s. By some estimates, over her entire career, Scott recorded an astounding fifty records as a leader - “Queen of the Organ" indeed! In the mid-1990s, she began taking the diet drug fen-phen, which was later proven to cause damage to the heart. Scott actually sued the manufacturer, American Home Products, and was awarded $8 million by a Philadelphia jury in 2000. But Scott succumbed to heart disease in March 2002.


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This story appears courtesy of Riffs on Jazz by John Anderson.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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