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Bobby Scott: Setting the Record Straight

In reviewing one of Bobby Scott's albums for Stereo Review—I think it was "For Sentimental Reasons"—I mentioned how he had done much work for Mercury Records during the period when Quincy Jones was the label's Musical Director and how he had thus become a victim of a form of credit theft. Artistic credit, that is.

The magazine received several cards and letters suggesting that I was a bitter man who made this up. Quincy was a cool dude and his talent was the envy of many, one writer maintained. The fact is that I was right, Quincy was indeed riding into the spotlight on the tails of more talented people. I recall when he returned from Paris with his big band, in 1960, Bill Grauer was shocked to hear that the band would be appearing at Basin Street East in New York and that nobody was throwing a press party. This was wrong, he said, so he threw one for Quincy—never mind that the band had nothing to do with Riverside Records.

Anyway, one of Quincy's band members was Melba Liston, a wonderful player and arranger who never received the recognition her talent deserved. I got to know her when she began writing and recording for Riverside. We were having a drink one night and, when our glasses needed a refill, Melba told me that she had written some of the band's charts, but that Quincy took the credit. I knew that he was a pedestrian trumpet player, I had heard that myself in 1953, when he came to Copenhagen with Lionel Hampton, but I had more recently heard his writing ability praised. Now I began to wonder and I heard many more such stories after Quincy went with Mercury Records.

Of course, most of us know that this sort of thing went on for years—and probably still does, although to a lesser degree. Does anybody think that Irving Mills wrote all those Ellington tunes? Of course not, but he was a slick promoter, so Duke at least got something out of the arrangement, as it were. Then there was Milt Gabler, who was responsible for countless memorable sessions on Decca and his own Commodore label. I noticed his name creeping into  the credit brackets on some reissues in the 1970s. There were worse offenders, such as the highly respected Lomaxes—Alan and his son, John—notorious for claiming undue credit. In the introduction to his 1936 book, "Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly" (Macmillan), the elder Lomax describes Ledbetter as a whisky-drinking, womanizing murderer, so dangerous that even he sometimes was afraid to be in his company. It occurred to me that, had this been a true description of him, Ledbetter would most likely have killed Lomax years ago for ripping him off. Huddie Ledbetter's wife, Martha, would surely not have had to take a lowly chambermaid's job in a hotel if Leadbelly had been paid his royalties. 

In the Thirties, Lil Armstrong wrote a song called Just for a Thrill. She recorded it for Decca in 1936 and the popular Ink Spots picked it up in 1939. Then it more or less lay dormant until 1960 when Ray Charles included it on his best-selling album, "The Genius of Ray Charles." Within a few months, that song was all over TV and available in a variety of renditions on several albums. Imagine Lil's surprise when the mailman brought her a $500 royalty check. Lil was no fool, so she caught the first thing smoking and showed up at the music publisher's office in New York. There, her questions generated a lot of hemming and hawing, she told me. There was still some "tabulating" going on, they said, but Lil wan't buying that—she also had another question: who was this Don Raye who shared her composer credit? They hemmed and hawed some more before explaining that Mr. Raye had written some additional lyrics, which entitled him to half of the composer royalties. The fact was that nobody sang any lyrics to that song except the ones Lil wrote and recorded in the Thirties. So, Lil wasn't buying  that story, either.  "I think they thought I was this old lady in Chicago and I'd be happy to get five hundred dollars," she told me, chuckling. "Well, you know me, I left that office with a much bigger check, and there is more to come."

Getting back to Bobby Scott. He was a man of many talents, who came into the limelight in 1956, when he gave the ABC Paramount label its first chart hit, a song called Chain Gang. He  was still a teenager then, albeit barely, and the song—a Tennessee Ernie Ford-like tale—was perfect for the day's hit parade, but Bobby had only hiccuped.  He had worked on the road with Louis Prima and other jazz artists since he was 15, and his taste in music was, to say the least, eclectic. He wrote the hits, A Taste of Honey and He's Not Heavy, He's My Brother, as well as other tunes you might be familiar with if you are in mid-life. Suffice it to say that Bobby Scott's musical talent knew no boundaries, so he was handy to have around as Quincy elbowed his way to fame.

So there I was, unafraid to tell it like it was and working for editors at Stereo Review who never tried to water down what I had to say. They were not perturbed by the complaints my review received from Quincy's fans, and there was no protest from the man himself—of course not. There was, however, a wonderful letter from Bobby Scott in which he acknowledges the veracity of my "bitter" statement. Here it is:

To enlarge image of letter, please click on it.
With the letter came a small box of tapes containing a wonderful collection of his music, at the time unreleased—jazz, chamber music, an intriguing idiomatic blend. I hope some of it has been made available in the past twenty years. I called Bobby and we decided to get together for that bread breaking at summer's end. Sadly, it never came to pass. He passed away six months later, a 53 year old victim of lung cancer. I wonder how many people know what a loss that was.


  1. Hmmm. Are they 'comments' if they are not there? Is this the equivalent of a tree falling in an empty forest?

  2. Good question, Ted. Actually, I removed the top one because it came from a pesky impostor who haunts blogs. I removed the second one because it had been a reply to said pesky impostor. :)

  3. Chris,

    Your last couple of post have only reinforced what I have started to learn on my own. The true Artist of Music create out a desire to express the music within themselves. And with that passion they receive a gift unto themselves. Bobby Scott appears to have found his Music.

    PS. My Mom went to High School with another teen singer of the 50's... Johnny Tillotson who has had a long career. Got any stories in your vault about him. She would be thrilled.

  4. Exciting behind the scenes story, good for Lil Hardin she knew how to handle this, just make me think of all those who were robed over the years.

    I think Hardin's case is about robing money from an artist and giving it to other people, the case of Jones is robing credits for sure, and I'm curious whether money as well, did it mean Jones took the royalties checks from then and on?

  5. In Lil's case, I don't think it was simply a matter of paying someone else. Some music publishers had deals whereby the added "composer" was either one of them or someone with whom they had an arrangement, so to speak. As for Quincy, I am sure that was never about money—at least not directly—but credit has a way of translating into money, doesn't it? Of the names mentioned by Bobby Scott in his letter, who is more successful, materially, than Quincy? If his success rests on his music and that music really was someone else's....well? Do the math.

  6. Thanks a lot for this thoughtful, and yes, beautiful post.
    Coincidentally I just listened to an album full with wonderful arrangements by Melba Liston, Elvin Jones' Atlantic release "And Then Again" (1965).

  7. Thank you, Ubu.

    Melba was a beautiful, highly talented person whom I feel privileged to have known.

  8. Dear Chris,

    The situation of credits with regard to Quincy Jones has been a very popular subject among arranger/historians for years. I don't know if you ever heard the story about the Mancini/Jones album cover. Billy Byers wrote the arrangements, and the first pages of them with the titles of the tracks were photographed for the album cover. There was only one problem: all of the scores had Billy Byers' name on them, and the cover was never used. Supposedly Emile Charlap had a copy
    in his office.

    Scott was an amazing talent, and according to my late friend Dick Sudhalter, wrote an autobiography before he died. I don't know if he ever finished it or not. Bobby's widow lend Dick a copy of it and asked him if anything could be
    done with it. Dick said that it would need a lot
    of editing, that it went off on religious
    tangents. I wonder where that book is now.
    I'd love to know where Bobby's music is now.

    Great posts as always,
    Jeff Sultanof

    1. Jeff I had heard about an autobiography as well. I also would be very interested in finding/reading it. Of course it'd be wonderful if that music were released as well.

  9. That's interesting, Jeff. Thanks for enriching my story. I'll have to dig up the tapes Bobby sent me.

  10. The following was posted to the Guest Book by Larry Kart, because an attempt to posting it here was unsuccessful. It belongs here and is a significant adjunct to my original post—thank you, Larry.:

    Hi Chris -- Tried to post the following on the Bobby Scott thread this morning but wasn't able to:

    'Many thanks for this. Unless one shuns Fresh Sound albums on moral grounds, the best introduction to his work is "The Compositions of Bobby Scott" on that label. It collects his 1956 ABC-Paramount LP of that name (with tenorman John Murtaugh and baritonist Marty Flax) and two Bethlehem 10" LPs -- a NYC septet date from 1954, with Eddie Bert and Hal McKusick, and a 1955 LA nonet date, with Conte Candoli, Jimmy Giuffre, et al.

    'It's interesting how much some of the music on Scott's ABC date anticipates the folksy "Train and the River" groove that Giuffre would get into later on with his trio with Jim Hall and Palph Pena. Don't think this is matter of appropriation -- just two talented musicians whose sensibilities happened to rhyme.

    'There's also a rhyme between the clever, charmingly melodic writing and playing on the ABC date and that of LA-based tenorman Jack Montrose. In part that's because Montrose often used the same tenor-baritone front line, in part that's because the dry timbre and "talky" accentuation of the unheralded Murtaugh recalls Montrose. Again, probably just a rhyme in sensibilities.

  11. Thanks for this article, Chris. Quite a sad tale on the dark sides of music business. It's a shame.

  12. What people need are lists (a website?) of compositions and arrangements with corrected credits. Not just of Scott but of all those "used" composers.

  13. Thank you Chris for a great post. I'm a long time Bobby fan. I find it interesting that he writes almost as eloquently as he was able to perform musically. I'm sorry you didn't get your chance to break bread with him.

  14. Thanks for this very informative piece, which I found poking around for personnel on a vintage Bobby Scott CD I just bought. My introduction to him was "Joyful Noises," a wonderful LP that I found in my college years (the early '60s). The writing knocked me out! Many years later I learned in a piece about Prez (maybe by Gene Lees?) that "Bobby Socks" had spent time under his wing.

    Further in the ghosting department, a tribute video to Bob Brookmeyer produced for his memorial service noted that he (Brookmeyer) had ghosted classic arrangements for Ray Charles that are credited to Ralph Burns. "Just For A Thrill" and "Alabamy Bound" were specifically cited.

    1. Thank you, Jim. Lil loved the Ray Charles' rendering of "Just For a Thrill," which revived her old tune and gave her income a sizable boost.