Shirley Scott, 67, the Philadelphia-born “Queen of the Organ” known for her crisp sense of swing, died Sunday at Presbyterian Medical Center after a long battle with heart disease.
Though she spent decades as one of the most visible and beloved members of the Philadelphia jazz community, Ms. Scott, who lived in West Chester, made headlines most recently as a litigant.
In February 2000, she won an $8 million settlement against American Home Products, manufacturers of the now-banned diet drug fen-phen, and the doctor who prescribed it to her. Ms. Scott began taking the drug “cocktail” in 1995, and by 1997 had developed primary pulmonary hypertension that forced her to be hooked up to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day.
Ms. Scott came to prominence in the late ’50s, when groups built around the Hammond B3 organ were a hot sound in jazz. She got her break with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, but in 1960 married another saxophonist, Stanley Turrentine. During their 11-year union, the couple had three children and made some of the most influential records in soul-jazz.
Ms. Scott was neither a speed demon nor a show-off. Rather than unleash a barrage of notes, she toyed fancifully with motifs and melodies – even her heated improvisations had a breezy air.
While most groups anchored by the B3 leaned on blues, Ms. Scott and her cohorts sought out obscure show tunes and standards as well as pop songs, such as the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Another trait that distinguished Ms. Scott was her low-key approach to accompaniment. With chordal jabs and darting two- or three-note quips, she gently prodded soloists into unexplored territory.
“She really listened,” said tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna, who worked with her at Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus in Northern Liberties. “She always focused in on what you were playing.”
“She knew how to complement a soloist,” said Mickey Roker, Ms. Scott’s drummer for many years. He added she was one of few organists who could maintain a serious swing pulse on the keyboard while pumping out bass lines on the foot pedals.
Beginning in 1958 with Great Scott! on the Prestige label, Ms. Scott recorded more than 50 albums as a leader, and performed with saxophonist Dexter Gordon, trombonist Al Grey, and others. She switched to piano in the ’80s, and recorded on the organ only sporadically after that. Her last album was 1996’s Walkin’ Thing.
Ms. Scott began teaching jazz history and piano at Cheyney (Pa.) University in 1991, and two years later took another leap, serving as musical director for Bill Cosby’s quiz show You Bet Your Life, taped in Philadelphia.
Ms. Scott grew up in North Philadelphia and played trumpet at Philadelphia High School for Girls. But as a senior, she ran away with a touring band to play piano. It was a mistake, she would recall: “A week later the fellow who had the band called my mother and she came and got me.”
The incident did not deter Ms. Scott. When “Lockjaw” Davis came to town in 1953, he combed the city for an organ player until he discovered Ms. Scott. She recorded with the saxophonist often, and backed him on 1958’s In the Kitchen – one of several classics in Ms. Scott’s discography that have been sampled by acid-jazz producers.