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Saturday, November 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle blues king, legendary guitarist, Isaac Scott dies at age of 56

Seattle Times staff critic

The Northwest has lost its king of the blues.

Isaac Scott, who reigned over Seattle blues for more than a quarter century, died yesterday at Stevens Memorial Hospital in Edmonds. The cause was an infection that had spread from his leg to his heart. Mr. Scott was diabetic and already had undergone amputations of his left foot and right leg. He was 56.

The blues guitarist was discovered unconscious Sunday in his apartment. He never regained consciousness. According to Mr. Scott's ex-wife, Eloise DePoe, a continuous stream of musicians paid their last respects this week.

"Isaac was the man in Seattle," said local blues aficionado Jim Hamilton. Hamilton briefly managed Mr. Scott and wrote a novel in which the guitarist appeared as a composite character. "He's the yardstick against which everyone is measured."

Mr. Scott recorded several albums, including "The Isaac Scott Band," "Big Time Blues Man" and "High Class Woman." He also appeared on the compilations "Live at the San Francisco Jazz Festival" and "Live at the Roadhouse."

He received several local honors, including the Washington Blues Society's Hall of Fame (1991) and lifetime-achievement (2000) awards. He performed at the opening of the Experience Music Project in 2000.

Born June 11, 1945, in Vancouver, Wash., Mr. Scott was raised in Portland. He taught himself piano and guitar, first playing with gospel groups. He once did a West Coast tour with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.

In 1974, he turned his attention to the blues, igniting the Seattle scene along First Avenue.

"I was managing (Seattle blues man) Tom McFarland at the time," Hamilton recalls. "Tom was playing the Boulder Cafe, and (harmonica player) Don McNeff brought him through the door. When he got up behind Tom and the Korean go-go girls and started chopping these psychedelic guitar licks, it was like putting 100-watt bulbs in all the sockets."

Like Albert Collins, an early influence, Mr. Scott plucked his electric guitar with his thumb instead of a pick, which, along with his love of Jimi Hendrix, gave him a distinctive sound. Mr. Scott also was known for his stamina, often playing sets that went on for two or three hours.

In 1987, Mr. Scott was diagnosed with diabetes, which led to the amputation of his foot and leg. He continued to perform in a wheelchair.

"Isaac had a real forceful personality and a dramatic physical presence," recalled bass player Mark Dalton, who worked with Mr. Scott for many years. "He played from way inside of himself. I think his time playing with gospel groups had given him a sense of what authenticity in music was all about. He was probably the best improviser I've ever known."

Mr. Scott was passionate about guitars.

"One day I came home from work and there was a guitar in the bathtub," DePoe recalled. "He was stripping the varnish. A couple days later, I pulled out the bottom drawer of this dresser we had, made of mahogany wood, and the bottom part of the drawer was gone. He had used the wood to rebuild the neck of the guitar."

A private, sometimes intimidating man of few words, Mr. Scott was hard to get to know. But those close to him found a sensitive man behind the hard shell.

"Isaac was a very sweet guy," said Hamilton. "It was so hard for him ... to be himself, a sweet, accepting, well-mannered man, who would always ask about your children and your health."

"He was extremely intelligent and a really funny character," Dalton said. "He could keep you in stitches on end. Most people never saw this side of him. He was a blues man in the best sense — slightly jaded and slightly cynical — but always addressed with humor."

Mr. Scott was primarily a "cover artist" who did not write his own songs. That held him back from national recognition.

He is survived by two daughters, Angela, of Seattle, and Tina, of Wisconsin; a son, Isaac IV, of Seattle; a granddaughter, Shakira, of Seattle; three sisters, Norma Scott and Lisa Scott, of Portland, and Lugene Scott, of Tacoma; two brothers, Vernon Scott and John Scott, of Portland; and two stepsisters, Thelma Harris, of Portland, and Marilyn Bratley of Tacoma.

Services will be announced on Mr. Scott's Web site: www.isaacscott.com.

Paul de Barros can be reached at 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com.

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