Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Biography

“Me, I guess you have to say I spent most o’ my time on the dark end of the street,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins told writer Gerri Hirshey in her soul music history Nowhere to Run. It was an unlikely place for the vocalist to dwell. As a boy, Jalacy Hawkins idolized Enrico Caruso and longed for a career in opera. Instead, the leather-lunged singer went the R&B route, and ultimately established himself as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most extroverted performers.


Screamin’ Jay’s rep rests largely on one record: His self-penned 1956 single “I Put a Spell On You.” This wailing, out-of-control slice of musical voodoo, which reached a rarefied level of dementia uncommon even in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, served as the springboard for Hawkins’ larger-than-life persona. Onstage in his concert heyday, the hulking musician would spring from a coffin, clad in a cape, a faux bone through his nose, brandishing a skull on a stick.


He never quite managed to reconcile himself to his horror-movie image. “I didn’t know what I’d done,” he told author Nick Tosches. “This record comes out and I’ve created a monster. Man, it was weird. I was forced to live the life of a monster…I’m some kinda bogeyman. I come outta coffins. Skulls, snakes, crawlin’ hands, fire, and all that mess.”


One of the most powerful and skilled singers of his era, Screamin’ Jay attempted to shake his image as a hoodoo man throughout his career, performing everything from standards to the occasional country song. But, to most, he was always a monstre sacré. Though he felt imprisoned by “I Put a Spell On You,” he re-recorded the song several times, in soul, boogaloo, and even disco arrangements. And, while it failed to reach either the pop or R&B charts (undoubtedly due to widespread banning  by squeamish radio programmers), the number was covered dozens of times, by acts as diverse as Nina Simone (who collected a top 30 R&B hit with it in 1965), the Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Alan Price, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and Nick Cave, among others.


Though his records never spent an instant on the singles charts, Hawkins remains one of rock’s most loved and revered wild men.


He was born on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland. His footloose mother put him up for adoption, and, after 18 months in an orphanage, he was taken in by a local family. He began playing piano and saxophone as a boy. As a teenager, he was a champion boxer in the Cleveland Golden Gloves. (In 1949, he defeated Alaska’s middleweight champion in a fierce bout that led to his permanent departure from the ring.)


Hawkins enlisted in the Army as an underage teenager; transferring to the Air Force, he performed as a member of the Special Service Division. After serving in Japan, Germany, and Korea (where he was wounded during the conflict there), he settled in Philadelphia. In 1951, he joined the Rocking Highlanders, a kilt-clad R&B combo led by guitarist Tiny Grimes, a former member of piano virtuoso Art Tatum’s trio. It was with Grimes’ band at Gotham Records that Hawkins made his vocal debut. He also fronted the group on sides recorded for Atlantic Records; he reputedly punched out label co-owner Ahmet Ertegun after he was asked to sing like Fats Domino. His Atlantic sides remain unissued nearly 60 years later.


After leaving Grimes’ fold, Hawkins worked in a succession of honking R&B bands led by such top jazz-bred players as James Moody, Arnett Cobb, Bill Doggett, and Lynn Hope. In 1954, he recorded unprofitably for Timely. His 1955 stint at Mercury produced the prophetically manic single “(She Put the) Wamee (On Me).”At Grand Records in Philadelphia later that year, he debuted “I Put a Spell On You,” which was originally envisioned as a smoldering ballad. The number went unreleased. It was while he was at Grand that he began recording as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; he later said that a fat, exuberant female patron at a club in Nitro, West Virginia, had always commanded him to “Scream, Jay!” Hence the moniker.


Finally, Hawkins’ management contract was sold, for a princely $50, to Philadelphia music publisher Irv Nahan. Hearing a hit in “I Put a Spell On You,” Nahan took the song to Columbia A&R man Arnold Maxin, who signed Hawkins to the OKeh subsidiary. “Spell” and its hallucinatory flip side “Little Demon” were recorded Sept. 12, 1956, by Hawkins and a combo that included tenor saxophonist Sam “The Man” Taylor and drummer Panama Francis.


Maxin wasn’t interested in another ballad version of the song. “So,” Hawkins told Nick Tosches, “he brought in a case of Italian Swiss Colony Muscatel, and we all got our heads bent…We all got blind drunk.” The resultant single, which featured Hawkins shrieking and groaning over a staggering vamp, was so outré and threatening that it received virtually no airplay; however, it became a formidable underground hit.


Several bizarre OKeh singles — “Person to Person,” “Frenzy,” “Alligator Wine” (the first of many humorously revolting “recipe” songs by Hawkins) — followed. He also concocted the deranged LP At Home With Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1958), which was largely an unexpected and totally untethered recital of standards like “April in Paris” and “You Made Me Love You.” He was considered one of the wildest live acts of the day; after the National Casket Assn., a trade group for undertakers, condemned him for allegedly making fun of the dead, he was forced to stop renting coffins for his act and bought one of his own. He was a magnet for controversy: His appearance in Allan Freed’s movie vehicle “Mister Rock and Roll” was excised by the studio.


After leaving OKeh, Hawkins’ fortunes waned. He recorded for a series of independent labels — Red Top, Enrica, Chancellor. At the latter label, he recorded with a female partner named Shoutin’ Pat; after their relocation from Miami to Hawaii, she stabbed Hawkins after he married a much younger woman.


Nina Simone’s hit cover of “Spell” led to a 1965 tour of England and Europe, where he enjoyed fresh stardom. Two 1966 sessions for Decca Records came to naught, but in the late ‘60s he was signed to Philips Records in the US. His first album for the company, …What This Is! (1969), contained such satisfying slabs of lunacy as his ultimate “recipe” song “Feast of the Mau Mau” and his unhinged contemplation of “real pain,” “Constipation Blues,” inspired by a hospital stay for the titular malady. His second Philips release, produced in Houston by Huey Meaux, was less satisfying. His 1974 single “Voodoo,” backed with the “Spell” sequel “You Put the Spell On Me,” marked Hawkins’s last stop at a major label.


He recorded albums for a list of increasingly obscure independent labels — Hot Line, Versatile, Koala, Paris, Midnight, Spivey, Manifesto. However, thanks to his outsized musical personality, he still managed to work his way back into the public eye with regularity. In 1978, he appeared as himself, along with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lewis, in director Floyd Mutrux’s highly cosmetic film about Allan Freed, American Hot Wax. In 1980, he was invited to open for The Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. In 1984, director Jim Jarmusch used “I Put a Spell On You” as a key musical motif in his independent feature Stranger Than Paradise; five years later, Jarmusch cast Hawkins as the imposing, impassive night clerk at a seedy Memphis hotel in his film Mystery Train. Hawkins appeared at the opening of the latter feature at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival. He also appeared as himself in A Rage in Harlem (1991).


During the ‘90s, Hawkins managed a few high-profile album projects. His Black Music For White People (1991) and Stone Crazy (1993) were issued through Rhino Records. Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On (1995) appeared on the reactivated Bizarre/Straight label. In 1998, he recorded his last hurrah, At Last, for France’s Last Call Records; the collection was skillfully produced in Memphis by Jim Dickinson.


Screamin’ Jay Hawkins died in Paris on Feb. 12, 2000, after emergency surgery following an aneurysm.

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