Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: A Legend Among Legends

I love my Shock Rock. I secretly listened to Alice Cooper when my father wouldn’t allow anything more rock and roll in the house than the Everly Brothers. Later I hooked up with Kiss (not literally, of course, though that Gene Simmons could make me reconsider my leanings…) and subsequently I dallied with the likes of Black Sabbath, GWAR, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, Slipknot, Pat Boone… and there are others.

But it was only recently that I learned of the man who had started them all off on that long, dark and scary road: Jalacy Hawkins, better known as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Born in 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio, Hawkins had a life worthy of the movies: placed in an orphanage by his mother, who’d reportedly given him up because she already had too many children to care for. From there he was taken and subsequently raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians(!).

Screamin Jay and Henry

Hawkins enlisted in the US Army in 1944 at the age of 15, before entering the Army Air Corps. It was here that his career as an entertainer began, playing tenor sax to the GIs (he’d taught himself to play piano and could read music by the age of six), as well as becoming a Golden Gloves boxing champion and Middleweight Championship of Alaska in 1949. But he decided that boxing wasn’t for him, and left the military to focus on his music full time. Initially inspired by Paul Robeson and Enrico Caruso to study opera, he eventually turned to jazz and blues.

His most successful recording, “I Put a Spell on You”, was originally envisioned as a refined ballad. But Hawkins and his band was completely hammered during the studio recording session, and Hawkins screamed, grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with what one witnessed described as “utter drunken abandon”.The resulting performance was no ballad but instead a “raw, guttural track” that became his greatest commercial success and reportedly surpassed a million copies in sales, though Hawkins himself blacked out and was unable to remember the session (afterwards he had to relearn the song from the recorded version). But the record label released a second version of the single, removing most of the grunts that had embellished the original performance; this was in response to complaints about the recording’s overt sexuality in the grunts and growls. Nonetheless it was still banned from radio in some areas, though over the decades it has been covered many times by a wide variety of artists, from Marilyn Manson to Nina Simone.

Still Screamin’ After All These Years!!

Hawkins had always been larger than life. But it was the emergence of his ghoulish side which should be of interest. Soon after the release of “I Put a Spell on You”, radio disc jockey Alan Freed offered Hawkins $300 to emerge from a coffin onstage. He did, and such was the reaction from the audience that Hawkins’ flamboyant, eccentric persona blossomed. At various times he would dress up as a vampire, an African chieftain, in pink tuxedos, zebra capes and green turbans, and emerge from coffins to the accompaniment of fireworks and flash bombs. He used snakes, severed hand props, tarantulas, shrunken heads, and a cigarette-smoking skull on a stick that he called Henry – all items which would later be attributed to the likes of Alice Cooper and Screaming Lord Sutch. The audiences lapped up his antics, though of course, he had his critics, from the usual Moral Majority types, to the NAACP, who were concerned that his actions reflected badly on the entire African American community.

Screamin’ Jay on FIRE!!

Though none of his subsequent releases could match the success of “I Put a Spell On You”, Hawkins continued to tour and record throughout the following decades, appearing in movies like STRANGER THAN PARADISE, A RAGE IN HARLEM and MYSTERY TRAIN, as well as collaborating with the likes of The Clash, Nick Cave and Dread Zeppelin.

And the man was, to put it mildly, a horndog: two years before his death in 2000 at the age of 70, he had married his ninth wife, a 29-year-old woman from Cameroon, and left nearly sixty children among his other wives, girlfriends and groupies (Hawkins must have had bionic sperm, or perhaps an inability to get the condom out of the wrapper).

Hawkins left an impressive discography, but sadly very few video performances showcasing him in his prime. Here’s one you can check out below; it’s an antiquated recording from a sixties British music programme, but there are others available, some from his later years. So when you plan your Halloween play list, spare some space for the man who started it all…

Stay Bloody!!!

written by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien

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4 Responses to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: A Legend Among Legends

  1. Love Manson’s cover of “I Put a Spell On You.”