Faces in the Crowd: Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Since it's almost Halloween, I thought a blog post about Screamin' Jay Hawkins might be fitting for this spooky season.  Over the years of rock & roll, there have always been what I call Shock Artists; those whose artistic impulse is to scare the average music fan.  If there had been no Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, we might not have had such artists as Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne as part of rock & roll’s musical legacy.   So today, we celebrate the man who was there first...the one and only Screamin' Jay Hawkins! 

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (July 18, 1929 – February 12, 2000) had a storied career as a singer-songwriter, actor and film producer.  Many folks remember him as an early pioneer of rock & roll who was widely known for his powerful vocal chops and his spooky live performances that employed macabre props onstage. 

“Hawkins' most successful recording, "I Put a Spell on You" (1956), was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. According to the AllMusic Guide to the Blues, ‘Hawkins originally envisioned the tune as a refined ballad.’ The entire band was intoxicated during a recording session where "Hawkins screamed, grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with 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, although it failed to make the Billboard pop or R&B charts.  Although Hawkins himself blacked out and was unable to remember the session, he relearned the song from the recorded version. Meanwhile, 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. Nonetheless it was banned from radio in some areas.  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.  Hawkins didn't want to—reportedly saying ‘No black dude gets in a coffin alive — they don’t expect to get out!’ but reluctantly accepted and soon created an outlandish stage persona in which performances began with the coffin and included gold and leopard skin costumes and notable voodoo stage props, such as his smoking skull on a stick – named Henry – and rubber snakes. These props were suggestive of voodoo, but also presented with comic overtones that invited comparison to a black Vincent Price. Despite the commercial success of the gimmick, Hawkins resented the schlock-factor that made him famous. He found it exploitative, and believed it undermined his sincerity as a vocalist and a balladeer. In a 1973 interview, he bemoaned the Screamin' epithet given to him by his label Okeh records, saying ‘If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins...James Brown did an awful lot of screamin’, but never got called Screamin’ James Brown...Why can’t people take me as a regular singer without making a bogeyman out of me?’  I Put a Spell On You became a classic cult song, covered by a variety of artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone, Alan Price, the Animals, Them with Van Morrison, Arthur Brown, Bryan Ferry, Buddy Guy with Carlos Santana, Tim Curry, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Nick Cave in a concert only version, Marilyn Manson, Mica Paris with David Gilmour, Jeff Beck and Joss Stone, Diamanda Galas, and Annie Lennox in 2014 for her Grammy nominated album Nostalgia. Hawkins' original I Put a Spell on You was featured during the show and over the credits of the 2003 The Simpsons episode I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can.” (Wikipedia)

 

From The Curious History of I Put A Spell On You (Flavorwire): "It’s one of those rare songs that sonically matches its lyrical content, but here the heavy-handedness is so deft that it bewitches rather than repels. This perfection has become something of a vice for films — it’s turned up in Crazy Love, Lost Highway, Hocus Pocus, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Stranger than Paradise, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and Kinky Boots (as well being covered by the aforementioned vocalists, and also appearing in commercials for McDonalds, Burger King, and Pringle’s Potato Chips). It’s invoked whenever someone needs a quick way to put a spell on audiences...It’s a known-ish fact that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wouldn’t have been Screamin’ Jay Hawkins if it weren’t for the drunken shenanigans — foreshadowing a life replete with shenanigans — that overtook his performance of what was originally intended to be a love ballad. After getting blackout drunk on a night of recording I Put a Spell On You, he realized he “could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death” than attempting more traditional blues style. He told the LA Times that he 'called on his opera training' and his ability to 'scream soprano'

At the time of recording, in 1955, The Beatles didn’t even exist, and thus hadn’t yet 'sexually revolutionized' music with their perverse, licentious claims of 'wanting to hold your hand'. So you can imagine how listeners responded to Hawkins’ song of demonic attraction, which he ended in a series of noises that sounded halfway between your typical, orgasm man and a pig who’d just completed a marathon (different Hawkins recordings culminate in various other animal noises). It was, of course, banned on many radio stations and in stores.  Hawkins realized, with the help of DJ Alan Freed, that the possessed, voracious hyper-sexuality that surfaced in that first recording could make for a larger artistic persona, and he soon undertook a sartorial transformation to match the vocal performance. His ghoulish spell-caster look — which often involved emerging from coffins, sporting witch-doctor-y nose appendages, capes and leopard print and toting a smoking skull on a stick — stayed with him throughout his career. It did plunge itself into the questionable territory of racial stereotyping, consumed with glee by white audiences...

The fact that the song was a chart-topping single in 1968 for white singer Alan Price, but not for Hawkins a decade earlier, speaks to this level of acceptability, and to Hawkins’ boldness in setting himself outside of it. At a time when civil rights were questioned because white people wanted to keep the black population in check, was it not a huge statement to make public the unprecedented sound that was Hawkins’ vocal rage and lust? (The ambiguous statement of Hawkins’ aesthetic was surely later once again brought into question by his satiric album title, Black Music for White People.)...Usage of the song later became humorously literal with witchy goth-comedies like Elvira and Hocus Pocus, where Bette Midler’s un-seductive, buck-toothed witch hypnotizes listeners with a spell — none other than the song I Put a Spell on You — which she hopes will lead them to “dance until [they] die!!” Marilyn Manson and Black Sabbath likewise reapplied the song’s dark-fantasy lyrics to their own dark, fantastical images, in ways that were at once fitting and utterly bizarre. While these were intentionally literal, dumbly smart extensions of the song’s transforming cultural path, other covers were less inspiring. Most tended to recast the song merely as a saucy standard, a vessel for powerful, if not particularly unique, vocal performances aided by generic instrumentals (Queen Latifah did it! Joss Stone did it! Even Van Morrison did it! Annie Lennox did it!). It seemed to suddenly provide artists who might lack edge with an instant dash of fire...However, we can remind ourselves of the song’s more powerful, less hackneyed origins, of its raw and astonishing boldness, and of its having belonged to a series of loaded statements before having evolved into something of a meaning-devoid, innocuously naughty standard."

 

After his success with I Put A Spell On You in the 1950’s, Hawkins continued to tour and record through the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly in Europe, where remained a very popular artist.  Some of his releases included Alligator Wine, The Whammy, Feast Of The Mau Mau and the (autobiographical) Constipation Blues. In February 1976, Hawkins suffered burns to his face when one of his flaming props went out of control during a performance at a theater in Virginia. when he was burned by one of his flaming props while performing with his guitarist. In Paris in 1999 at the Taste of Chicago festival, he actually performed his bizarre song, "Constipation Blues", with a toilet onstage!

"Hawkins’ outlandish dress sense and stage performances would only become more eccentric as he incessantly toured America. He either dressed up as an African chieftain or sported a green turban, shades, a pink tuxedo, a zebra cape and white shoes while jumping out of coffins, to the accompaniment of thunderous fireworks and flash boxes. In the process Hawkins inspired countless Rock ”˜N’ Roll performers from Little Richard to Alice Cooper. Snakes, a cigarette-smoking skull on a stick called Henry, model severed hands, tarantulas and shrunken heads heightened the drama, and the subsequent outrage voiced by various concerned citizens committees and the National Casket Company. Nevertheless the singer’s stage act certainly proved popular with the female section of his audience. Hawkins had three children with his first wife, but was certain that he fathered at least another fifty children with an endless succession of girlfriends and groupies."  (from the Louder Than War site)

As time went on, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins appeared in movies as well as continuing to make music.  In 1978, Hawkins appeared as himself in American Hot Wax, a bio-pic about Alan Freed.  In 1983, Jim Jarmusch used I Put A Spell On You in the film’s soundtrack.  Jarmusch, after meeting Hawkins, cast him as a hotel night clerk in his film, Mystery Train.

In his later years, Hawkins was participated in the making of a documentary about his career,  From YouTube: "The legendary Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a great influence on many musicians and his performances were so highly provocative in their originality that even today they can be considered "revolutionary". Screamin' Jay Hawkins met Nicholas Triandafyllidis and commissioned him to make a documentary about his notorious life in and out of the music industry. Screaming Jay came to Greece and he gave his very last concerts in Thessaloniki and Athens, before his sudden death in Paris in 2000. Having been left a legacy of confidential sessions and footage of his final live performances, Triandafyllidis completed the film with a little help from Jay's friends: Jim Jarmusch (director of Ghost Dog), Bo Diddley, Eric Burdon (The Animals), Rudi Protrudi, Diamanda Galas, Arthur Brown (The Crazy Word of Arthur Brown), Andre Williams and others.

Getting back to Screamin' Jay's music, Hawkins always managed to somehow continue recording credible music; even after his popularity dropped a bit.  Here's some info about some of the cool music he did in his later years.  From The Aquarium Drunkard blog: "A new collection from Real Gone Music, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: The Bizarre Years, plucks selections from his albums for the imprint—1991’s Black Music for White People, 1993’s Stone Gold Crazy, and 1994’s Something Funny Goin’ On—as well as a Bizarre compilation rarity released in 2000, the same year he passed away in the Neuilly-sur-Seine neighborhood of Paris following an aneurysm.  Though Manifesto’s 2018 collection Are You One of Jay’s Kids offers everything he recorded for Bizarre, The Bizarre Years presents a tighter focus on Hawkins’ zeal for infamy. The man loved a cringe-inducing wisecrack, as evidenced by Ignant and Shit, Strokin’, and Shut Your Mouth When You Sneeze. The success of each depends greatly on the individual listener’s tolerance for yucks. The stomping rockabilly of Swamp Gas finds Hawkins picking up a little action from the Cramps (though not as much as the Cramps picked up from Jay) and... I Am the Cool oozes high-grade weirdness, as does Hawkins’ dubious ode to Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn (though you wish someone would’ve swapped the straight-out-of-Guitar Center squeals for some Badlementi twang). Hawkins covers two songs by devoted fan (and Jarmusch colleague) Tom Waits, Whistling Past the Graveyard and Heart Attack and Vine. The latter is especially menacing and the best of the set ('Don’t you know there ain’t no devil/that’s just Screamin’ Jay when he’s drunk'), and enough to make you wish Jay had got around to covering selections from Mule Variations."

 

From a 1989 Interview on the Louder Than War site: "Nobody can get on the stage after me. You know who paid e that compliment? It was Nat King Cole who told me that when I was still a youngster learning the business. He said, 'You’ve got too much energy, if I was on a show with you I would want to go on before you. I would never follow you'...Stan Kenton said to me, 'you play unusual music, but YOU are one of the most unusual big mouthed black man I have ever seen in my LIFE!’ Well, when you get compliments like that from the masters, from people that heavy, that deep...You’ve got to be on the right track, it’s just a matter of time.  The guys then who were running show business, they’re nearly all dead, I’ve outlived them! Now you get the young kids taking over, they want more Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and I Thank God for all of them! Cos' it’s given me a new lease of life. However, I’m getting older. I have reached the point where I’m tired but nobody will know it tonight...the audience will know it when they read whatever you write, but when you’re watching me on stage you won’t see it.”

 

Since his death in 2000, Screamin' Jay's legend has continued to grow.  His larger than life persona lives on in his music and in other ways...after his death, it was revealed that he fathered somewhere between 55 and 75 children.


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