Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – A Most Peculiar Shade of Blue

In 1956, ex-boxer, soldier and R&B sideman, Jalacy Hawkins recorded a song so shocking that, having recovered from the drunken stupor he was in when making it, attempted to destroy the tape, claiming it couldn’t possibly be his work. The still chilling, much-covered  (though none, even Nina Simone’s, coming anywhere near the original) “I Put a Spell on You” is a landmark in popular music, opening up the playing field to not only macabre song-writing but also the use of outlandish stage props and performance. Despite being banned in many States, the song sold comfortably over a million copies in the U.S alone (though was omitted from the charts), not particularly because of the  lyrical content but the completely unhinged delivery, Hawkins screaming, grunting and spluttering his way through against the backdrop of a pre-Addams Family-esque polka.

Clip from the Alan Freed biopic American Hot Wax 

His early years in the army are shrouded in myth and mystery. Born in 1929, Hawkins regularly claimed to have been a prisoner of war whilst serving in World War II, based in the Pacific. He declared that he had escaped and got his revenge on his captor by tying him up and putting a hand grenade in his mouth, then pulling the pin. What is certain is that he became the middle-weight boxing champion of Alaska in 1949.

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Jalacy performed under the moniker ‘Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ and already had a reputation as being somewhat flamboyant, from his womanising to his drinking to his alarming stage outfits; leopard skin , leather, massive hats, whatever was to hand. His extraordinary rich, baritone voice initially drew him towards opera, certainly a fitting vehicle for his voice but probably not his antics. The success of “…Spell” prompted DJ Alan Freed to dare Hawkins to emerge from a coffin at his next show. $300 dollars in Hawkins’s bank account later and a full stage show was born – coffins, voodoo-inspired sets, capes, flash bombs and his constant companion, Henry, a cigarette-smoking skull on a cane, as well as songs covering everything from the Mau-Mau, beverages made from alligators, madness to bowel complaints.

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Screamin’s stage set-up was largely decorated with voodoo paraphernalia and many of his songs deal with the religion and associated rites including the self-explanatory “Voodoo“, “Alligator Wine” and “Feast Of The Mau-Mau“. His earlier songs, many released on the famed Okeh label, though less focussed on the bizarre, are still required listening, instantly recognisable amongst the rhythm and blues performers of the time; Hawkins was also an accomplished pianist, something often overlooked. By the 1960s the stage show was just as important as the songs, his drinking and unpredictability all adding to the drama. Upon signing to Phillips in 1969, he released “Constipation Blues“, singing of the trials and tribulations of toilet trouble. To ensure the audience were under no misapprehension, he appeared at one show sitting on a toilet on stage.

The 1980s saw him performing with New York garage rock band The Fuzztones, releasing a live album in 1984. His theatrics had not gone unnoticed in the film world and he made several cameo appearances, usually playing characters as crackpot as himself. The most famous of these is his appearance in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film, Mystery Train, playing an eccentric night clerk at a hotel, having some bother with a plum and an ornamental fly. Meanwhile,  supernatural horror film Night Angel (also 1989) features Hawkins performing ‘Sirens Burnin’.

Hawkins influence was recognised, not only by the myriad of performers who aped his style, from Screaming Lord Such to The Cramps to Alice Cooper but also performers like The Clash and Nick Cave who invited him to tour with them as their support act. He continued to record widely throughout the 1990s, incorporating more electric guitar and often revamping some of his older songs for a newer, younger audience. In 1991 he released one of his most famous albums, the typically provocative “Black Music For White People”. It was certainly enough to provoke Tom Waits’s lawyers who took exception to the use of Hawkins’s cover of “Heart Attack And Vine”, which was used in a Levi’s television commercial. The song did eventually give Hawkins his highest UK chart placing, a lowly 42. He later covered Waits’s “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard”, surviving financially unscathed.

His extra-curricular activities followed Screamin’ until his death in France in 2000. He is rumoured to have sired no fewer than 57 children, mostly to different mothers, an eye-popping claim which was the subject of a British Channel 4 documentary called “57 Screamin’ Kids”. Allegations were made by many of the children that he did nothing to support them, financially or emotionally. He left behind an enormous catalogue of albums, many, sadly, out of print; a partial discography can be seen below, though this does not include the many best of’s and compilations

A cad perhaps, a genius most certainly.

Originally featured on the excellent Horrorpedia

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