The Truth About Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
The Great Granddaddy Of Shock Rock
Before Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, there was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He’s the guy that started it all – mixing rock ‘n roll with extreme theatrics – anything is ‘permitted’ as long as there’s ample shock value to the audience. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was the first fearless rocker who experimented with how to take his live performances to the next level.
His mother gave him up for adoption because allegedly, she already had too many kids to take care of. He had to spend the first 18 months of his life in an orphanage before finally getting adopted. His love for music already emerged at a young age. By 6, he could already read music and he even taught himself how to play the piano.
He started boxing when he was in his teens. He even won a championship!
Love for Music
He was fond of the opera.
“Something I wanted to do but never did is sing opera. That goes back to my respect for Paul Robeson and Mario Lanza, but when I got into the music business, opera didn’t get into the charts; they were just putting rhythm and blues out.”
In 1944, he joined the US Army and entertaining the troops became part of his service. After leaving the Army, he went back to pursue music.
Before ultimately going solo, Hawkins worked with Tiny Grimes and Fats Domino – he was even featured on Grimes’ recordings.
Evolution to Shock Rocker
Hawkins struck gold with his most successful song, “I Put a Spell on You.” It was originally intended to be a refined ballad but the producer got everybody drunk during the recording. The result, as expected, was far from a ballad. On the contrary, it was raw, wild and bluesy with plenty of moans, screams, grunts, and other ‘sound effects’ in between.
It was radio disc jockey Alan Freed who encouraged and offered $300 to Hawkins to make his stage entrance by emerging out of a coffin. It was so creepy and scary that some of the crowd members ran screaming towards the exit.
He then followed up this macabre image with more spooky antics until it became a norm for him. Sometimes, he would use a smoking skull propped up on a stick and which he named “Henry.” He was outrageous on stage – from voodoo props and rubber snakes to leopardskin costumes, he always went all-out. He would also perform while wearing a turban and a bone through his nose. Or, he would wear a simple loincloth and carry around a spear and shield.
This was indeed a hit with the audience but it wasn’t without consequence. The National Association for Colored People (NAACP) and other groups feared that it would put a negative light on the whole African-American community. Interestingly, Hawkins was also resentful of his image – he felt like people were more drawn to his stage persona than his music.
“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?”
He recorded other albums to follow-up on his hit song but unfortunately, he was unable to replicate his initial success. On February 12, 2000, Hawkins died after undergoing an emergency surgery for his aneurysm.
Hawkins married six times (he was stabbed by Shoutin’ Pat Newborn out of jealousy when he wedded Virginia Sabellona) and it’s been rumored he has fathered around 75 children. His friend and biographer Maral Nigolian even set up a website after Hawkins’ death to trace all of them. He found 33 and some of them even met during a reunion in 2001.
His Lasting Influence
Even though he didn’t get the appreciation he absolutely deserved while he was still alive and well, it’s fairly easy to spot how much he has influenced other musicians not just in rock ‘n roll. Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, KISS, Tom Waits, Rob Zombie, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath are some of the rockstars who made their onstage theatrics part of the whole package.
“I Put a Spell On You” has been covered numerous times by other iconic singers such as Annie Lennox, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Animals, Nina Simone, Buddy Guy, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, and Carlos Santana among others.