The Freaky Theatrics of Screamin' Jay Hawkins: Does He Put a Spell on You?

If Halloween could have a musical patron saint (or perhaps in this case, a witchdoctor), that man would be Screamin’ Jay.
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If Halloween could have a musical patron saint (or perhaps in this case, a witchdoctor), that man would be Screamin’ Jay.

Certain holidays and music seem to go together. Christmas, for instance, would be unthinkable without the sounds of choirs and bells. The Fourth of July would feel less patriotic without the sounds of a brass band, and New Year’s would not fill us with feelings of bittersweet reverie without the boozy, sentimental sounds of Guy Lombardo. Although rock ’n’ roll can lay some claim to every one of these special days on the calendar (think of all those rock stars rockin’ around their Christmas trees), there’s one particular holiday that has adopted the so-called “devil’s music” as its own. You might have guessed, given the time of year, that I’m referring to Halloween.

Rock ‘n’ roll and Halloween are a natural fit. Both are theatrical, colorful, and unconventional; both deal in ideas of surprise, role-play, mischief, and excess; and both allow kids and adults (but especially kids) to express themselves in ways that society normally discourages. It’s not surprising that civic and religious leaders in the past have sought to tar both Halloween and rock’n’roll as unwholesome at best and downright harmful at worst. Over the years, rock music has done its best to live up to these fears with “shock rock” acts like Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Marilyn Manson, as well as punk rock groups like the Misfits and the Cramps. There’s even a long-running heavy metal group named Helloween.

But the great granddaddy of all of the Halloween rock’n’rollers who would come along to shock and scare us was a no-nonsense black man named Jalacy Hawkins, whose spooky stage show, wild-eyed demeanor, and shouting vocals transformed him into the wonder of nature known as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. If Halloween could be said to have a musical patron saint (or perhaps in this case, a witchdoctor), that man would be Screamin’ Jay.

LITTLE DEMON

Screamin Jay Hawkins Photo

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The burlesque horror that came to be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s stock-in-trade had its roots in real-life terror: He was abandoned by his mother at an orphanage as a baby. Eventually adopted and raised by a family of Blackfoot Indians near Cleveland, Ohio, Hawkins showed an early interest in music, teaching himself the piano while still in single digits. He also had a concurrent interest in fisticuffs. By his early teens, he was a boxer of some promise, even winning a Golden Gloves championship at age 14. By this time, he had also enrolled in music school to study opera, his big baritone recalling the popular Paul Robeson. A year later, he left school and boxing to fight in a different kind of fight: World War II. He was too young to enlist, but he lied about his age and his large physical size was convincing.

After the war, Hawkins resumed his boxing career and continued to play music on the side. In 1951, he joined the outfit of R&B guitarist Tiny Grimes, whose band the Rockin’ Highlanders had a successful gimmick: They all wore Scottish tartan and kilts. The sartorial lesson was not lost on Hawkins, who began to wear his own unique ensemble on-stage that included leopard skins and a turban. He passed through a number of popular R&B bands after that, including Fats Domino’s group, before striking out on his own. He recorded a blues ballad of his own composition called “I Put a Spell on You” for a record company named Grand. The single was not a hit, but the much bigger OKeh Records showed interest. It was at OKeh that he would establish the Halloween-friendly sound and persona that would determine the course of his career. By most accounts, including his own, it was an accident.

I PUT A SPELL ON YOU

The idea was to re-record “I Put a Spell on You,” a song that Hawkins felt deserved a second chance. The night of the recording session, however, the engineer brought in ribs and many, many bottles of Italian Swiss Colony muscatel. Hawkins, who had already recorded several songs celebrating wine, was no stranger to the grape, and he and his band became increasingly inebriated as the session progressed. The engineer kept the tape running. The next day, when the band listened to the tape, they had no memory of what had transpired: a crazed, outlandish desecration of the original ballad, which now featured an unhinged vocal from Hawkins over a hypnotic, spooky riff. The song, originally about trying to hold onto a wayward lover, took on the sinister overtones of voodoo.

Watch Screamin' Jay perform 'I Put a Spell on You':

Released in the fall of 1956, “I Put a Spell on You” was not a big seller, mostly because it was banned by most radio stations. The voodoo vibe of the record was deemed offensive, as was the suggestion of carnal sexuality in the grunts and wails of the vocal. Even a re-released version with the most flagrant parts of the vocal faded out failed to catch on. However, early rock ‘n’ roll DJ Alan Freed loved the record and added Hawkins to his popular “Rock ‘N’ Roll Review” stage shows. Although Hawkins would regularly perform with props like chattering teeth and a battery-powered crawling hand, Freed urged him to take it further and make his entrance by popping out of a coffin. With a machine spewing smoke and flash powder caps creating onstage lightning, Hawkins would be rolled onto the stage and emerge from the coffin, tossing firecrackers from his pockets and looking menacingly at the audience. Some members of the largely teenage audience would run for the exits in genuine fright.

SHE PUT THE WAMMEE ON ME

Hawkins had found his bread and butter. He would spend the next few years refining his onstage persona, a witchdoctor crossed with a hip Dracula. Rubber snakes dangled from his neck as he brandished a skull on a stick that he nicknamed “Henry.” (Henry would occasionally smoke Hawkins’s cigarette while he was busy singing.) He wore a large bone in his nose and sometimes carried a spear. Needless to say, the NAACP was not overly enamored with Hawkins’s image, feeling that he perpetuated antiquated stereotypes that associated blacks with cannibalism, and even the National Casket Association warned its members not to rent Hawkins any caskets since they objected to his trivialization of the funeral ceremony. Hawkins responded by buying a coffin of his own.

Hawkins’s persona was both a blessing and a curse. It made him a popular attraction in performance, but it doomed him as a recording artist in an era that was still largely conservative. Subsequent releases on various labels failed to generate much interest among the record-buying public despite a high level of quality. “I Put a Spell on You” had put a spell on him, so that DJs wouldn’t go near other records he recorded, even when they were not scary or sinister. When other artists began to cover “I Put a Spell on You” in the 1960s, Hawkins didn’t even benefit financially, his interest in the song long since swindled away.

WELL I TRIED

Screamin’ Jay soldiered on through a string of unsuccessful releases on labels big and small through the ‘60s and ‘70s. He continued to perform, adding and subtracting from his bag of tricks as he went. (To promote his record “Feast of the Mau Mau,” he obtained a large cauldron to which he added mannequin parts and several bottles of ketchup.) He had a fluke hit in Japan with a scatological song called “Constipation Blues,” and eventually relocated to Europe, where the performing opportunities were more plentiful and the fees more generous. He often fretted about the perception of him as a black Vincent Price, disappointed that he was never taken seriously enough to realize the operatic ambitions he’d had as a teen. Yet, every Halloween, songs like “I Put a Spell on You” and “Alligator Wine” brought him briefly back into view.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s Hawkins continued to perform, including opening for the Rolling Stones on one of their large tours. He also made a late-career movie debut in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train as a motel desk manager. Jarmusch directed Hawkins to do as little as possible in the film, which confused Hawkins, who compared it to deploying a nuclear device and asking it not to explode. Still, the appearance attracted new fans and Hawkins began to receive more attention and respect in his native land. In 1998, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation recognized him with its Pioneer Award.

A clip from 'Mystery Train':

THIS IS ALL

By the time of his death two years later, Hawkins was well on his way to the kind of recognition he’d sought over his long career. Sadly, it was not to be. Ironically for a man who’d had a hit with “Constipation Blues,” Hawkins died of surgical complications from an intestinal blockage. He received some post-mortem attention from the media when it was revealed that he had sired somewhere between 50 and 75 illegitimate children during his career; a website called “Jay’s Kids” was created to find and assemble them for what must have been the strangest family reunion of all-time. Clearly not all women ran for the exits during a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performance.

Hawkins said in a documentary about his life that “you got to find something to be happy about, or you’re dead anyhow.” Despite never really achieving his ultimate musical ambitions, he did find plenty to be happy about in his time on earth. That spirit comes out in the generally good-natured fun of his songs, which continue to entertain people who love good rock ‘n’ roll and a little bit of a scare, especially every Halloween.