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Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was a blues/soul singer known for his over-the-top theatricality and the hit “I Put a Spell on You.”
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Born on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland, Ohio, “Screamin’” Jalacy J. Hawkins was a piano prodigy and boxer who worked with Fats Domino and Tiny Grimes. Hawkins had a hit in 1956 with his bombastic take on “I Put a Spell on You.” His career became known for its wild stage antics, with the singer wearing bones and rising out of coffins. After later appearances in film, he died on February 12, 2000 in France.
Singer, songwriter and musician Screamin' Jay Hawkins was born Jalacy J. Hawkins on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland, Ohio. One of rock and roll's original madmen, Hawkins was as famous for his music as he was for his stage antics. He spent the first year and a half of his life in an orphanage before being adopted. His mother reportedly gave him up because she already had too many children to care for. Hawkins’ interest in music emerged at an early age. He taught himself to play piano and could read music by the age of 6.
While in his teens, Hawkins took up boxing. He had some success in the ring, winning a Golden Gloves championship in 1943. Still, Hawkins maintained an interest in music. Inspired by Paul Robeson and Enrico Caruso, Hawkins studied opera. But he left school to join the U.S. Army to fight in World War II in 1944. As part of his service, Hawkins entertained the troops. When he returned, he continued to box for a time before pursuing music full time.
In the early 1950s, Hawkins worked such artists as Tiny Grimes and Fats Domino before striking out on his own. It took two tries to score a hit with his best-known song, “I Put a Spell on You.” The first version for Okeh Records failed to attract listeners.
During his next attempt for Columbia Records, he and the studio musicians drank heavily during the recording session. The result, which Hawkins claimed not to remember recording, was a bluesy, voodoo-tinged single filled with boisterous vocals, including moans and other sound effects. This version gave him his first hit in 1956.
After some encouragement and a little financial incentive from disc jockey Alan Freed, Hawkins enhanced his stage persona to project a more macabre image. He made his stage entrance from a coffin and often dressed as a vampire. Besides his coffin, Hawkins used other creepy props, including a skull perched on a stick that he named “Henry.”
Sometimes he appeared wearing a turban with a bone through his nose or wearing a loincloth and carrying a shield and spear. While audiences enjoyed his wild antics, others, including the National Association for Colored People (NAACP), were concerned that his actions reflected badly on the entire African-American community.
Follow-ups to his biggest hit included “Hong Kong” and “Alligator Wine.” But neither had same impact as “I Put a Spell on You.” Hawkins took a break from the music business to live in Hawaii for part of the 1960s. But he eventually returned to touring and recording from the 1960s to the 1990s.
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When musicians land big fame, there typically comes a moment of reinvention in which the "rock star" identity is born. This new persona often requires a new name, a way to differentiate between the private and public versions of themselves. Musical monikers take different forms, from the simple, last-name changes aimed at boosting celebrity appeal—like Steven Tyler—to the glamorized version of a childhood nickname—like Jay-Z. Musicians' nicknames and aliases tend to take on an identity all their own over time, often becoming as full of personality as the artists they represent.
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