Screamin' Jay Hawkins Biography

Jalacy Hawkins, 18 July 1929, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, d. 12 February 2000, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Reportedly raised in Cleveland by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, young Jalacy became interested in music at an early age, teaching himself piano at the age of six and, having mastered the keyboard, he then learned to play saxophone in his early teens. Hawkins was also an adept young boxer, winning an amateur Golden Gloves contest and becoming Middleweight Champion of Alaska in 1949. He judged music to be the easier option, and became a professional musician, playing piano with artists such as Gene Ammons, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, James Moody, Lynn Hope, and on one occasion, Count Basie. In 1950, Hawkins began developing an act based more on his almost operatic bass-baritone voice, and the following year he joined Tiny Grimes’ Rocking Highlanders as pianist and occasional vocalist, making his recording debut with the band for Gotham Records in 1952 (the record was withdrawn after three weeks) and for Atlantic Records in 1953 (the results remain unissued). Leaving Grimes, Hawkins was befriended by blues shouter Wynonie Harris, who brought the young musician to New York City as his protégé.

At this point, Hawkins’ fortunes began to take an upswing, first with his debut records under his own name for the Timely label, followed by superior efforts for Mercury /Wing and Grand Records. In 1956, Screamin’ Jay (as he was now known) signed with Columbia Records’ reactivated OKeh Records subsidiary and enjoyed enormous success with his manic - and apparently drunken - rendition of his own ‘I Put A Spell On You’, which he had recorded earlier as a ballad for Grand Records. Released in October 1956, the original version was quickly withdrawn as a result of the public outrage caused by the ‘suggestive and cannibalistic’ sound effects provided by Hawkins. A suitably truncated substitution was soon made. Despite these efforts, an air-play ban remained in force, but the record sold over a million copies regardless, becoming a classic of rock music and invoking hundreds of cover versions from Nina Simone to the Alan Price Set and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Remaining with OKeh until 1958, Hawkins ran the gamut of his weird-but-wonderful repertoire with recordings of straight R&B songs such as ‘Little Demon’ and ‘Person To Person’, tongue-in-cheek, semi-operatic standards such as ‘I Love Paris’ and ‘Temptation’, and the unclassifiable and uniquely bizarre ‘Hong Kong’, ‘Alligator Wine’ and ‘There’s Something Wrong With You’.

To enhance this ghoulish strangeness, on his tours with rock ‘n’ roll package shows, Hawkins was encouraged by Alan Freed to use macabre props such as skulls, snakes and shrunken heads and to begin his act from the inside of a coffin. Again, uproar followed, resulting in a largely unrepresentative album release and, worse still, Hawkins’ only 50s movie appearance in Mister Rock And Roll being cut out in case parents boycotted the release. Shunned by the mass media, Hawkins spent most of the 60s playing one-nighters and tired rock ‘n’ roll revival gigs, making the occasional one-off recording agreement with tiny independent labels. The Night And Day Of Screaming Jay Hawkins, recorded in London for producer Shel Talmy’s Planet label, was more conservative in tone. A brace of late 60s albums extended his idiosyncratic reputation and it was during these sessions that Hawkins recorded the original ‘Constipation Blues’, a lavatorial performance destined to become an intrinsic part of his stage act.

He enjoyed a cameo role in 1978’s much-praised American Hot Wax, and later won a starring role as the laconic hotel desk clerk in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Hawkins later collaborated with modern garage band the Fleshtones. A 1991 release, Black Music For White People, which included readings of two Tom Waits compositions, ‘Ice Cream Man’ and ‘Heart Attack And Vine’, as well as a rap interpretation of ‘I Put A Spell On You’, revealed a largely undiminished power. His influence on other performers, notably Screaming Lord Sutch, Arthur Brown and Alice Cooper, should not be underestimated. Touring and recording steadily through the 80s and 90s, Hawkins formed a new band, the Fuzztones, and made successful tours of Europe and the USA. His 1998 album, At Last, was a notable return to form. Hawkins died in February 2000 from an aneurysm following intestine surgery.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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