Long before Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson made headlines with their shocking antics, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins blazed a trail through late-Fifties rock, earning a reputation for the unexpected and leaving the world a bona fide classic in ‘I Put A Spell On You’. This compilation covers his first recording decade, from 1953 to 1962, and includes both singles and bonus album versions.
Cleveland-born Jalacy Hawkins, a former national amateur boxing champ, had served in the US armed forces before deciding music was his true calling. He got a gig in the early Fifties playing sax and piano with the Rocking Highlanders, a jump-blues combo led by guitarist Tiny Grimes. On stage, he unleashed a baritone voice and a towering stage presence that got him noticed, and was soon making his first record. We feature Jay and Tiny here on ‘Why Did You Waste My Time’, released in 1953 on the Gotham label.
He moved on after a year to work behind Lynn Hope and Fats Domino. The latter, however, was unhappy at being upstaged by the newcomer and swiftly ended their association. It was a setback, but the encouragement of fellow blues singer Wynonie Harris and Philadelphia promoter Irv Nathan persuaded him to continue.
Having made little commercial impact as a recording artist, Hawkins moved on to Columbia’s Okeh imprint. His releases up to that point had been alternately hymns in praise of alcohol (‘Baptize Me In Wine’, ‘I Found My Way To Wine’) and warnings about the ways of women (‘She Put The Wamee On Me’). But it was a love song with a strong dash of voodoo, ‘I Put A Spell On You’, that would catapult him to international fame.
He first cut the self-penned song in 1954, but it was when producer Arnold Maxim matched him with some of the era’s greatest session musicians –guitarist Mickey Baker, drummer Panama Francis and sax-player Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor – two years later that the ingredients of a hit fell into place. There was one crucial addition to come when the producer brought a case of whiskey into the studio.
Though it avoided the charts, the song (backed by the also-remarkable ‘Little Demon’) seems to have sold in numbers, reputedly a million or more. It also won Screamin’ Jay a very important fan in pioneering rock’n’roll DJ Alan Freed, who was making money promoting coast-to-coast Rock’n’roll Revues. Seeing headlines and dollar signs in Jay’s antics, he immediately had him added to the bill.
A stage act was developed, with Freed’s enthusiastic encouragement, which commenced with the seemingly lifeless Hawkins emerging from a coffin and scaring the living daylights out of fans who’d gathered expecting rather tamer fare. The initial inducement had been a $300 cash-in-hand bonus, but the canny Freed earned that back many times over.
In-between knocking them dead in the aisles, Screamin’ Jay returned to the recording studio to try to follow up his hit. These attempts consisted of the self-penned ‘Please Try To Understand’ and – a particularly bizarre choice – the Al Jolson stage hit from 1913, ‘You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)’.
1957’s ‘Frenzy’/’Person To Person’ was rather more representative. Although commercially unsuccessful, this would be featured by Nineties sci-fi series X-Files, suggesting he was right in saying he was ’20 years ahead of my time’. But when ‘There’s Something Wrong With You’, backed with the Leiber and Stoller-penned ‘Alligator Wine’, also failed to sell, he was dropped by Okeh.
This was, however, far from the end of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins story. The year of 1962 saw him return to recording with ‘I Hear Voices’/’Just Don’t Care’ and ‘Ashes’/’Nitty Gritty’. He made his first visit to Britain three years later, where home-grown hopeful David Sutch had not only borrowed his ‘Screamin’’ appellation but copied his act by taking the stage from inside an open coffin.
Hawkins appeared as himself in the 1978 Alan Freed bio-pic American Hot Wax before the new wave gave him a new lease of performing life. A 1993 TV jeans commercial in which he sang a Tom Waits song, plus roles in cult movies Mystery Train (1989) and A Rage in Harlem (1991), introduced Screamin’ Jay to a new, younger influence. But in February 2000, as a documentary film was being made about his life, he screamed his last in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. An unlikely location, perhaps…then again, he’d recorded Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris’ some four decades earlier!
His legend was confirmed when ‘I Put A Spell On You’, covered by everyone from Nina Simone to the Simpsons, was selected as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. But as this compilation proves, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – outrageous, occasionally out of tune and definitely outta sight – was much more than a one-hit wonder.