Friday, March 9, 2012

Screamin' Jay Hawkins: The Original Madman of Rock

Screamin' Jay Hawkins in concert
Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin
Legendary music wild man Screamin' Jay Hawkins was the first shock rocker, and he had a tremendous influence on rock music and pop culture. Years before Gene Simmons was spitting up blood at KISS concerts and Alice Cooper was hanging himself on stage, Hawkins was doing his wild-man shtick. The singer/musician was known for his over-the-top, highly theatrical stage antics back in the day. His shows consisted of macabre stage props and gaudy costumes. He would often emerge from a coffin on stage draped in a gold and leopard-skin get-up, holding a cigarette-smoking skull on a stick and wearing a bone through his nose.

Hawkins would also sometimes wield rubber snakes and fake tarantulas on stage while wearing a cape and sporting a boar's tooth around his neck. And the fact that this was a black man doing all this wild stuff back in the 1950s made his manic stage antics all the more ballsy. I can imagine that he probably scared the bejesus out of a lot of folks.

Hawkins often caught flack for his bizarre stage antics. The NAACP voiced concerns that his voodoo-invoking, cannibalistic stage persona might be associated with African Americans in general. Mothers picketed his concerts saying that they were in poor taste as well as the National Coffin Association that insisted his act was poking fun at the dead.  Nevertheless, his fan base continued to grow. Everyone wanted to check out Hawkins' show at least once to see if it was as insane and over-the-top as they had heard. But all the gimmicks and crazy stage antics aside, Hawkins  had genuine musical talent. He was a skilled pianist/songwriter and possessed a powerful, classically trained bass-baritone singing voice.

Hawkins is most recognized for his seminal hit "I Put a Spell on You" (released in 1956). It is considered one of the most influential rock songs of all time. Some of the notable artists who have covered the song include Nina Simone, Van Morrison, Marilyn Manson, Bryan Ferry and Joe Cocker. Hawkins originally intended the song to be a refined blues ballad, but during a drunken recording session, he transformed it into the frightening, guttural classic that we know today. Hawkins screamed, snorted and grunted his way through the entire song. The singer was so drunk when he recorded the track that he didn't remember the session the next day.

The song is raw and primal and a bit unsettling upon first listen. The track also has a killer groove and is quite infectious. Many radio stations refused to play the song, because they felt Hawkins' guttural grunts, howls and snorts were too sexually suggestive. And despite the song receiving very little radio airplay upon its original release, it still sold over a million copies. The track earned the singer cult status in the United States, Europe and Japan. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected "I Put a Spell on You" as one of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll."

Hawkins had quite an interesting and exciting history prior to becoming a recording artist. The singer was born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland, Ohio on July 18, 1929. He was adopted from an orphanage when he was 18 months old and raised by a Native American family of the Blackfoot Tribe. Something of a prodigy, he taught himself how to play piano as a toddler and learned to play the saxophone when he was 14. Inspired by Paul Robeson, he had aspirations to become an opera singer and studied opera and classical piano at the Ohio Conservatory of Music. He also served in the Air Force during World War II and claimed that he was tortured while a prisoner of war. One story states that upon being liberated, he taped a hand-grenade to his torturer’s mouth and pulled the pin, blowing his head off. Hawkins also boxed for a time and won a Golden Gloves championship in his teens.

When his career as an opera singer didn't pan out, Hawkins became a blues singer and pianist. His first job as a musician was serving as the pianist/valet for veteran jazz and R&B guitarist Tiny Grimes. Hawkins cut his first record, "Why Did You Waste My Time," in 1952.  Grimes and His Rocking Highlanders provided musical back up on the track. Hawkins joined Fats Domino's band as a pianist in 1954. However, the two musicians never saw eye-to-eye, and Hawkins didn't even last a year with the band. He was eventually fired for insisting on showing up to performances wearing gold and leopard-skin outfits and a turban. Following his firing from Fats Domino's band, Hawkins decided to strike out on his own and try his luck as a solo artist. Not long after becoming a solo artist, he scored his biggest hit with "I Put a Spell on You" in 1956.

In addition to "I Put a Spell on You," some of Hawkins' other well-known tracks include "Constipation Blues," "Little Demon," "Baptize me in Wine," and "Africa Gone Funky."

Hawkins also tried his hand at acting and had a part in independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's critically acclaimed film Mystery Train (1989). And "I Put a Spell on You" was prominently featured in another Jarmusch film, Stranger than Paradise (1984). The use of the song in the film brought Hawkins a new generation of fans. He even toured with the Clash and Nick Cave in the early '90s

Hawkins had been married six times, and reportedly fathered 57 children. The singer died in Paris, France at the age 70 after suffering multiple organ failure following emergency surgery to treat an aneurysm.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins performing "I Put a Spell on You" live

The wild man shows his mellow side in a live performance of "Old Man River

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