Born Jalacy Joy Hawkins, 18 July 1929, Cleveland, Ohio
Died 12 February 2000, Neilly-sur-Seine, France

Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a totally unique character. Famed for his wildly theatrical performances and his powerful operatic voice, Hawkins often used macabre props on stage (like a coffin and a skull), making him an influence on later 'shock rock' artists such as Alice Cooper, Arthur Brown, Screamin' Lord Sutch, Black Sabbath and the Cramps.

Born in Cleveland in 1929, Jalacy Hawkins spent the first eighteen months of his life in an orphanage, from where he was eventually adopted and raised by Blackfoot Indians. He studied piano from the age of six ; in his teens he also mastered the guitar and the saxophone. His initial goal was to become an opera singer (he loved Caruso and Paul Robeson), but when this ambition failed he began his career as a conventional blues singer and pianist. While in the Army, Hawkins revived an interest in boxing, becoming middleweight champion of Alaska in 1949.

Back in civil life, he joined the band of guitarist Tiny Grimes in 1951. The first time he entered a recording studio was in late 1952. As the vocalist of Tiny Grimes' Rocking Highlanders he cut "Why Did You Waste My Time" (Gotham 295, credited to Grimes) and "No Hug, No Kiss" (unissued until 1986). In the same capacity he recorded "Screamin' Blues, Parts 1 & 2" for Atlantic on January 12, 1953, but Ahmet Ertegun (who upset Jay by asking him to sing like Fats Domino) decided to shelve the track. Later in 1953 Hawkins decided to go solo and in 1954 he had his first two singles released (credited to Jalacy Hawkins), on the Timely label from NYC. In 1955 he did two sessions for Mercury, resulting in three singles (two of them on the Wing subsidiary) : "She Put the Wamee On Me" (a harbinger of things to come), "Well I Tried" and "Talk About Me". It was here that Jay first worked with arranger Leroy Kirkland, who would play an important role in his recordings over the next few years.

A single for the Grand label ("Take Me Back"/"I Is", released in late 1955) revealed the credit 'Screamin' Jay Hawkins' for the first time. Then came the period of his most famous and also his best recordings, his stint at OKeh (September 1956 - March 1958). The first session for his new label, on September 12, 1956, produced Jay's immortal classic "I Put A Spell On You", which he had first attempted at Grand as a rather restrained ballad (then unreleased). OKeh's A&R man Arnold Maxin wanted the new version to sound weird and scary. Lots of booze and food were brought in and everyone in the studio got drunk, according to Jay, the session men (including Mickey Baker on guitar and Sam Taylor on sax), producer Maxin, arranger Kirkland, the engineer and of course Jay himself, who screamed, grunted and gurgled his way through the song with utter drunken abandon. Though OKeh cut out the final slavering gasps, airplay was still banned on many radio stations. Nonetheless, "I Put A Spell On You" sold in vast quantities on the strength of rumoured cannibalistic sounds and possibly enjoys the dubious distinction of a million seller that never charted, not even on the R&B listings. The other side, "Little Demon", is a minor classic itself. Nina Simone, Alan Price and Creedence Clearwater Revival would score hits with "I Put A Spell On You" between 1965 and 1968.

It was Alan Freed (who raved over "I Put A Spell On You") who suggested the elaborate gimmicks that became Hawkins's trademark. Throughout his performance, Jay escalated the horror images, including making his stage entrance in a coffin. Hawkins's act evolved into a zany freak show. Often dressed as a vampire, he was carried on stage in a blazing coffin decorated with zebra skin. One popular prop was a cigarette-smoking skull-on-a-stick, affectionately dubbed Henry. Explosions punctuated the act, and Hawkins suffered severe burns on more than one occasion.

More great OKeh singles followed ("You Made Me Love You", "Frenzy", "Alligator Wine") and an LP, "At Home With Screamin' Jay Hawkins", with my three favourite SJH tracks, "Yellow Coat", "Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle" and the incredible "Hong Kong". "Armpit No. 6" on the Red Top label (1958) wasn't bad either. But then Jay's career was interrupted by a 25-month jail sentence (October 1958 -November 1960), for "carnal knowledge of a 15 year old girl", as Bill Millar puts it. For much of the 1960s, Jay lived in Honolulu, Hawaii. Recordings during this decade were infrequent, the best being "I Hear Voices"/"Just Don't Care" on Enrica (1962) and "The Whammy"/"Strange" (1964) on Roulette. Hawkins ignored the changes in the musical climate and remained faithful to his eccentric style. In 1965 he undertook the first of a number of trips to the UK, where he became something of a cult favourite. Two good albums for the Philips label in 1969-70 failed to improve his sales. The remarkable "Constipation Blues" was also issued as a single and became a hit in Japan.

On Feb 6th 1976 Screamin' Jay Hawkins suffered facial injuries when he was burned by one of his flaming props while performing with his guitarist Mike Armando at the Virginia Theater in Alexandria, Virginia.

A role in the movie "American Hot Wax" (1978), a docudrama about Alan Freed, brought him back in the spotlight and would later be followed by parts in "Two Moon Junction" (1988) and, most notably, the Jim Jarmusch film "Mystery Train" (1989) where he played a hotel clerk dressed in a loud red suit. This spawned a programme of recordings both old and new and Jay's record sales reached new heights. In 1991 Hawkins recorded a new album, "Black Music For White People", which included the Tom Waits song "Heart Attack And Vine". Released as a single, this track went to # 42 on the UK charts in 1993, his only-ever chart entry. Around 1997 he relocated to Paris, France. Screamin' Jay Hawkins died at the Ambroise Pave Clinic in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, following aneurysm surgery and subsequent massive organ failure on February 12, 2000, aged 70.

More info :

Recommended CD's :
- Screamin' Jay Rocks (Bear Family BCD 16687). 31 tracks from 1954- 1970. Released 2008. 63-page booklet by Bill Millar. "The Rolls Royce of Screamin' Jay Hawkins compilations" (Trevor Cajiao, NDT 304).
- Cow Fingers And Mosquito Pie (Epic EK 47933, 1991) assembles the best OKeh recordings. 19 tracks, including four alternate versions. Annotated by Gene Sculatti. Still in print.
- Weird And then Some! (Jasmine, 2010, 40 tracks) is a 2-CD overview of the 1953-1958 period. Liner notes by Bob Fisher.

Discographies :
- (By Pete Hoppula)

Acknowledgements : Bill Millar, Stuart Colman, Bill Dahl, Nick Tosches.

YouTube :

- Little Demon :
- I Put A Spell On You (live, 1966) :
- Yellow Coat :
- Frenzy :
- Hong Kong :
- Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle :
- Armpit No. 6 :
- Just Don't Care :
- Constipation Blues :
- I Put A Spell On Me (long documentary) :

Dik, June 2013

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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