Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
By Alain Récaborde
Our friends at Soul Bag, the leading French blues magazine, arranged a meeting with the somewhat reclusive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The intention was to help him stage a musical comeback in his U.S. homeland. Jay was delighted and uplifted at the prospect. It was a crushing blow to learn a couple of months later that the incredibly youthful and lively septuagenarian we had met had died. During what is most probably his final interview, Jay, behind his extravagance, revealed himself to be a complex, refined and endearing individual.
"Screamin’ Jay, he is a wild man." Those words, spoken in broken English by Eszter Balint’s Hungarian character Eva in 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise while "I Put a Spell On You" plays out of a tinny tape deck speaker, pretty much sums up how most people perceived Jalacy "Screamin’ Jay" Hawkins. Born July 18, 1929, he passed away from complications of emergency surgery February 12th at the age of 70, in his final home near Paris, France.
Screamin’ Jay leaves a legacy every bit as colorful and bizarre as his outrageous stage show, complete with a bone through his nose, rubber snakes and spiders, and a cigarette-smoking skull-on-a-stick named Henry. Throughout his 50-year career, this larger-than-life singer, actor, prize-fighter and multi-instrumentalist told so many divergent stories about his life — all of them intriguing — that it is difficult to discern reality from fiction.
What is known is that Hawkins was born in Cleveland and left in an orphanage. When he was 18 months old, a Blackfoot Indian family adopted him, and he fondly remembers having a wonderful childhood. He learned the piano at an early age and subsequently picked up the tenor sax.
At the age of 14, Jay began boxing and went on to become a Golden Gloves amateur champion. Hawkins joined the army in 1944 and later moved to the Air Force, where he entertained the troops. In 1949 he won the middleweight championship, but quit boxing to pursue his first love, music.
During a spirited interview, an exuberant Hawkins spoke at length about his influences, frustrations and triumphs.
"Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Little Jimmy Scott, Jay McShann, Joe Liggins, Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Jimmy Witherspoon, these people got inside my body and my blood and I decided this is what I wanted to do!
"Pop Teasley, he had a variety show in Nitro, Virginia. He asked me to get up and MC, then he asked me to sing a few numbers — and I couldn’t. So I started hollerin’ and screamin’, and this woman started beating on the table with her fist. She kept hollerin’, ‘Scream, Jay, scream!’ I said ‘That’s it! That’s what I’m looking for. That’s the hook! I will be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins! I will not sing, I will scream! I’m gonna make it pay off, and it did!"
In 1951, Jay joined guitarist Tiny Grimes’ band, the Rockin’ Highlanders — who wore Scottish kilts on stage after they scored a hit with "Annie Laurie" —as valet, bodyguard, piano player and singer. Jay often stole the show performing his wacky version of Ruth Brown’s "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," with milk cans dangling from his chest to represent a pair of breasts.
Hawkins released a few unsuccessful singles in the early- and mid-’50’s, but he finally hit with "I Put a Spell On You" for Okeh Records in 1956. Throughout the years, musicians of diverse musical genres have covered the song, but Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1968 version made it hugely popular.
Jay quickly became known for his spectacular stage show. "Alan Freed, he created the whole thing. We had this show where I’m screamin’, screamin’ and doin’ ‘I Put a Spell On You,’ and he says, ‘Well, you know, Jay, with what you’re doing, you don’t need to come on stage like normal artists — you need to be a little different.’
"At this time, we were working the only rock’n’roll show ever put on in Times Square in New York, at the Paramount [Theatre]. When Frank Sinatra closed, Alan Freed opened the next day. The theater where we worked was six floors down, and he carried me down to the stage in the back behind the curtains. He’d already purchased this ghastly looking coffin!
"I says, ‘You’re sick! There is no black person in the world gonna get in a coffin alive!’
"‘Jay, you will do this!’
"I says, ‘No way! No way, man!’
"‘Are you afraid of death?’
"I says ‘No, I’m gonna die one day, but I’m not gonna tempt it.’
"‘Jay, if you wheel out on the stage in this coffin, it’ll shock those people out there!’
"I said, ‘Yeah! It’ll shock me too!’ But he kept peeling one hundred dollar bills. He got to $2,500 and something said, ‘Grab it!’
"That’s what happened! It started when I realized the impact of that coffin. About three months later I talked to Bob Hall, the electrician of the Apollo Theater. He said, ‘I heard about this coffin you upset people with in Times Square. Why don’t you get a skeleton? Why don’t you have hands that move? Why don’t you make fire shoot from your fingertips? Why don’t you wear a bone in your nose and come out of a coffin with all this happening at once! I’ll make you a fuse box and when the smoke goes off, it’ll look like it brought you out the coffin. When we blow the smoke again, you disappear from the stage and you’re back in the coffin!’
"He did it, and it worked — and I’ve been doing it ever since!"
But Hawkins eventually felt confined by "Spell," thus becoming a victim of his own success. This was an ironic predicament for someone with such an extensive and unusual repertoire. His recordings are filled with an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, and even Vegas crooning, but not of the music for which he maintained a lifelong passion.
"I just wish some record company would let me go into the studio and do opera. Nobody will give me this opportunity, because when I deal with record companies they say, ‘What you’ve got like "Constipation Blues" or "Little Demon" or "Frenzy" or "I Put a Spell On You"?’ I say, ‘I got nothing against these records, but let me sing a little opera.’ ‘Oh no, that won’t sell!’ People say, ‘But I thought you liked blues?’ I make money with blues, but when I want to make my own little serenity, my own little life, I listen to opera."
His frustration with American record companies, prejudice and conservative audiences who either didn’t understand or couldn’t appreciate his show, drove him to exile in Europe, where he found greater acceptance and even prospered. However, he still loved and missed his home country.
"I like America because it’s home. Nobody in their right mind is going to destroy the image in their mind about their home. I also like France, but if it hadn’t been France, it could have been the Philippines or somewhere else, because I like going to different countries. Once I have been in a country for five or six years, I look for another country to move to. I’d rather do the moving first before I burn myself out.
"I like Paris because I’m working here, I’m working in Rome, Greece, Germany, and sometimes I won’t even work in France at all. I’d rather live in France and go somewhere else and play. It’s worked for me, I don’t know if it’d work for anybody else. I wanna go back to the U.S., but only if the U.S. can give me what I got here. I work here at least 10 months out of every year. I can still make records and I am still doing pictures — what else can I ask for? I deal with three banks, and I’ve got property here. I ain’t looking for nothing else. I’m just trying to stay happy until the day I die. That’s all I want!"
Hawkins’ love for music, and specifically talented blues, jazz and R&B artists — some of them mere footnotes in music history — started in the late ’40s. "There was a guy by the name of Johnny Sparrow and his Bow and Arrows. King Kolax, Tracy McClaren, Eddie McFadden — so many people the world hasn’t heard about, but they were good musicians, good singers. Like Little Esther, who used to be with Johnny Otis. I’m just saying, why don’t we have any more like Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan?"
Another major influence was the great Louis Jordan, who was the main inspiration for his most recent band. "I have a French band I’ve been playing with for three years. They’re very, very good. I taught them to sound like Louis Jordan and to go on that stage on time, dressed. I don’t like people with mixed clothes on the stage. Everybody’s got a tuxedo with no bow tie, open at the collar, because we’re gonna sweat!
"And I tell ’em we’re gonna work to make the people happy. We’re gonna work so hard, we may not have to do an encore, because if they say a 90-minute show, I may do three hours. I tell ’em if you don’t like it, don’t book me. I’m gonna do my job, and do the best job that I can. And when you want me back, it’ll cost you double the money! It’s as simple as that."
Hawkins was a multi-faceted entertainer. His cameo appearances in movies (most notably his memorable portrayal of a hotel concierge in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train in 1989), provided yet another outlet for his flamboyant personality. Because of who he was, Jay had to overcome many hurdles and never received the wide acclaim his great talent warranted. In the end, he relished his ability to entertain.
"I’m just happy to be alive and still have a name and work and people will come and see me. I ain’t looking for nothing else. I will die with the same satisfaction, but I’ve got what I want and as long as I can do it, I’m happy. As long as I can make the people happy, that’s the best part.
"So, whatever I do, I use my costumes, my bones and give them a show. I play the instruments and entertain the people, and at 70 years old I can still be a main attraction, so I am very pleased. I love true musicians, true entertainment — God I love it! I can’t get enough of it!"