Tribute: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins: 18 July 1929 – 12 February 2000

Today marks the birth anniversary of a very influential musician: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Best known for his song “I Put a Spell on You,” his over-the-top theatrics and stage antics influenced many singers who are popular today, including Alice Cooper, KISS, Ozzy Osbourne, and Marilyn Manson, to name a few. From Biography.com:

“Singer, songwriter and musician Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was born Jalacy Hawkins on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland, Ohio. One of rock and roll’s original madmen, Hawkins was as famous for his music as he was for his stage antics. He spent the first year and a half of his life in an orphanage before being adopted. His mother reportedly gave him up because she already had too many children to care for. Hawkins’ interest in music emerged at an early age. He taught himself to play piano and could read music by the age of 6.

While in his teens, Hawkins took up boxing. He had some success in the ring, winning a Golden Gloves championship in 1943. Still, Hawkins maintained an interest in music. Inspired by Paul Robeson and Enrico Caruso, Hawkins studied opera. But he left school to join the U.S. Army to fight in World War II in 1944. As part of his service, Hawkins entertained the troops. When he returned, he continued to box for a time before pursuing music full time.”

“I Put a Spell on You” wasn’t an immediate hit when it was first released on Okeh Records. It took a drunken session at Columbia Records to get the sound that was needed! More from Biography:

“In the early 1950s, Hawkins worked such artists as Tiny Grimes and Fats Domino before striking out on his own. It took two tries to score a hit with his best-known song, “I Put a Spell on You.” The first version for Okeh Records failed to attract listeners.

During his next attempt for Columbia Records, he and the studio musicians drank heavily during the recording session. The result, which Hawkins claimed not to remember recording, was a bluesy, voodoo-tinged single filled with boisterous vocals, including moans and other sound effects. This version gave him his first hit in 1956.

After some encouragement and a little financial incentive from disc jockey Alan Freed, Hawkins enhanced his stage persona to project a more macabre image. He made his stage entrance from a coffin and often dressed as a vampire. Besides his coffin, Hawkins used other creepy props, including a skull perched on a stick that he named “Henry.”

Sometimes he appeared wearing a turban with a bone through his nose or wearing a loincloth and carrying a shield and spear. While audiences enjoyed his wild antics, others, including the National Association for Colored People (NAACP), were concerned that his actions reflected badly on the entire African-American community.”

Screamin’ Jay moved to France in the late 1990s. He dabbled briefly in acting, appearing in Mystery Train (1989) and Perdita Durango (1997). I’ve not seen either of those movies, so I might give them a look-see one of these days…I guess I’ll check what is said about them on IMDb! Married six times, he is believed to have fathered over 57 children – both in and out of wedlock. According to an ABC newspiece, some of those kids attempted an “Illegitimate Family Reunion” in February 2001:

“With bones up his nose, a vampire cape, and a cigarette-smoking toy skull named “Henry,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins put the cool in ghoul.

Now, the legendary blues man and womanizer is being celebrated posthumously in a way only he could have appreciated: His illegitimate children — and he claimed to have more than 50 of them — are getting together to throw him a party.

Call it the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Illegitimate Family Reunion. At least 12 of his offspring are coming to Los Angeles — making pilgrimages from as far away as Paris, Cleveland and Honolulu — to celebrate the bizarre showman Feb. 12 at L.A.’s House of Blues.

Hawkins, best known for the hit “I Put a Spell on You,” died in Paris last February of multiple organ failure — a condition presumably not related to supporting his prodigious extended family. His was a storied life of stage antics and skirt chasing. One girlfriend even stabbed him in the back when she found he was cheating on her.

But that episode occurred some 40 years ago, and the Cleveland native lived to the ripe old age of 70, singing, dancing and dressing like a ghoul, right up to the very end.

“He led a fast life, a hard life — and he said without exaggerating that he had 57 children,” said his friend Maral Nigolian, a banker and film producer who is working on the singer’s life story.

“He wasn’t boasting,” she said. “He was just sad that he didn’t get to know many of the people who should have been more present in his life.”

Hawkins left behind a 31-year-old French widow — his sixth wife — and thousands of admirers, who packed European venues for his concerts up until his final years, when he was residing in Paris.”

Of course I’ll put a link to “I Put a Spell on You” here! I’ve loved that song from the first time I heard it – and it wasn’t the Credence Clearwater Revival version I heard; it was by this legendary musician. The late, great Nina Simone also covered it during her career, so I’ve included her version as a bonus link. I’ve also included a few other choice songs by Screamin’ Jay for your listening pleasure…enjoy!

Nina Simone: “I Put a Spell on You

I Put a Spell on You

Old Man River

Alligator Wine

Constipation Blues

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