Screamin’ Jay Hawkins 18/06/1929 – 12/02/2000
Many Rock N Roll stars have been daubed as being ‘dangerous’, quite a few of them had the image for sure, some even smashed up hotel rooms and got into the odd fight. Very few of them actually had some people in the music business believing that they actually were. This one did, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the combination of horror props, cannibal imagery and blood-curdling vocal delivery along with a crazy off-stage life has meant he has earned his place Rock N Roll folklore despite the paradox of never having a hit but selling a million records.
Born Jalacy J Hawkins on 18th June 1929 as a child he studied piano and had ambitions to become an opera singer. It wasn’t until 1956 that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sprang to public attention with ‘I Put A Spell On You’, undoubtedly one of the wildest most guttural recordings of the Rock N Roll era, a legend was born. Images from the time show a crazed Hawkins clad in leopard-skin sporting a tribal bone through his nose clutching a smoking skull, visual wildness matching the crazed vocals on the record. The story behind that recording is a lot less contrived. Before that session Hawkins was a Blues singer then he and the band got rat-arsed during the session and started letting rip. The result of which was the hugely influential cut of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ revered by generations but barely remembered by the artists themselves. The record was rushed out and soon banned from several retailers and radio stations which snowballed the interest. To further enhance the hyperbole DJ and Rock N Roll promoter Alan Freed enticed Jay with money to emerge from a coffin on stage and was probably responsible for orchestrating the on-stage image that he was to embrace on and eventually off stage until his death in 2000.
The wild-man sound was drunken accident and the image by the men around the man but there is no doubting his great talent as a live performer, that the music was from the heart and the image totally in keeping with the personality. Screaming Jay Hawkins the man was the real deal as far as being the dangerous hard bastard, serial shagging bad boy goes. He was Middleweight Boxing Champion of that manliest of states Alaska as early as 1949 and is estimated to have sired between 55 and 77 kids depending on the sources you believe, either way it’s a pretty impressive figure, even for a Rock Star.
The really wild tales didn’t come from rumour but from Hawkins’ own admission, in one interview filmed for prosperity he told a tale of how he was captured by the Japanese during World War Two. He claimed to have been tortured on a daily basis until his tormentors finally accepted he knew nothing. He went on to explain that the camp was eventually liberated by 82 Airborne, when freed he asked for a gun, hand grenade and half an hour. In this time he shot three guards then tied the protesting Camp Commander to a chair, put the grenade in his mouth, taped it in position, pulled the pin and watched his ‘Whole head disappear’. The ravings of a man who’s image had taken over reality (after all he would have been just 16) or a chilling realisation that the image was less bad than the man?
Who cares, they don’t make rock stars like that anymore.
(C) Simon Nott