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Jalacy Hawkins
Screamin' Jay Hawkins
February 12, 2000

Age 70


Organ Failure
 
 
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Gordon's Pick:  Voodoo Jive

 
 
 
 

OBITUARY 

   R&B Wild Man Screamin' Jay Hawkins Dies

Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the prototypcial shock-rocker whose onstage antics included popping out of a coffin, died Saturday near Paris. He was 70.  

The shrieking R&B wild man was hospitalized at Ambroise Pave clinic in Neuilly-sur-Seine after developing an aneurysm following intestine surgery, and he subsequently suffered multiple organ failure, Associated Press reports.  

Before there was KISS, Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson, there was Screamin' Jay with his voodoo-inspired songs ("I Put a Spell on You," "[She Put the] Wamee [on Me]" ), flaming skull sidekick (known as Henry), outrageous gold lamé and leopardskin get-ups, the infamous coffin routine and enough stage pyrotechnics (that would often leaved him scorched).  

Born Jalacy Hawkins on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland, the musician's early years were the stuff of myth--which he gladly adopted as truth. He was, he claimed, taken from an orphanage at age 1 and raised by a Blackfoot tribe. He joined the army at 14, spending his spare time boxing before pursuing his musical talents full time.  

As the story goes, Hawkins got his nickname from a scotch-guzzling fat lady in a bar, who kept telling him to "Scream, baby, scream!" Once asked about the otherwordly vocals on his tracks, he replied, "I don't sing them. I destroy them."  

Hawkins was actually a wannabe opera singer, initially styling himself after Paul Robeson and Maria Lanza. But when he couldn't crack the classical world, he parlayed his piano and sax skills into a gig with jazz vet Tiny Grimes in 1951. Backed by Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders (in a preview of things to come, the group took to wearing kilts on stage), Hawkins recorded his first single, "Why Did You Waste My Time," a year later.  

His biggest hit was the immortal "I Put a Spell on You," which he recorded on the Okeh label in 1956 (and was later the breakthrough single for Creedence Clearwater Revival). His other notable tunes include "Alligator Wine," "Feast of the Mau Mau," "I Hear Voices" and "Constipation Blues."  

In his latter years he was viewed more as a novelty or cult act than as a serious artist, and he spent much of his time abroad, eventually settling in France. He also tried his hand at acting, appearing in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989) and A Rage in Harlem (1991). 

       The Lasting Echo of Screamin' Jay Hawkins

                  By David Segal 
                  Washington Post Staff Writer 
                    

                  Back in 1956, when Screamin' Jay Hawkins had an eight-show-a-week 
                  gig at an Atlantic City bar, he dreamed up a nifty way to draw a crowd: He 
                  would sneak into ladies' rooms up and down the Boardwalk and scrawl 
                  red-lipsticked ads for his show on bathroom mirrors. It caught a few eyes. 
                  So did the stage act he later developed, which featured Hawkins rising 
                  from a flaming, zebra-striped coffin, his head wrapped in a white turban, 
                  his hands clutching a cigarette-smoking skull stick, which he'd christened 
                  Henry. 

                  Hokey? Of course. Riveting? Every time.  

                  Hawkins, who died on Saturday in France at age 70, will not be 
                  remembered for a lifetime of chart-topping singles or platinum albums. He 
                  never really cracked the Billboard charts, not even with his one certifiable 
                  claim to rock fame, his hilarious and haunting 1956 song "I Put a Spell on 
                  You."  

                  But he was a master at commanding the undivided attention of an 
                  audience, and devised an onstage ghoul shtick that many better-selling acts 
                  shamelessly imitate. Hawkins's most startling gift was his voice, a hellbent 
                  howl that producers wisely drenched in reverb, giving the impression that 
                  he was singing in a swamp and scaring all the animals. But his most 
                  enduring legacy is the macabre-tinged showmanship of Ozzy Osbourne, 
                  Alice Cooper and most recently Marilyn Manson, who covered "Spell" in 
                  his 1995 shock-rocking "Smells Like Children" album. The key difference 
                  is that Manson likes to pretend he's dead serious--and a genuine menace 
                  to civilization--whereas Hawkins never tried to hide the giggles behind his 
                  voodoo mask. 

                  Not that Hawkins didn't alarm a few onlookers. For a while he liked to 
                  perform with a bone through his nose, white paint on his face, a loincloth 
                  around his waist, a spear and shield in his hands, and his hair brushed 
                  straight up. That infuriated groups like the NAACP, which worried that his 
                  act would reflect badly on African Americans. It all seems perfectly tepid 
                  compared with today's rap stars, but some black magazines and 
                  newspapers were appalled enough to ignore Hawkins. 

                  That's only one reason that he lived through so many lean years during his 
                  five-decade career. Born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland--he long maintained 
                  that he was conceived in Washington--he spent much of his childhood in 
                  orphanages. He was a semi-noteworthy middleweight boxer, but he soon 
                  traded the boxing gloves for tenor sax and piano. He enlisted in the Air 
                  Force in 1944 and entertained troops in the United States, England and 
                  Japan. 

                  When he left the armed services, he plunged into the then-thriving R&B 
                  circuit, serving briefly in Fats Domino's band. (Hawkins's leopard skin suit 
                  upstaged the boss and he was fired.) A few years later, a particularly 
                  humiliating kiss-off by a fed-up girlfriend--she waved goodbye right while 
                  he was playing with his band--inspired Hawkins to a little bit of creative 
                  revenge. 

                  "The next day I was sitting at the piano," he told The Washington Post in 
                  1990, "wondering why she left me--I didn't want to admit I was 
                  wrong--and I was tapping on the piano and I said, 'This is so stupid, to 
                  walk away and leave me like that without giving me a chance to explain. . . 
                  . She didn't know she's was messing with a witch doctor. . . . I'll put a spell 
                  on her.' " 

                  Hawkins's original version of the song went nowhere, but an enterprising 
                  producer later rerecorded it, this time plying Hawkins and his band with 
                  liquor in a raucous all-nighter. Hawkins got so drunk that 10 days later he 
                  was startled when a messenger showed up with the single in hand. He had 
                  no memory of the session. 

                  The song is a minor masterpiece of pent-up tension, with little more than an 
                  echoey piano and drums pounding in marching time toward an emotional 
                  peak, as Hawkins yelps and threatens his ex-lover with a hex. The 
                  performance is so unhinged that it even intimidated Hawkins, who said that 
                  for 30 years he would sing the song live only after he hit the bottle. 

                  The tune caught the ear of Nina Simone as well as Creedence Clearwater 
                  Revival, just two of the acts that eventually recorded it. "Spell" loomed so 
                  large in Hawkins's life that he was considered a one-song novelty act for 
                  years, though he recorded plenty of other memorable numbers, including 
                  "Alligator Wine" and "Little Demon."  

                  But Hawkins was a natural and incorrigible ham and never obsessed much 
                  about being taken seriously. Later in his life, there were brief resuscitations 
                  courtesy of admirers--including the Rolling Stones, who asked Hawkins to 
                  open for the band at Madison Square Garden in 1980. He also turned up 
                  in a pair of films by Jim Jarmusch, "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Mystery 
                  Train." In the '90s, Hawkins signed up with Demon Records and his "Heart 
                  Attack and Vine" was featured in a Levi's commercial. 

                  "Scream, baby, scream!" urged a drunken fan in a West Virginia bar in 
                  1950, handing Hawkins the name he would carry for half a century and a 
                  piece of advice that he never forgot.  

                           © Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

  NY TIMES

          Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 70, Rock's Wild Man 

          By JON PARELES 

          Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who howled, whooped, gurgled and 
          shrieked his way through some of the most unhinged performances 
          in rock history, died on Saturday in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. 
          He was 70 and lived near Paris.  

          The cause was multiple organ failure following emergency surgery to treat 
          an aneurysm, The Associated Press reported.  

          Mr. Hawkins's 1956 hit, "I Put a Spell on You," defined a career built on 
          vocal dementia, imagery lifted from voodoo folklore and B-movies, an 
          anarchic sense of humor and a stage show that raised the stakes on rock 
          'n' roll theatricality. He took stereotypes of black savagery -- cannibals, 
          witch doctors -- and mocked them with gleeful hyperbole. He would 
          arrive on stage in a flaming coffin, wearing a black satin cape and, 
          sometimes, a bone in his nose, clutching a cane topped by a flaming, 
          cigarette-smoking skull named Henry. Snakes, tarantulas, shrunken 
          heads and a crawling hand were also part of the act.  

          Whether he was singing his own songs or tearing into a sentimental 
          standard, Mr. Hawkins might at any moment jettison the melody for 
          shouts, moans or bursts of gibberish. "I don't sing them," he once said of 
          his songs. "I destroy them."  

          He was part of a tradition of rhythm-and-blues wild men that also 
          included Little Richard, and he was the precursor of rock showmen like 
          Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and White Zombie.  

          Jalacy J. Hawkins was born on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland. His mother 
          had seven children, each with a different father. He grew up in foster 
          homes.  

          "My mama said that out of all the men, my father was the hardest, the 
          meanest and the rottenest," he once said. "She would look at me and say, 
          'You're no good, you're gonna be just like your father.' I said: 'I'm gonna 
          fool you. I'm gonna make something of myself.' "  

          He began playing piano as a child and studied opera at the Ohio 
          Conservatory of Music. He was also a boxer and won a Golden Gloves 
          championship in 1943. When he returned to the United States after 
          military service, he wanted a career in opera. "I had hopes that someday 
          I could become a black Mario Lanza or Enrico Caruso," he said.  

          But to make a living he turned to the jazz and rhythm-and-blues circuit, 
          stretching his voice to imitate the sounds of honking tenor saxophonists. 
          He began working for the jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes as valet and pianist, 
          and in 1951 he made his first single, "Why Did You Waste My Time," 
          backed by Mr. Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders.  

          He recorded for Timely and Wing Records, and joined Fats Domino's 
          road band for a short time. In 1956 he planned to record a plaintive 
          ballad, "I Put a Spell on You" for Okeh Records. The producer, Mr. 
          Hawkins said, "bought gin and whiskey, a lot of booze, baby, and got us 
          all drunk in the recording studio."  

          The unruly, unforgettable results became a hit that was banned by many 
          radio stations for its moans and grunts. Reveling in his untamed image, he 
          followed up with songs like "Feast of the Mau-Mau" and "Alligator 
          Wine."  

          The disc jockey and promoter Allan Freed got the idea of bringing Mr. 
          Hawkins onstage in a coffin for a Cleveland concert. Mr. Hawkins once 
          said Freed paid him $5,000 to persuade him to go through with it, 
          although other accounts say the bonus was $300. It thrilled the crowd, 
          and the coffin became a regular part of the show. On one multiple bill the 
          Drifters locked Mr. Hawkins inside the coffin; he wriggled until it fell off 
          its stand.  

          Mr. Hawkins grew tired of having to play what he called "that weird, 
          voodoo, black, screaming Vincent Price image," and in the early 1960's 
          he moved to Hawaii, where he bought a bar and tried to settle down. But 
          by the late 60's Mr. Hawkins had resumed performing, playing up his 
          bogeyman image even as he protested that he still hoped to sing opera.  

          Mr. Hawkins toured regularly in the United States and Europe. He 
          opened the 1980 concert by the Rolling Stones at Madison Square 
          Garden, and Keith Richards produced a remake of "I Put a Spell on 
          You." Movie appearances periodically stoked Mr. Hawkins's career. He 
          was seen in "American Hot Wax" in 1978, "Mystery Train" in 1989 and 
          in "A Rage in Harlem" in 1991. In 1998 he received the Pioneer Award 
          from the Rhythm-and-Blues Foundation.  

          Unlike many early rock performers, Mr. Hawkins owned the copyright 
          to his songs, including "I Put a Spell on You," which brought royalties 
          when it was recorded by performers including Nina Simone and 
          Creedence Clearwater Revival. In 1997 "I Put a Spell on You" was 
          sampled by the Notorious B.I.G. for "Kick in the Door" on his 
          million-selling album "Life After Death."  

          "I wrote in my will to cremate me," Mr. Hawkins said. "Fly over the 
          ocean and scatter the dust, so I can be little particles in everybody's eyes, 
          drive everybody crazy the rest of their lives." 

 

       

 

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All-Music Guide


Screamin' Jay Hawkins was the most outrageous performer extant during rock's dawn. Prone to emerging out of coffins onstage, a flaming skull named Henry his constant companion, Screamin' Jay was an insanely theatrical figure long before it was even remotely acceptable. 
 

Hawkins' life story is almost as bizarre as his onstage shtick.  Originally inspired by the booming baritone of Paul Robeson, Hawkins was unable to break through as an opera singer. His boxing prowess was every bit as lethal as his vocal cords; many of his most hilarious tales revolve around Jay beating the hell out of a musical rival!  

Hawkins caught his first musical break in 1951 as pianist/valet to veteran jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes.  He debuted on wax for Gotham the following year with "Why Did You Waste My Time," backed by Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders (they donned kilts and tam o' shanters on stage). Singles for Timely ("Baptize Me in Wine") and Mercury's Wing subsidiary (1955's otherworldly "[She Put The] Wamee [On Me]," a harbinger of things to come) preceded Hawkins' immortal 1956 rendering of "I Put a Spell on You" for Columbia's Okeh imprint.  

Hawkins originally envisioned the tune as a refined ballad. After he and his New York session aces (notably guitarist Mickey Baker and saxist Sam "The Man" Taylor) had imbibed to the point of no return, Hawkins screamed, grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon. A resultant success despite the protests of uptight suits-in-power, "Spell" became Screamin' Jay's biggest seller ("Little Demon," its rocking flip, is a minor classic itself).  

Hawkins cut several amazing 1957-58 follow-ups in the same crazed vein -- "Hong Kong," a surreal "Yellow Coat," the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-penned "Alligator Wine" -- but none of them clicked the way "Spell" had. Deejay Alan Freed convinced Screamin' Jay that popping out of a coffin might be a show-stopping gimmick by handing him a $300 bonus (long after Freed's demise, Screamin' Jay Hawkins is still benefiting from his crass brainstorm).  

Hawkins' next truly inspired waxing came in 1969 when he was contracted to Philips Records 
(where he made two albums). His gross "Constipation Blues" wouldn't garner much airplay, but remains an integral part of his legacy to this day.  

The cinema has been a beneficiary of Screamin' Jay's larger-than-life persona in recent years. His featured roles in Mystery Train and A Rage in Harlem have made Hawkins a familiar visage to youngsters who've never even heard "I Put a Spell on You." Hawkins remains musically active, though his act doesn't seem all that bizarre anymore. -- Bill Dahl, All Music Guide

      
 

 

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