If Halloween could have a musical patron saint (or perhaps in this case, a witchdoctor), that man would be Screamin’ Jay.
But the great granddaddy of all of the Halloween rock’n’rollers who would come along to shock and scare us was a no-nonsense black man named Jalacy Hawkins, whose spooky stage show, wild-eyed demeanor, and shouting vocals transformed him into the wonder of nature known as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. If Halloween could be said to have a musical patron saint (or perhaps in this case, a witchdoctor), that man would be Screamin’ Jay.
The burlesque horror that came to be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s stock-in-trade had its roots in real-life terror: He was abandoned by his mother at an orphanage as a baby. Eventually adopted and raised by a family of Blackfoot Indians near Cleveland, Ohio, Hawkins showed an early interest in music, teaching himself the piano while still in single digits. He also had a concurrent interest in fisticuffs. By his early teens, he was a boxer of some promise, even winning a Golden Gloves championship at age 14. By this time, he had also enrolled in music school to study opera, his big baritone recalling the popular Paul Robeson. A year later, he left school and boxing to fight in a different kind of fight: World War II. He was too young to enlist, but he lied about his age and his large physical size was convincing.
After the war, Hawkins resumed his boxing career and continued to play music on the side. In 1951, he joined the outfit of R&B guitarist Tiny Grimes, whose band the Rockin’ Highlanders had a successful gimmick: They all wore Scottish tartan and kilts. The sartorial lesson was not lost on Hawkins, who began to wear his own unique ensemble on-stage that included leopard skins and a turban. He passed through a number of popular R&B bands after that, including Fats Domino’s group, before striking out on his own. He recorded a blues ballad of his own composition called “I Put a Spell on You” for a record company named Grand. The single was not a hit, but the much bigger OKeh Records showed interest. It was at OKeh that he would establish the Halloween-friendly sound and persona that would determine the course of his career. By most accounts, including his own, it was an accident.
I PUT A SPELL ON YOU
The idea was to re-record “I Put a Spell on You,” a song that Hawkins felt deserved a second chance. The night of the recording session, however, the engineer brought in ribs and many, many bottles of Italian Swiss Colony muscatel. Hawkins, who had already recorded several songs celebrating wine, was no stranger to the grape, and he and his band became increasingly inebriated as the session progressed. The engineer kept the tape running. The next day, when the band listened to the tape, they had no memory of what had transpired: a crazed, outlandish desecration of the original ballad, which now featured an unhinged vocal from Hawkins over a hypnotic, spooky riff. The song, originally about trying to hold onto a wayward lover, took on the sinister overtones of voodoo.
Watch Screamin’ Jay perform ‘I Put a Spell on You’:
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Hawkins had found his bread and butter. He would spend the next few years refining his onstage persona, a witchdoctor crossed with a hip Dracula. Rubber snakes dangled from his neck as he brandished a skull on a stick that he nicknamed “Henry.” (Henry would occasionally smoke Hawkins’s cigarette while he was busy singing.) He wore a large bone in his nose and sometimes carried a spear. Needless to say, the NAACP was not overly enamored with Hawkins’s image, feeling that he perpetuated antiquated stereotypes that associated blacks with cannibalism, and even the National Casket Association warned its members not to rent Hawkins any caskets since they objected to his trivialization of the funeral ceremony. Hawkins responded by buying a coffin of his own.
Hawkins’s persona was both a blessing and a curse. It made him a popular attraction in performance, but it doomed him as a recording artist in an era that was still largely conservative. Subsequent releases on various labels failed to generate much interest among the record-buying public despite a high level of quality. “I Put a Spell on You” had put a spell on him, so that DJs wouldn’t go near other records he recorded, even when they were not scary or sinister. When other artists began to cover “I Put a Spell on You” in the 1960s, Hawkins didn’t even benefit financially, his interest in the song long since swindled away.
WELL I TRIED
Screamin’ Jay soldiered on through a string of unsuccessful releases on labels big and small through the ‘60s and ‘70s. He continued to perform, adding and subtracting from his bag of tricks as he went. (To promote his record “Feast of the Mau Mau,” he obtained a large cauldron to which he added mannequin parts and several bottles of ketchup.) He had a fluke hit in Japan with a scatological song called “Constipation Blues,” and eventually relocated to Europe, where the performing opportunities were more plentiful and the fees more generous. He often fretted about the perception of him as a black Vincent Price, disappointed that he was never taken seriously enough to realize the operatic ambitions he’d had as a teen. Yet, every Halloween, songs like “I Put a Spell on You” and “Alligator Wine” brought him briefly back into view.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s Hawkins continued to perform, including opening for the Rolling Stones on one of their large tours. He also made a late-career movie debut in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train as a motel desk manager. Jarmusch directed Hawkins to do as little as possible in the film, which confused Hawkins, who compared it to deploying a nuclear device and asking it not to explode. Still, the appearance attracted new fans and Hawkins began to receive more attention and respect in his native land. In 1998, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation recognized him with its Pioneer Award.
A clip from ‘Mystery Train’: