Born Jalacy J. Hawkins on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland, OH; died on February 12, 2000, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France; married six times; fathered (approximately) 57 children. Education: Ohio Conservatory of Music.

Fifties wild man Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a precursor to some of the more exotic rock and roll acts of the later part of the century. Hawkins, with his special combination of what critics unanimously called "shock and schlock" simultaneously entertained, bewildered, and bemused rock and roll fans with voodoo-evoking images of death, shrunken heads, and bone-rattling sound effects. Bigger than life, Hawkins attained legendary stature, learning to play piano and read music as a toddler, and ultimately studying opera in emulation of his idols Paul Robeson and Enrico Caruso. Ultimately Hawkins found his career niche in 1950s rock and roll where with his classically trained bass-baritone singing voice, he conjured up ghoulish images on stage and on record.

Born Jalacy J. Hawkins on July 18, 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio, Hawkins was adopted from an orphanage at 18 months of age and raised by a Native American family of the Blackfoot Tribe. Hawkins, a prodigy by many standards, developed his musical literacy very young. He easily taught himself to play the piano as a toddler, and read music adeptly by age six. At age 14 he learned to play the saxophone. Although as a teen-ager he took up the sport of professional boxing, winning a Golden Gloves championship in 1943, he also attended the Ohio Conservatory of Music, indulging a yearning desire to study opera. He dropped out of high school in 1944 and joined the war effort, enlisting in the United States Army. During his tour of duty he was assigned to entertain the troops as a member of the special services. He was reportedly taken as a prisoner of war following a paratroop landing off the island of Saipan.

Rock and Roll Forever

Hawkins continued to box and won a middleweight championship in Alaska in 1949, although by 1950 he had abandoned his interest in the sport and elected to pursue a musical career exclusively as a rhythm and blues pianist. Around that same time he changed his name to Screamin' Jay, a nickname inspired when an enthusiastic fan in West Virginia cried out, "Scream, baby, scream!" in reaction to the Hawkins aura. In 1952, discharged from the military, Hawkins found employment as a chauffeur for jazzman Tiny Grimes and eventually joined Grimes' band, the Rockin' Highlanders, as a vocalist and piano player. Grimes, who recorded for Atlantic Records at the time, provided Hawkins with the opportunity to record an original composition, "Why Did You Waste My Time," and miscellaneous other songs on some of the Highlanders recordings.

The highly spirited and energetic Hawkins was constantly at odds with recording executives over his rowdy compositions such as "Screamin' Blues," which conflicted with the producer's perceived audience preference for soothing, mellow sounds. Later, Hawkins played piano with Fats Domino's band in 1954 until problems arose between Domino and Hawkins. The unlikely combination of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' uninhibited style and Domino's easy beat clearly did not work, and the combination failed to congeal. Domino ultimately let Hawkins go when he showed up to perform in a loud leopard skin suit.

Hawkins debuted as a solo performer at Small's Paradise in New York City's Harlem district, and eventually moved into performing at the clubs on Atlantic City's boardwalk. He signed with Okeh Records in 1955 and recorded his first hit, "I Put A Spell On You." The song, a lamentation of unrequited love, was written in the tone of a ballad. Hawkins, however, recorded the composition in the midst of a drunken binge that resulted in his addition of bellowing, hollering, and other bizarre sound effects. He claimed, in fact, that the extent of his inebriation was such that upon hearing the taped version of the record, he had no recollection of the recording session. Amazingly, the original recording, for all its insanity, was extremely inhibited in contrast to a subsequent version of the song recorded by Columbia Records the following year. Whereas the Okeh recording failed to sell, the much rowdier Columbia version became a hit single for Hawkins in 1956. Both versions were edited for radio play, with the bone-rattling sound effects stripped out of the recording, as many found the noises offensive and reminiscent of cannibalistic culture.

Elaborate Gimmicks a Trademark

It was the popular New York City disc jockey, Alan Freed, inspired by the audio antics of "I Put A Spell On You," who came up with the elaborate gimmicks that came to be associated with Hawkins' trademark performance style. Freed paid Hawkins generously to make his stage entrance in a coffin and to escalate the horror images throughout the performance. Hawkins' act evolved into a zany freak show. He was carried on stage in a blazing coffin decorated with zebra skin, often dressed as a vampire. Other assorted props and paraphernalia included his cigarette smoking skull-on-a-stick, affectionately dubbed Henry, with flames rising from his head. Electrically ignited explosions punctuated the act, and Hawkins suffered severe burns on more than one occasion during the spectacular performances.

Hawkins carried his image to extremes, scrawling lipstick advertisements in the ladies rooms along Atlantic City's Boardwalk. At times he appeared with a bone through his nose, dressed in loincloth and carrying a spear and a shield, or wearing a turban. Such antics served to increase his popularity, but led to criticism from conservative factions. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) voiced displeasure, concerned that the trashy cannibalistic illusions might become associated with the African American population. On occasion Hawkins' concerts were picketed not only by mothers, complaining of the poor taste, but even by the National Coffin Association, insisting that Hawkins poked fun at the dead. Concert-goers and record-buying audiences loved the special effects regardless, and even in the absence of bone-rattling sound effects, which were stripped entirely from the United States release of "I Put A Spell On You," the recording sold more than one million copies.

In the wake of such controversy, Hawkins admitted that the performances, specifically the entrance by coffin, gave him chills. Despite his compensation of $2,000 for a performance, he found himself unable to proceed with his act without the assistance of alcohol and drugs. Hawkins as result developed a substance dependency over time.

The novelty of the voodoo-inspired performances peaked in the 1950s, and by the early 1960s, the popularity of Hawkins' act waned. He continued to perform, touring largely in Europe where he maintained a following among avant-garde crowds, especially in England. He performed frequently in Asia and Hawaii and toured military bases entertaining the United States troops. Around that time Hawkins moved to Hawaii. Among his hit records during the 1960s were "I Hear Voices" and "Feast of the Mau Mau," released in 1967. Hawkins and his scary, screaming style earned a reputation as "fun horror."

His tours in Europe, Hawaii, and New York City continued into the 1970s, and in 1974 Hawkins successfully conquered his alcohol and drug dependency. His "spell" song meanwhile experienced a revival, and was recorded by several jazz and rock stars, resulting in a substantial royalties income for Hawkins. Hawkins collaborated informally with the Rolling Stones and in 1980 performed as the opening act for the Rolling Stones at a major concert in Madison Square Garden. Also during the 1980s Hawkins worked at the Palomino Club in the San Fernando Valley where he earned a ghoulish reputation among his friends because he kept his coffin prop in his kitchen next to the refrigerator, as a makeshift storage cabinet.

Film Career

In 1978 Hawkins appeared as himself in the feature film American Hot Wax,a docu-drama about the disc jockey Freed. Later, in 1984, Hawkins' "spell" recording was incorporated into the soundtrack of the cult film Stranger Than Paradiseby Jim Jarmusch, and once again "spell" experienced a resurgence of popularity. In 1990 Hawkins appeared as an eerie and eccentric hotel managerin Jarmusch's Mystery Train,and the 1991 film Rage in Harlem included a scene in which Hawkins sang "Spell." Hawkins also played the character of Reggie in the Andres Vicente Gomez production, Perdita Durango, in 1997. Perdita, a Spanish film characterized by tongue-in-cheek humor, horrific brutality, and voodoo overtones was at once bizarre and highly typical of the persona that was Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

In 1990 Hawkins organized and starred in a band called the Fuzztones, which toured the United States and Europe. Also during the 1990s he signed with Demon Records and released some miscellaneous recordings, including "Heart Attack and Vine." He did commercials in Japan where his popularity was immense, and in the late 1990s he moved to Paris, France.

Hawkins died at the Ambroise Pave clinic in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine following aneurysm surgery and subsequent massive organ failure on February 12, 2000. It was his wish that his body be cremated because he had been in "too many damn coffins already." Additionally he left instructions for his ashes to be scattered over the ocean. Hawkins, who was married an estimated six times, fathered untold numbers of children, as many as 57 by his own estimation. A search for his dozens of children was held after his death in an effort to provide closure.

Among the many who eulogized Hawkins with awe, Chris Morris of Billboard recalled the singer's "career of distinctive musical dementia." Critics and observers, in retrospectives of rock and roll, credited Hawkins for his unique style that predated later artists with gothic overtones including Kiss, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, and England's Black Sabbath.

by Gloria Cooksey

Screamin' Jay Hawkins's Career

Performed with Tiny Grimes, 1952-54; performed with Fats Domino, 1954-55; signed with Okeh Records and released "I Put A Spell On You," 1955; signed with Columbia Records, 1956; Philips Records, 1960s; RCA Records, 1970s; Rhino Records, 1980s; Demon Records, 1990s; performed as a solo act, 1956-90; bandleader, Fuzztones, 1990s; toured United States, Europe, Asia; film appearances include American Hot Wax, 1978; Mystery Train, 1990; and A Rage in Harlem, 1991.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins's Awards

Pioneer Award, Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 1988.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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