“Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins was a man of many talents – a singer-songwriter, musician, actor, film producer, and boxer. His success was accredited more to his individuality than his music. How he presented himself – his image, performances, his weirdness was unparalleled. He was a first of his kind in the music world when it came to persona, not only blurring the line between his real life and on-stage character but shattering it.
Hawkins was born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 18, 1929. His mother put him up for adoption and he was raised by a local family who adopted him at 18 months at an orphanage. As a child, he mastered the piano and even taught himself to read music at age 6. He would later go on to learn guitar in his 20s. Initially, he wanted to become an Opera singer and attended the Ohio Conservatory of Music, but eventually dropped out and turned his attention to Blues and piano.
Before he would pursue music, he enlisted in the US Army in 1942, when he was 13 with a bogus birth certificate and unbeknownst to the people around him. Even though he was underage, he would serve in a combat role as well as entertain the troops. Following his stint in the Army, he enlisted in the Air Forces in 1944 as a member of the Special Service Division. It was during his time in the Army he discovered boxing. In 1949 while in the Air Forces, he became the middleweight champion of Alaska before being discharged in 1952.
Through his time serving, his love for music never waned and he would seek musicians to join and learn from. He would eventually be given that opportunity by Tiny Grimes, a guitarist from Virginia, as one of the featured vocalists on Grimes’ band, the Rocking Highlanders, a kilt-clad R&B group. He played with them for a while before continuing to follow his dreams and embarking on a solo career. After a few unsuccessful recordings including “You’re All Of Life To Me” and “Even Though”, he was dropped by his label Wing and would sign on with Grand, a small Detroit-based label. This is where he would record the song that was a turning point in his career.
Hawkins would record the first rendition of “I Put A Spell On You” in 1955. The first recording was not released at the time, though it would eventually be on Hawkins’ UK Rev-Ola CD The Whamee 1953–55. It was originally recorded as a Blues ballad, a far departure from what it ended up being when the song was re-recorded a year later. Hawkins recalls “Arnold Maxin, our producer, brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version … I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal Blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.” Upon its release, it was barred from radio due to its ‘cannibalistic’ style, but despite that, the song still sold over a million copies.
The success of the track brought him closer to Alan Freed, a radio DJ from the Cleveland area. Up until this point, Hawkins’ was known as a Blues singer, though Freed suggested that he capitalized on the twisted and demented sound of “I Put A Spell On You.” The rest is history. Hawkins would do a 180 with his persona, starting with his wardrobe which often consisted of leopard skins, red leather, wild hats, zebra-striped capes, polka-dot suits, and pink tuxedos. But beyond his wardrobe, it was his antics on stage that set him apart from the rest. Freed paid Hawkins a lump sum to enter the stage emerging from a coffin. While hesitant at first, he eventually agreed. While executing more of the same or similar semantics, his act evolved into a freak show. Other props included his cigarette smoking skull-on-a-stick with flames rising from his head. While electrically ignited explosions enhanced the performance, Hawkins would on a few occasions suffer severe burns during his performances, including one night in 1976 when he was burned by one of his flaming props.
Following the success of “I Put A Spell On You” and all the theatrics that followed on stage, in hindsight Hawkins was the artist that began the Shock Rock trend, which today is defined as combining heavier music, almost always Rock, with theatrical live performances, emphasizing shock value. Several artists would follow this trend including Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and more recently, Rob Zombie. Beyond the trend, artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Annie Lennox, and Van Morrison have all released their own version of the track.
By the early 1960s, Hawkins popularity in America began to wane even though he continued to release singles. He wasn’t alone, as Pop and Rock had superseded the Blues and Soul scene in the U.S. and those artists suffered the consequences of that. Luckily, Britain and different parts of Europe still had thriving R&B scenes, which had been the case since the 50s, and Hawkins did a lot of his touring in those areas in the 60s and 70s, developing a strong following. He would also perform in Asia and Hawaii in conjunction with military bases entertaining the United States troops.
Hawkins passed away on February 12, 2000, following aneurysm surgery. It was his wish that his body be cremated because he had been in “too many damn coffins already.” Additionally, he requested that his ashes be scattered over the ocean.
Hawkins was no ordinary performer. His performances and persona set him apart especially in that era, but he was never a major success from a recording artist’s perspective. However, that didn’t stop him from having a stable career as a live performer. It’s truly special to be a trendsetter and Hawkins will forever be known as the man behind Shock Rock, something that while not as common, still exists today.