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"Spell" Bound


Jay Hawkins

By Alain Rcaborde
and Jeff Wiener
Our friends at Soul Bag, the leading French blues magazine, arranged a meeting w
ith the somewhat reclusive Screamin Jay Hawkins. The intention was to help him st
age a musical comeback in his U.S. homeland. Jay was delighted and uplifted at t
he prospect. It was a crushing blow to learn a couple of months later that the i
ncredibly youthful and lively septuagenarian we had met had died. During what is
most probably his final interview, Jay, behind his extravagance, revealed himse
lf to be a complex, refined and endearing individual.
"Screamin Jay, he is a wild man." Those words, spoken in broken English by Eszter
Balint s Hungarian character Eva in 1984 s Stranger Than Paradise while "I Put a Sp
ell On You" plays out of a tinny tape deck speaker, pretty much sums up how most
people perceived Jalacy "Screamin Jay" Hawkins. Born July 18, 1929, he passed aw
ay from complications of emergency surgery February 12th at the age of 70, in hi
s final home near Paris, France.
Screamin Jay leaves a legacy every bit as colorful and bizarre as his outrageous
stage show, complete with a bone through his nose, rubber snakes and spiders, an
d a cigarette-smoking skull-on-a-stick named Henry. Throughout his 50-year caree
r, this larger-than-life singer, actor, prize-fighter and multi-instrumentalist
told so many divergent stories about his life
all of them intriguing that it is
difficult to discern reality from fiction.
What is known is that Hawkins was born in Cleveland and left in an orphanage. Wh
en he was 18 months old, a Blackfoot Indian family adopted him, and he fondly re
members having a wonderful childhood. He learned the piano at an early age and s
ubsequently picked up the tenor sax.
At the age of 14, Jay began boxing and went on to become a Golden Gloves amateur
champion. Hawkins joined the army in 1944 and later moved to the Air Force, whe
re he entertained the troops. In 1949 he won the middleweight championship, but
quit boxing to pursue his first love, music.
During a spirited interview, an exuberant Hawkins spoke at length about his infl
uences, frustrations and triumphs.
"Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Little Jimmy Scott, Jay McShann, Joe Liggins, Big
Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, Jimmy Witherspoon, these people go
t inside my body and my blood and I decided this is what I wanted to do!

"Pop Teasley, he had a variety show in Nitro, Virginia. He asked me to get up an

d MC, then he asked me to sing a few numbers and I couldn t. So I started hollerin
and screamin , and this woman started beating on the table with her fist. She kept
hollerin , Scream, Jay, scream! I said That s it! That s what I m looking for. That s the
ok! I will be Screamin Jay Hawkins! I will not sing, I will scream! I m gonna make
it pay off, and it did!"
In 1951, Jay joined guitarist Tiny Grimes band, the Rockin Highlanders
who wore Sc
ottish kilts on stage after they scored a hit with "Annie Laurie" as valet, bodyg
uard, piano player and singer. Jay often stole the show performing his wacky ver
sion of Ruth Brown s "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," with milk cans dangling
from his chest to represent a pair of breasts.

Hawkins released a few unsuccessful singles in the early- and mid- 50 s, but he fina
lly hit with "I Put a Spell On You" for Okeh Records in 1956. Throughout the yea
rs, musicians of diverse musical genres have covered the song, but Creedence Cle
arwater Revival s 1968 version made it hugely popular.
Jay quickly became known for his spectacular stage show. "Alan Freed, he created
the whole thing. We had this show where I m screamin , screamin and doin
I Put a Spell
On You, and he says, Well, you know, Jay, with what you re doing, you don t need to c
ome on stage like normal artists you need to be a little different.
"At this time, we were working the only rock n roll show ever put on in Times Square
in New York, at the Paramount [Theatre]. When Frank Sinatra closed, Alan Freed
opened the next day. The theater where we worked was six floors down, and he car
ried me down to the stage in the back behind the curtains. He d already purchased
this ghastly looking coffin!
"I says, You re sick! There is no black person in the world gonna get in a coffin a
" Jay, you will do this!
"I says,

No way! No way, man!

" Are you afraid of death?

"I says

No, I m gonna die one day, but I m not gonna tempt it.

" Jay, if you wheel out on the stage in this coffin, it ll shock those people out th
"I said, Yeah! It ll shock me too! But he kept peeling one hundred dollar bills. He
got to $2,500 and something said, Grab it!
"That s what happened! It started when I realized the impact of that coffin. About
three months later I talked to Bob Hall, the electrician of the Apollo Theater.
He said, I heard about this coffin you upset people with in Times Square. Why do
n t you get a skeleton? Why don t you have hands that move? Why don t you make fire sh
oot from your fingertips? Why don t you wear a bone in your nose and come out of a
coffin with all this happening at once! I ll make you a fuse box and when the smo
ke goes off, it ll look like it brought you out the coffin. When we blow the smoke
again, you disappear from the stage and you re back in the coffin!
"He did it, and it worked

and I ve been doing it ever since!"

But Hawkins eventually felt confined by "Spell," thus becoming a victim of his o
wn success. This was an ironic predicament for someone with such an extensive an
d unusual repertoire. His recordings are filled with an eclectic mix of jazz, bl
ues, rock n roll, and even Vegas crooning, but not of the music for which he maintai
ned a lifelong passion.
"I just wish some record company would let me go into the studio and do opera. N
obody will give me this opportunity, because when I deal with record companies t
hey say, What you ve got like "Constipation Blues" or "Little Demon" or "Frenzy" or
"I Put a Spell On You"? I say, I got nothing against these records, but let me si
ng a little opera.
Oh no, that won t sell! People say, But I thought you liked blues? I
make money with blues, but when I want to make my own little serenity, my own l
ittle life, I listen to opera."
His frustration with American record companies, prejudice and conservative audie
nces who either didn t understand or couldn t appreciate his show, drove him to exil

e in Europe, where he found greater acceptance and even prospered. However, he s

till loved and missed his home country.
"I like America because it s home. Nobody in their right mind is going to destroy
the image in their mind about their home. I also like France, but if it hadn t bee
n France, it could have been the Philippines or somewhere else, because I like g
oing to different countries. Once I have been in a country for five or six years
, I look for another country to move to. I d rather do the moving first before I b
urn myself out.
"I like Paris because I m working here, I m working in Rome, Greece, Germany, and so
metimes I won t even work in France at all. I d rather live in France and go somewhe
re else and play. It s worked for me, I don t know if it d work for anybody else. I wa
nna go back to the U.S., but only if the U.S. can give me what I got here. I wor
k here at least 10 months out of every year. I can still make records and I am s
till doing pictures what else can I ask for? I deal with three banks, and I ve got
property here. I ain t looking for nothing else. I m just trying to stay happy unti
l the day I die. That s all I want!"
Hawkins love for music, and specifically talented blues, jazz and R&B artists
e of them mere footnotes in music history
started in the late 40s. "There was a g
uy by the name of Johnny Sparrow and his Bow and Arrows. King Kolax, Tracy McCla
ren, Eddie McFadden so many people the world hasn t heard about, but they were goo
d musicians, good singers. Like Little Esther, who used to be with Johnny Otis.
I m just saying, why don t we have any more like Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan?
Another major influence was the great Louis Jordan, who was the main inspiration
for his most recent band. "I have a French band I ve been playing with for three
years. They re very, very good. I taught them to sound like Louis Jordan and to go
on that stage on time, dressed. I don t like people with mixed clothes on the sta
ge. Everybody s got a tuxedo with no bow tie, open at the collar, because we re gonn
a sweat!
"And I tell em we re gonna work to make the people happy. We re gonna work so hard, w
e may not have to do an encore, because if they say a 90-minute show, I may do t
hree hours. I tell em if you don t like it, don t book me. I m gonna do my job, and do
the best job that I can. And when you want me back, it ll cost you double the mone
y! It s as simple as that."
Hawkins was a multi-faceted entertainer. His cameo appearances in movies (most n
otably his memorable portrayal of a hotel concierge in Jim Jarmusch s Mystery Trai
n in 1989), provided yet another outlet for his flamboyant personality. Because
of who he was, Jay had to overcome many hurdles and never received the wide accl
aim his great talent warranted. In the end, he relished his ability to entertain
"I m just happy to be alive and still have a name and work and people will come an
d see me. I ain t looking for nothing else. I will die with the same satisfaction,
but I ve got what I want and as long as I can do it, I m happy. As long as I can ma
ke the people happy, that s the best part.
"So, whatever I do, I use my costumes, my bones and give them a show. I play the
instruments and entertain the people, and at 70 years old I can still be a main
attraction, so I am very pleased. I love true musicians, true entertainment
I love it! I can t get enough of it!"