Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a rock-and-roll performer from the 50's and 60's who never sold a lot of records, but he had a stage show to beat just about anyone's.
His real name at birth in 1929 in Cleveland was Jalacy Hawkins. In 1947 he was a Golden Gloves boxer and won the middleweight championship. He played the piano, and sometimes sang, with Tiny Grimes and others. He developed a talent for coming up with humorous lyrics and went on his own in the mid-50's. Hawkins recorded songs for numerous labels.
His most successful song -- one which never made the top forty -- was I Put A Spell On You, which he recorded on the Okeh label in 1956. In order that it could be played on the radio, some of the moans and groans had to be edited out. He developed a knockout stage show to go along with it. To open his act, Screamin' Jay would be carried out onto the stage in a coffin. A coffin that was in flames. He used various props, including a rubber snake, a skull on a stick, a smoke-box that had been built by an electrician at the Apollo Theatre, and a black satin cape. He had a drive and a delivery that went along with I Put A Spell On You and it all made for quite an event. One critic described it as being on the "surrealistic borderline."
In the late 50's rock-and-roll was cleaning up its image a little, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins didn't quite fit, so he wasn't able to sell records. In the 60's he continued to record, with such tunes as Alligator Wine, Feast of the Mau Mau, and I Hear Voices, some of which he had written himself.
In later years he appeared in the 1978 film, American Hot Wax, and opened for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1980. Following that, Keith Richards helped with some of Hawkins' further recordings, including a remake of I Put A Spell On You. Screamin' Jay had a profound influence on Arthur Brown, who copied his style. The famous stage act was replicated by the rock group Black Sabbath for its fans, who are a generation removed from those who saw Hawkins in his prime.
Screamin' Jay moved to an area outside of Paris, France. On February 12, 2000 he died at the Ambroise Pave clinic in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb west of Paris. He had suffered multiple organ failure following emergency surgery to treat an aneurysm.
I Put A Spell On You was covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Compilations of Screamin' Jay Hawkins recordings were issued on Edsel called Frenzy and on Red Lightnin' called Screamin' The Blues.
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