Born in a glum Cleveland neighborhood, childhood pianist Jay Hawkins nurtured dreams of becoming an opera singer. But by 1956 Hawkins had set a course toward outlandish frenzy, taking up the blues and eventually adopting for himself a wild manner of dress and stagecraft that would lead one critic to name him the “black Vincent Price.” The Screamin’ moniker just came naturally.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s signature tune, 1956’s “I Put A Spell On You”, started as a mournful ballad, but one ill-advised drunk studio session later saw it turned inside out, laid upon bogeyman rhythms and decked out in eerie voodoo histrionics. Or at least, that’s the impression the song imparts. Honestly, I can’t say how much I’d love to have heard this freaky song kick and scream its way out of some unsuspecting ’50s soda fountain jukebox in the Deep South. Hide your daughters!!
The stage antics of modern “shock rock” artists owe everything to Hawkins. The man all but assured a swift mainstream death for his music, but he jiggled and prowled around the fringe for decades, influencing the more vanilla counterparts who’d give a listen. By the end of the ’60s, American acts, especially swamp rockers like CCR, picked up on Hawkins oogie-boogie attitude, while just about everyone inherited his goosed-up stage act and realized that even freaks could market their image in the right context. Hawkins was one of the original pop music icons.
I can’t often think of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins without thinking of Tom Waits. In tone and texture, the two are cut from the same cloth. Or rather, it’s like some wild cosmic shell was cracked and these two nuts came tumbling out side by side. I’m posting here two Waits covers Hawkins turned out toward the end of his career. Sometimes with these guys, it’s hard to tell who’s covering whom. And damn, that’s great.