Remembering Screamin' Jay Hawkins--We pay tribute to the wild-eyed singer-pianist

By Tom Sinclair
Updated February 25, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Remembering Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Long before the shock-rock theatrics of Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was America’s poster boy for rock & roll outrage. The Cleveland born singer-pianist, who died of multiple organ failure following surgery Feb. 12 in Paris, and whose given name was Jalacy, gained notoriety with 1956’s ”I Put a Spell on You.” A spooky novelty hit, it was embellished by an otherworldly assortment of groans, shrieks, and moans. (Hawkins later said he recorded the song while ”blind drunk.”) His stage act was a hybrid of voodoo imagery and horror-movie camp that featured him emerging from a flaming coffin, sometimes with a bone through his nose, brandishing a toy skull named Henry. Some ’50s moralists saw the wild-eyed Hawkins (who, ironically, always wanted to sing opera) as a pernicious influence. Radio stations banned ”Spell,” mothers picketed his concerts, and even the National Coffin Association criticized him — purportedly for making fun of the dead.

Since then, as extremity has become the norm, Hawkins’ early efforts have taken on a visionary luster. Today, ”Spell” is an oft-covered classic (Creedence Clearwater Revival had a 1968 hit with it), and other Hawkins tunes, such as ”Constipation Blues,” remain cult favorites. (A good starting point for the uninitiated would be Rhino’s 1990 collection, Voodoo Jive: The Best of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.) In recent years, director Jim Jarmusch became an ardent and visible Hawkins supporter, using ”Spell” in his 1985 film Stranger Than Paradise, and hiring Hawkins to act in 1989’s Mystery Train. ”He was to me a national treasure,” says Jarmusch. ”He created his own genre.” The director says Hawkins promised to will him a collection of his taped reminiscences to shape into a film. ”I’d love to get my hands on whatever he’s left me,” says Jarmusch, although he has not yet committed to a Hawkins biopic. ”He was such an original, he definitely merits a profile of his life, whether it be a book, a film, or whatever.” We await it with spellbound anticipation.