From the Archives: The Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1984)

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins by Nick Tosches.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Courtesy High Times

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins stayed drunk through most of the psychedelic ’60s. When I encountered him, in the early spring of 1973, he had put his Black & White scotch aside and was on the wagon. He drank coffee, a great deal of it, and orange juice. He smoked cigarettes, a great many of them. Sometimes he rolled his own Buglers, but on this day he smoked Lucky Strikes.

He was living at the Hotel Bryant, in a shabby room nine floors above Broadway in Times Square. With him were his wife, Jinny, and an obnoxious four-month-old Siamese cat named Cookie. A Jet calendar hung on one wall, variously weird hats from nails on another. The television was on, but without sound. Hawkins sat on the edge of the bed in a wool hat, Hawaiian-style sport-shirt, and horn-rimmed eyeglasses, taping a Frank Sinatra album from his stereo onto his reel-to-reel recorder. Beside him was a little ceramic foot-shaped ashtray in which he snuffed his Lucky Strikes.

At his feet was a mess of tapes—recordings he had made over the years for this company and that, but which, for this reason and that, had never been released. One tape bore a label with the words “Game of Love” on it. Thinking that it might be his version of the greaseball classic of that name which Wayne Fontana and His Mindbenders made in 1965, I asked Hawkins if he might let me hear it. He looked at me as if I had said something that I should not have said.

“Did you hear what song he wants to hear?” he said, turning to his wife. She gave him a dirty look. He uttered small sounds of resignation and affixed the tape. Soon his slurred voice came through the speakers, addressing some unseen audience: “We are gathered here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, laying down some fine sounds that you haven’t heard and probably will never hear on the radio, simply because Decca is a stupid-ass record company and refuses to—” Hawkins laughed. “I didn’t mean for you to hear that.” He manipulated the fast-forward mechanism until he located “The Game of Love.” It turned out not to be a version of the Wayne Fontana song, but a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original, a ballad about a man torn between his wife and another woman. As the song progressed, Jinny waxed ostensibly more piqued.

“All right, Jinny, you win,” Hawkins spat as the song faded out.

“Did you listen closely to that song? Did you?” Jinny flared at him in her Filipino accent.

“Will you come on,” Hawkins groaned. “The lyrics keep repeating over and over and over and over that the wife finally won. So what’s the problem? What’s the argument? The tune is dedicated to the wife, you understand?”

“Yeah,” Jinny yelled, “but at the end it says, ‘I’m gonna love you forever!’ Now, what does that imply, huh?”

“Just what it says! ‘I’m gonna love you forever!’ I’m talkin’ to the wife!”

“Don’t give me that! What you’re saying is that the wife won but at the same time you’re gonna love this other woman forever.”

“Oh, for Godsakes, you misinterpret it!”

“No, no. Not me. Maybe you do!”

“Me! Come on, Jinny, who recorded the goddamn thing?”

“You! And the song says you’re in love with this other—”

“Oh, come on, that’s enough! I’m finished, I don’t got no more to say.”

“Well, then, you shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“Goddamn! Nick wanted to hear the tune! Blame Nick!”

“Well, you know, then, you, you don’t have to—”

“Oh, man, come on. Let’s not have an argument. It’s only a goddamn song.”

A strained stillness came, and Hawkins gazed vacantly into the little foot-shaped ashtray.

Jalacy J. Hawkins was born on July 18, 1929. He was placed in a Cleveland orphanage while in his infancy and adopted into a family of four children at the age of 18 months. He fought in the Cleveland Golden Gloves as a teenager. He quit high school in 1945 and went to work as an entertainer in the Special Services Division of the U.S. Army-Air Force, performing at service clubs throughout America, Germany, Japan and Korea. In addition to singing and playing piano, he continued to pursue a career in boxing until 1949. In that year he defeated Billy McCann, the middleweight champion of Alaska, but the fight left Hawkins so badly beaten that he quit the business.

In 1952 he joined Tiny Grimes’ band, both as a singer and as Grimes’ chauffeur.

Grimes had been one of Atlantic’s first recording artists, signing with the label in 1947, little more than a month after its start. It was with Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders, at Grimes’ last Atlantic session, in January 1953, that Jay Hawkins made his first recording, “Screamin’ Blues.” It was deemed by Atlantic to be unsuitable for release.

Not long after that session Hawkins joined Johnny Sparrow and His Sparrows at the Powelton Café in Philadelphia. Early the next year he cut two singles, “Baptize Me in Wine” and “I Found My Way to Wine” (he had not yet graduated to Black & White), for the little Timely label. (Apollo bought out Timely in the summer of 1954 and eventually, in 1957, reissued these early Hawkins recordings.) In 1955 Hawkins recorded for Mercury and for its new subsidiary, Wing. The Mercury single, “(She Put the) Wamee (on Me),” presaged the outrageous and macabre vocal styling for which Hawkins would soon gain notoriety. At the end of the year, on a single for Grand called “I Is,” he first used the nickname Screamin’ Jay. It was also for Grand that Hawkins first recorded his song “I Put a Spell on You.”

“I wrote the song,” Hawkins told me, “because I was going out with some girl who decided that she was gonna put me down. I decided that I didn’t want her to put me down. So I wrote a song to her, and the song was ‘I Put a Spell on You.’ It was just a sweet ballad the way I cut it for Grand.”

In January 1956 Stan Pat, who was Hawkins’ manager of sorts, signed him to Wing. Recordings followed, but the deal proved to be otherwise barren, and in the summer of that year Hawkins signed with Okeh Records, Columbia’s R&B subsidiary. His first Okeh session was held in New York on September 12. It was on that day that he created the monster that haunted him ever after.

“We were gonna cut a new version of ‘I Put a Spell on You,’ ” Hawkins recalled. “Arnold Matson, who was the head of Columbia at the time, felt that we had to do something different in regards to the song. So he brought in a case of Italian Swiss Colony Muscatel, and we all got our heads bent—me, Panama Francis, Al Lukas, Leroy Kirkland, Big Al Sears, Sam Taylor, Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker. We all got blind drunk.

“Ten days later the record came out. I listened to it and I heard all those drunken screams and groans and yells. I thought, Oh, my God.”

The record became an underground sensation. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ vocal hallucinations were perceived as being invocatory of all manner of horrible things, from anal rape to cannibalism. Self-appointed guardians of morality made their displeasure known to the record company. The record was remastered so that its closing groan-coda was censored to a fast fade-out. This measure failed to appease, and the record was in the end banned by most radio stations. The pubescent sleaze-seekers of America, however, continued to buy the record in great numbers.

It became a hit without a chart position.

“I didn’t know what I had done,” Hawkins said. “This record comes out and I’ve created a monster.

Man, it was weird. I was forced to live the life of a monster. I’d go to do my act at Rockland Palace and there’d be all these goddamn mothers walking the street with picket signs: WE DON’T WANT OUR DAUGHTERS TO LOOK AT SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS! I mean, I’m some kinda bogeyman. I come outa coffins. Skulls, snakes, crawlin’ hands, fire and all that mess.”

He had trouble with the caskets he used in his acts. For his first few shows, beginning with Alan Freed’s 1956 New York Paramount show, he had rented coffins. This had cost him about fifty dollars a throw. Then the National Casket Association accused him of “making fun of the dead,” and sent word to all funeral parlors not to rent any more coffins to one Mr. Jalacy Hawkins. He was thus forced to buy his own, which cost him $850.

“Those were some trying years. God, the things I remember. There was this guy by the name of Bob Horn who did ‘American Bandstand’ from the Philadelphia Arena, which was at Forty-sixth and Market in West Philadelphia. He got busted for a certain reason which isn’t necessary to discuss at the present time, and that’s when Dick Clark took over ‘American Bandstand.’ And when he did, he started off at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He called me to open his first show for him. He was so pleased with the opening that he asked me to stay over and do the second day also. His parting words to me were, ‘If I can ever do anything for you, don’t hesitate to call me.’ And then when I made ‘Shattered’ and a few other records for Decca, I sent word to Dick Clark, asking him if he would please play my records on his show. The reply which I got back was: ‘Who’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins?’ Man, there’s some assholes in this business, some real assholes. People forget. Quickly.

“In 1957 I was on a show with the Cadillacs, Billy Williams, Billy & Lillie Ford and Fats Domino. A young kid by the name of Paul Anka was on the show. He had just had a hit tune out called ‘Diana.’

I’m already tired, I just come off the road. Fats Domino was slated to close the show, but Fats canceled out for some reason which we don’t have to go into here. My manager asked me to go on in Fats Domino’s spot. So I insisted on the closing spot of the show, and I was politely told that Paul Anka was going to close the show. I said, ‘To hell with Paul Anka.’ So Paul Anka walks over to me and he says, ‘I’ll come to your funeral.’ What a goddamn punk.”

After a few years Hawkins got sick of things. He felt that there was a vaguely organized conspiracy that kept his records from getting airplay after “I Put a Spell on You.” His subsequent Okeh singles did not sell, nor did his remarkable 1958 Epic album, At Home with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Records that he made for Decca, Chancellor, Enrica and Roulette went unnoticed. In the summer of 1965 Nina Simone had a modest R&B hit with her Philips recording of “I Put a Spell on You.” But two albums that Hawkins himself made for Philips, What That Is (1969) and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1970), did not fare so well.

“I guess I’ve rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But when you work your heart out for somebody and they pay you half your money in cash and the other half by a check and that check bounces, or payment on it is stopped, or you spend your bread travelin’ to a gig and work hard and then some cat stands there with five or six musclemen and tells you that he ain’t gonna pay you because he didn’t make his money, you get to the point where you start to question things…

“I used to go with a girl in Philadelphia. Some discjockey hit her. I punched his face. He never played any of my records again…

“In those days, a nigger wasn’t supposed to talk back, wasn’t supposed to open his goddamn mouth, wasn’t even supposed to say the word ‘nigger.’ Now things have changed because they found out that some niggers will kill ya. It’s as simple as that. In those days, nobody fought back… I can’t be concerned with other people, because I’m a nigger, and I speak from a nigger’s viewpoint…

“I got fed up. I went to Honolulu for ten years because I figured the world wasn’t ready for me. In the meantime, all these people are recording my goddamn stuff. Nina Simone, Alan Price, the Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Who, Them, Manfred Mann, the Seekers, Arthur Brown. Melvin Van Peebles copied my whole act and put it on Broadway…

“I mean, I’ve had some piss luck. All those people but me makin’ money with my songs. I started Chuck Willis wearin’ turbans. I started Little Richard wearin’ capes. Look at Lord Sutch and Arthur Brown. Look at Shaft. Look at Blacula. [Hawkins was offered the title role in that 1972 movie by Jack Hammer, but he turned it down.]

At one time or another they’ve all taken a little something from me, and I get the impression that everybody’s going places with what I was doing fifteen goddamn years ago. Everybody but me…

“Decca promised me the world if I’d only record for them. So what happened? Nothing. The record doesn’t even get played once on the radio. Jesus, I recorded a country song for Philips [“Too Many Teardrops”]. I mean, that song was something. The steel-player was from the California Symphony Orchestra, and the rest of the band were jazz musicians. So what does the record company do? They only release it in Hawaii! Did you ever in your life hear of anything like that? I cut ‘Itty Bitty Pretty One,’ and what happens? A week later the Jackson 5 record it and have a hit with it, and meanwhile the company I cut it for [Hot Line] goes bankrupt and the record never gets distributed. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

It was fortunate for Hawkins that his music was at least more appreciated overseas than it was in his native land. He told me that his bimonthly royalty statements brought respectable residuals from England, Germany, Japan, Australia, Spain, Turkey, Finland, Mexico and other countries. His Philips recording of “Constipation Blues” was actually a hit in Japan—and only Japan—in 1968. (“It was the first time I’d ever been constipated, so I decided to write a song about it. To this day I don’t know what brought it on. I thought it was pretty unusual, you know? I was in the hospital at the time, and I said to myself, ‘A subject like this must be put to music.’ I guess the pains of not bein’ able to get it out were understood by the Japanese.”)

As weary and resentful of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins image as he had become, Hawkins didn’t succeed in ridding himself of its curse in the years after our meeting on opposite sides of the little footshaped ashtray. What recognition and rewards he has since received have been granted more to the monster than to him. The Rolling Stones asked him to open their spectacular Madison Square Garden show of 1981, but only with the understanding that Hawkins did not perform without his coffin or his other garish gimmicks of old.

There was a plaintive sincerity in Hawkins’ voice when he told me, “If it were up to me I wouldn’t be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. My screamin’ was always just my way of being happy onstage. James Brown, he did an awful lot of screamin’, but he didn’t become Screamin’ James Brown.

“I mean, I’ve got a voice. Why can’t people just take me as a regular singer without making a bogeyman out of me? My musical background is people like Roy Milton, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Cleanhead Vinson, Jay McShann, Louis Jordan, Varetta Dillard, Big Maybelle, Roy Hamilton, people like that. I come along and get a little weird, and all of a sudden I’m a monster or something. People won’t listen to me as a singer. I’m some kind of monster. I don’t wanna be a black Vincent Price. I’m sick of it, I hate it! I wanna do goddamn opera! I wanna sing! I wanna do Figaro! I wanna do ‘Ave Maria’! ‘The Lord’s Prayer’! I wanna do real singing. I’m sick of being a monster.”

Excerpted from Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Nick Tosches, Scribners, N. Y, Copyright © 1984.

High Times Magazine, December 1984

Read the full issue here.

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