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SCREAMIN JAY HAWKINS INTERVIEWED (1991): Coffin-rocking, wine drinking skull sha

SCREAMIN JAY HAWKINS INTERVIEWED (1991): Coffin-rocking, wine drinking skull sha
The man on the phone with the curiously quiet voice gently sets the record strai
ght quite quickly. Hes never considered himself a singer he says. But after 35 ye
ars of making records and giving the world one of the most outrageous stage show
s ever, then what is he?
Im a big mouthed screamin man who uses a lot of flamboyance in his shows, he says se
Well, the first part of that is certainly correct. Anyone who has had part of th
eir skull severed by his astonishing I Put a Spell on You, She Put the Whammy on
Me or, even better, the hacking, primal roar and pain-ridden torturing of Poor
Folks would agree. Yes, this is the work of a big mouthed screamin man.
But somebody who uses a lot of flamboyance in his shows? That seems just a littl
e understated.
After all this is the man who crawls out of a coffin, carries a skull on a stick
, pokes the voodoo magic, has been known to perform with live snakes (rumoured t
o toss them into the crowd) and generally set new thresholds in outrage. And he
started doing that in the mid 50s when Doris Day kissing on screen was a Real Bi
g Deal.
What do you call this kind of thing? Flamboyant?
At the very least.
Call it Screamin Jay Hawkins and believe the hype. This man is in the inventor of
Hoodoo Blues, is hailed as The Wildest Man in RocknnRoll and while Little Richard
was trying to decide whether to be a rocker or a preacher Screamin Jay was pushi
ng his voice -- and audience to the limits of tolerance and excitement.jay2
The man who sings Baptize Me In Wine, I Found My Way to Wine and Constipation Bl
ues tells a fine story. Consider this one about the recording of that shattering
song I Put a Spell on You which featured on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmuschs 84 mo
vie Stranger than Paradise and made Hawkins a cult hero all over again.
The producer says, How do you act in nightclubs? Like any other entertainer. Do you dr
ink? Yes, I drink. Do you get drunk? Yeah. Do you go onstage when youre drunk? Yeah
ou sound when youre drunk? How the hell do I know, Im drunk, I cant remember.
So he went out and got a case of whisky and got me drunk, the whole band got drun
k and then we recorded I Put a Spell on You.
Hawkins may not get drunk quite so often these days but at sixtysomething he has
nt slowed down at all.
Born in Clevedon in 1929 as Jalacy Hawkins, he came late to music. He grew up wi
th as much light opera and jazz in his listening as the sound of blues and swing
dance music. A little formal training on piano, some rudimentary saxophone and
then it was into the Air Force until 1952. When he emerged he hung out with toug
h tenor saxophone players like James Moody, Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet.
His first professional gig was with guitarist Tiny Grimes, a kilt-wearing showma
n whose Rocking Highlanders had briefly included the up-and-coming saxophonist C
harlie Parker.
It was with Grimes band that piano-playing/saxophonist-singer (and chauffeur) Haw
kins first started to emerge as a stage presence. It was also the cusp of the ro
cknroll era.
Conventional wisdom today says Hawkins formative years around Cleveland -- where
no particular musical style predominated -- accounted for his development as a s
tylist unaffected by influences. Hawkins discounts that.
A lot of fine artists came for Cleveland, he says. The Platters were from there and
Fats Domino was playing around there. And Alan Freed started there, we called h
im Moondawg in those days and he was the first to put on black and white performer
s together.
Freeds role in the history of rock is well documented. A radio DJ (we thought he w
as black, says Hawkins), he knew Hawkins and when he heard the re-recording of Sp
ell the blind-drunk 1956 version he put Hawkins on the bill of his live shows.
Freed encouraged Hawkins outrageous performances but when the payola scandal came
along and Freed was fingered (they hounded that man to death) Hawkins name was ine
vitably linked. The question was simple: how could such a bizarre scream-fest as
Spell get on radio if a DJ hadnt received money to play it? Nobody surely liked
that stuff, did they?
They did and Hawkins career continued despite a conservative white lobby which t
hought his savage music was corrupting the youth and the black National Associatio
n of American Coloured People (NAACP) which took him to task for demeaning and p
arodying blacks. The bone through the nose was what did it.
Now, as he did then, Hawkins defends his actions as those of an entertainer and
pins the argument on to the NAACP itself.
An entertainers position is to entertain and be an individual. Like Tiny Grimes we
aring a kilt, Dizzy Gillespie and his hats. Yet the NAACP came after me when the
y dont even know who killed Malcolm X and still havent found the truth about who k
illed Martin Luther King.
Why come after an entertainer when there are so many other things they should be
looking at?
And regardless of the criticism, Hawkins continued to perform not always to huge
crowds admittedly, but performing nevertheless.
In time he spawned the inevitable crop of imitators.
Few would be so courageous as to cover his songs (although Alan Price a surprise
hit with a courteous remake of Spell) but the flamboyance of his shows could be s
een in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper whose nightmare and snake a
ct was clearly drawn from Hawkins and, more obviously, Englands Screamin Lord Sutc
Hawkins says he is flattered by being imitated although he has spoken with Arthu
r Brown over lunch and posed the question: if your are imitating me who are you
going to imitate when Im dead?
These days Hawkins says he is as busy as ever. He has homes in Hawaii and Califo
rnia which he seldom sees, and ironically for a man whose appearance in the 57 mo
vie Mister Rock And Roll ended up on the cutting room floor because it was consi
dered in bad taste and racially insulting to blacks, he is in demand for movies.
He dismisses his cameo in Jarmuschs Mystery Train where he played a hotel keeper
(I just got to wear a red suit, they wouldnt let me perform) and hasnt even seen som
e of his more recent screen efforts.
Yet for all his outrage, controversy, multiple banning and censoring. Other than
a wandering eye when it comes to the ladies -- he has dozens of children to as
many mothers -- Hawkins is scrupulous about keeping clear of the obvious temptat
ions of his lifestyle.
He was even careful about his reworking of Paul McCartneys Monkberry Moon Delight
back in 71 -- a song McCartney clearly wrote in the Screamin Jay style -- because
of a reference to pillow up my nose in the obviously nonsense lyrics.
I am very cautious about what can touch my name or surround me, he says. I stay awa
y from the people who cater to those things in this life. If you lay down with d
ogs you come up with fleas and in my life I have always been clean and free of t
hose temptations.
But how does a man who makes the demands he does of himself survive in an indust
ry and lifestyle which is so often one of dependency and addiction?
Its easy. I watched Clyde McPhatter die, I watched Frankie Lymon die, I watched Ik
e Quebec die, I watched Gene Ammons die. I watched and learned and vowed never t
o repeat their mistakes.
You have to work for opportunity to knock and if it does you have to be able to h
ear it. You have to always be alert.
You come into this world naked and broke . . . and you go out naked and broke, bu
t you have to live along the way, you cant go on wallowing in a barrel of rotten
Im an entertainer giving 100 per cent. To give, you have to be prepared all the ti
Hawkins sounds prepared. Its just that every now and again someone has to warn hi
s audience.
Screamin Jay Hawkins died in February 2000.