While driving to work today, a song popped into my head. Not the latest bubble pop song on the local stations and, surprisingly enough, not a Zeppelin deep cut.
No, this one was one I usually have on repeat in my brain from October 1st to October 31st, each and every year for the last decade or so. It was a pleasant autumnal surprise on a steamy June morning and as I type this, I am still humming the seminal tune ‘I Put a Spell on You’. So with that track thumping in between my eardrums, I figure it’s only fitting to splash some limelight on the late Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Long before Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie and The Misfits, there was Jalacy Hawkins. Hawkins, far better known to the entertainment world by his stage name Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, was a musician, singer, songwriter and actor. He was a true founding father of the shock rock genre that has inundated the music scene over the last few decades.
Hawkins’ most popular song was “I Put a Spell on You”, a delicious little diddy that mixes Hawkins’ echoing deep voice with a finger snapping instrumental. The song has been featured on countless commercials, films and television shows.
What made Hawkins such a shocking and fun groundbreaking talent was the fact that he used props in his act. From rubber snakes to voodoo charms, when Mr. Hawkins stepped onstage, there was no one but Screamin’ Jay Hawkins present. All whispers of the man he was offstage were completely erased as he fully immersed himself in the act.
Hawkins wasn’t just a shock act, however. He was also a classically trained pianist as a child, with aspirations of becoming an opera singer, and learned the guitar in his early adulthood. Blues soon became his passion, along with boxing. Hawkins was actually the middleweight boxing champion of Alaska in 1949!
Hawkins put his musical talents to good use in 1951 when he joined his first band and subsequently began a solo act. Performing in colorful and lavish outfits that predated the funk era to come, Hawkins would soon cement his name into rock lore with 1956’s ‘I Put a Spell on You’.
The recording of the classic song is a story in itself, as the band was admittedly quite drunk during the session. Hawkins actually insists that he blacked out and didn’t remember recording the song, only able to perform it live after relearning it from the recording! Originally planned to be a “refined ballad”, in the words of Hawkins, the song became a hoarse and rollicking jam that is believed to have sold over a million copies.
A song so raw, so dark and so sexual was, not surprisingly, banned from the airwaves in many areas, even after stations produced edited versions that took out most of Hawkins’ grunts and growls.
Nonetheless, the song was a hit and a man who knew a great musical gig when he saw one, Mr. Alan Freed, soon approached Hawkins and offered him a sum of $300 to spring from a coffin and perform the song live. To go along with this new garb, Hawkins incorporated voodoo props, namely a skull on a stick named Henry, into the act.
Hawkins was often referred to as “the black Vincent Price”, certainly not the most politically correct label in this day and age but considered a true compliment from audiences and by Hawkins, alike.
“I Put a Spell on You” has been covered over a dozen times, by everyone from Van Morrison to Marilyn Manson. While Hawkins may not have achieved the massive commercial success that some shock rockers after him did, there is no doubt Hawkins left an indelible mark on the shock rock scene. He was a man ahead of his time and someone who created a piece of art that is still a Halloween party staple to this day.
Mr. Hawkins passed away in 2000 at the age of 70.