Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is undoubtedly the father of shock rock. First introducing theatrical provocation to rock ‘n roll in 1956, following the success of “I Put a Spell on You”. Through a macabre lens, Hawkins would vocalize morbid themes and pair them with monster movie props in his live performances. Inspiring musicians for decades from Arthur Brown to The Cramps, Screamin’ Jay ushered the horror genre right into the spotlight of music.
Scream, Baby, Scream
Born in 1929 as Jalacy Hawkins, he was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story. Cultivating his own mythical history, Hawkins embellished his life as a true entertainer. Adopted by Blackfoot Indians at 18 months old, he grew up with an appreciation for opera and classical music. Often referencing Paul Robeson as a major influence. As an accomplished pianist, Hawkins became a blues and jazz musician by way of Tiny Grimes’ band, Rockin’ Highlanders. Often stealing the show with the genesis of his outlandish wardrobe before becoming a solo artist. Inspired by the sounds of Big Bill Broonzy and Dizzy Gillespie, Hawkins created his style of performing and writing his own version of blues.
Horror on Stage
Following the controversial success of 1956’s “I Put a Spell on You”, a Cleveland disc jockey would encourage the musician to capitalize on the negative backlash of his song. Clad in a black cape and velvet gloves, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins would rise from his mirrored casket to glare at the audience with spinning eyes. Accompanied by his sidekick ‘Henry’, a rotting skull on a stick that actively smoked cigarettes. Sometimes Henry was described as a restless soul possessing a fetish and other times an actual donated skull of a deceased friend. A mechanical severed hand would squirm on the piano and was previously believed to have run across the stage in the early years. Other elements of the occult were incorporated into live shows. Candles and bells to call spirits, snakes around his neck, and chattering teeth illuminating from the darkness. Hawkins would also employ smoke bombs, flash paper, and other pyrotechnics that would leave him burned by his own quest for entertainment. Hawkins’ shows were frequently picketed by offended citizens yet continued to draw eclectic crowds of teenagers. All clamoring to take part in the magic rituals staged by the other-worldly figure of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
The morbid stage antics were just icing on the cake. The real substance of his career was in the music. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s most famous song, “I Put a Spell on You” was written in a fit of despair following a bad break-up. Originally intended to be a ballad, a record executive suggested Hawkins do “something different” with the song. Providing the group with imported fortified wine, they recorded a blind drunk version that became the infamous waltz of unrequited love. Blacked-out from their wild night at the studio, neither Hawkins nor the rest of the band remembered the session. “I Put a Spell on You” was an instant hit, surpassing a million copies in sales and ruffling the feathers of moral gatekeepers everywhere. The provocative growling, that became the singer’s trademark, was considered too suggestive and banned by radio stations. Hawkins would feed the grim rumors by claiming he had tried yet was unable to destroy the original audio tapes. Also, reportedly the song gave him the creeps throughout his career. Admitting that he would only sing it live after hitting the bottle. But his claim to fame wasn’t the only song packed with horror tropes. Here are a few suggested songs to those looking for the thrills only Screamin’ Jay could provide.
Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was one of the first to record “Alligator Wine”. Lyrically the song is a cartoony recipe for a love potion, but Hawkins set the standard with a swampy, bare-bones blues trance. Reading the grotesque ingredients and instructions right out of a bayou healer’s grimoire, “Alligator Wine” describes the adverse effects after consuming the concoction. A powerless addiction to vice and the charms of Screamin’ Jay himself.
The song “The Whammy” gives Screamin’ Jay a taste of his own medicine. With a full catalog of confessional tunes of snaring women with magic, the tables turn for Hawkins. He sings of being desired by a woman who puts a supernatural influence on him. Building suspense through his disturbing moans, Hawkins wails of the physical torture under this powerful conjure. Descending into madness as he begs the spell caster for release, going to far as to threaten her with a shotgun.
“I Hear Voices”
Equal parts biographical as well as the intrinsic aesthetic of Hawkins, “I Hear Voices” notes of a man unlucky in love. Another relationship soured and our jilted lover mourns his losses to the brink of paranoia. Screamin’ Jay’s song is plagued with the troubled mumbling and whispers of spirits. Losing a grip on reality, our narrator hears the chattering giggles and footsteps of phantoms as his own heartbreak drives him insane.
“Whistling Past The Graveyard”
Written by Tom Waits, the song’s title is an idiom of unknown origin, meaning to focus on a positive outcome regardless of the situation. The lyrics are a string of superstitions deliberately broken. Purposely provoking this bad luck energy with the confidence of a man who has nothing to lose. Screamin’ Jay’s cover utilizes his baritone instrument for the melodic incantation. Summoning a trickster entity born from a series of bad omens. The audience could easily see this song as another facet of Screamin’ Jay’s mythic history.
“Baptize Me in Wine”
Released in 1954 as a single by Jalacy Hawkins, “Baptize Me In Wine” takes influence from a New Orleans second line funeral. A midtempo chucklesome tale of wino’s last requests. Whether the preacher has returned to life or is knocking at death’s door is debatable. What is clear is that the afterlife will have to wait until the decedent has had a final libation. The soul will not rest until refreshed and buried with his beloved wine.
“Monkberry Moon Delight”
A nonsensical song written by Paul & Linda McCartney. The couple explained their original inspiration was taken from the surreal wordplay of a child’s imagination and singsong riddles. As an underrated cover, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins gives purpose to the song. Making it his own by improvising lines so the song is tailored to a spiritual narrative. Undergoing a psychedelic trip and surrendering to the addiction of a unique spirit/potion.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was a pioneer of shock rock and proto-goth subcultures. Providing the blueprint for every band who incorporated macabre theatricality in their music. Breaking taboos in the industry, none can surpass his original bone chattering freak-out power. If rock ‘n roll really is the Devil’s music, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was a supernatural force.
I Put A Spell On You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins by Steve Bergsman