Jalacy J. Hawkins, July 18, 1929, Cleveland, OH; d. February 12, 2000, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
R&B, Rock and roll, Blues, Novelty songs, Jazz
Vocals, Guitar, Piano
Contributions to music:
- His 1958 hit "I Put A Spell On You" remains one of the strangest and most enduring songs in rock and roll, despite never having charted
- A basso-profundo singer with an impressive, even operatic voice, able to transform any song at will
- One of rock's greatest early showmen, appearing from a coffin in voodoo garb and holding a skull
- His insane and utterly unique vocal approach has neve been duplicated
Born the fourth child of a woman with four different "baby daddies" and raised in several foster homes, "Jay" Hawkins was nonetheless determined to make something of himself. Having played piano by ear since the age of 3(!) and a huge fan of singer Paul Robeson, the young Hawkins studied opera at the Ohio Conservatory of Music. Upon finding no way for a black man to make money at opera, however, he became a professional middleweight boxer and eventually joined the Army, where he saw action in both WWII and Korea. Between stints, he gigged in the New York and New Orleans R&B scenes.
During the early Fifties Hawkins cut a number of singles for various labels, including 1951's "Why Did You Waste My Time," with Tiny Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders, and a slow, jazzy ballad called "I Put A Spell On You." None of them aroused much interest, however, until February 12, 1956, when the vocalist reworked "Spell" for the Okeh label. Columbia A&R man Arnold Maxim, realizing the lyrics needed a spookier sound, asked the band how they would play the song on stage. "We don't know, we'd be drunk," remarked Hawkins, and after a few cases of booze, the frightening version we know now came to be.
Assisted by a bizarre stage show during which Hawkins emerged in full wicth doctor makeup from a coffin (inspired by Alan Freed), the song took off like a rocket. But it never charted, due to radio bans on its suggestive grunting, and after a few years of cutting similar records, Hawkins retired to Hawaii, making only sporadic returns to studio and stage. His career enjoyed a major revival after director Jim Jarmusch featured him in his films "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Mystery Train," and he continued to be a fixture in R&B circles until his death in 2000 from a post-operative aneurysm.
- Won the Alaskan Middleweight title in 1949, though he was unfairly stripped of it
- Given his stage name by a woman at one of his performances who kept urging him to scream
- Wrote the original "Spell" for a real lost love, who came back to him only to be dumped by Jay four months later
- Blacked out during the "Spell" sessions and had no idea what he'd done until he received a copy of the song; he was forced to relearn the lyrics and vocal style from scratch
- Gave up drinking in 1974 after realizing he could sing "Spell" perfectly well sober
- Has fathered anywhere from 57 to 75 children by different mothers
- Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award (1998)
Popular recordings: "I Put A Spell On You," "Little Demon," "Constipation Blues," "Alligator Wine," "I Love Paris," "Person To Person," "Frenzy," "You Made Me Love You," "Yellow Coat," "I Hear Voices," "Orange Colored Sky," "(She Put The) Wamee (On Me)," "Feast Of The Mau Mau," "Move Me," "You Ain't Foolin' Me," "Hong Kong," "There's Something Wrong With You," "Darling, Please Forgive Me," "Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle," "Temptation"
Covered by: Marilyn Manson, Elvis Costello, Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Nick Cave, Manfred Mann, The Animals, Them, Bryan Ferry
Appears in the movies: "Mister Rock and Roll" (1957), "Day Tripper" (1966), "American Hot Wax" (1978), "Joey" (1986), "Two Moon Junction" (1988), "Mystery Train" (1989), "A Rage In Harlem" (1991), "Perdita Durango" (1997), "Peut-être" (1999), "Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put A Spell On Me" (2001)