Screamin' Jay Hawkins: Just In Time (Again) For Halloween

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Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: 1929 – 2000 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Halloween is here again we’ll be hearing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ top hit “I Put A Spell on You”. In fact, it’s on KCRW right now. Poor guy. He wanted to do so much more.

Hawkins wanted to become an opera singer. He idolized Paul Robeson. And he was a classically trained pianist, but in the 1950’s there weren’t many opportunity for African American artists in classical music or opera. He was a formidable boxer and fine physical specimen, and legend had it that after being a prisoner of war serving in the Pacific during World War Two, he stuffed a grenade in his tormenter’s mouth and pulled the pin. When he returned from the war he started doing bars and clubs, “walking the bar”,  playing his saxophone for tips. Hawkins intended “I Put a Spell on You” to be a refined ballad, but during the recording session he and the band got drunk and raucous. In spite of the drunken orgy–or because of it–Hawkins produced a top 40 chartbuster.

But it was DJ Alan Freed who really sealed his fate: After the single was released and became a hit, Freed paid him $300 to emerge from a coffin while singing the song. It became his schtick. Once the coffin lid became stuck and Hawkins almost suffocated during his act. It was staged with voodoo props, a skull with smoke coming out of it, and rubber snakes. He became a cheap and tawdry version of Vincent Price.

Look at this video of Hawkins performing “Old Man River” on TV…I think that’s David Sanborn hosting, hair style means it was the 70s. But check out the Paul Robeson influence and Hawkins’ soaring baritone.

Remember this Halloween that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wanted to do much more than this ghoulish carp, but history and fate dictated otherwise. Check out this incredibly tacky video.

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet