Jalacy J. Hawkins was born in 1929, in Cleveland. He was adopted when he was 18 months by a Native American family of the Blackfoot Tribe and brought him up. A gifted musician he learned to play piano and read music as a toddler and by the age of 14 he had mastered the saxophone. Young Jalacy took up boxing before he attended the Ohio Conservatory of Music, where he studied opera. Inspired by Paul Robeson and Mario Lanza he sang as a rich bass baritone. Jalacy dropped out of high school to join the army becoming a member of the special services. He was assigned to entertain the troops and was reportedly taken prisoner following a paratroops landing off the island of Saipan. After the War Jalacy continued to box but decided to give it up in 1950 and become a professional musician (pianist). It was at a gig in West Virginia, when a fan cried out, "Scream, baby, scream!" that Jay became Screamin' Jay. When he was discharged from the army, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins worked as a chauffeur for jazzman Tiny Grimes. Eventually he joined Grimes's band, the Rockin' Highlanders, as a vocalist and piano player.
In 1954, he joined Fats Domino's band as a pianist. Screamin’ and Fats did not enjoy a good working relationship and within a year he was fired for wearing a leopard skin suit on stage. The flamboyant Screamin’Jay Hawkins started working solo in Harlem then in boardwalk clubs in Atlantic City. He often performed in a very stylish wardrobe, featuring leopard skins, red leather and wild hats. He also continued his recording career with “Baptize me in wine’ (Timely) and "(She Put the) Wamee (On Me)," but no commercial success came.
In 1955 he signed with Okeh Records, and went into the studio to record a ballad. Screamin’ Jay and his fellow musician got drunk and apparently cannot remember the session which turned into mayhem. "I Put A Spell On You," hollering, bellowing, and adding other bizarre sound effects. When it was released radio stations were fearful people would complain at the macabre and edited out the blood curdling effects. The Okeh recording failed to sell.
A year later “I put a spell on you” was re-recorded at Columbia and went on to sell over a million copies. "I Put a Spell on You" became Screamin' Jay's biggest seller and had on the B side, "Little Demon," which was a minor classic.
Screamin’ Jay’s rich bass baritone conjured up ghoulish images and his public performances invoked voodoo images with bone-rattling sound effects which simultaneously entertained and bewildered young rock 'n roll fans. His bazaar on-stage antics such as emerging from a coffin holding a cigarette smoking skull called Henry were encouraged by Alan Freed who paid him to escalate the macabre. He would often appear as a vampire (sometimes with a bone through his nose) carried on stage in a blazing coffin decorated with zebra skin. Controlled explosions would punctuate his act and on several occasions leaving Screamin’ Jay with severe burns. At home Screamin’ Jay kept the stage coffin in his kitchen and used it as a cupboard. As an act he received much criticism from conservative Americans and was accused of corrupting the minds of youth with his on stage necrophilia. Despite making some memorable follow up recordings like, "Hong Kong," "Yellow Coat," and Alligator Wine (written by Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller), Screamin’ Jay would never repeat the same success.
By the early 60s the novelty of his voodoo-inspired performances had peaked but not without leaving a milestone for others to follow. In the UK Screamin’ Lord Sutch took up the call and mirrored the same preoccupation with the rockin’ occult throughout the British Invasion.
Others followed in the tradition of Screamin’ Jay’s on stage antics from Ozzie Osborne to Alice Cooper. The frantic years of success had left the artist drug and alcohol dependent but he continued to tour and record throughout the 60s and 70s. In 1974 he successfully conquered his addiction to alcohol and drugs. Meanwhile, "I Put a Spell on You" experienced a revival, and was recorded by several jazz and rock stars. This provided a substantial royalties income for Hawkins. He collaborated informally with the Rolling Stones and, in 1980, appeared as the opening act for the Rolling Stones' Madison Square Garden concert. A decade later he started a band called the Fuzztones and embarked on a tour of the United States and Europe.
The singer turned to acting and appeared in American Hot Wax (1978), Mystery Train (1990) A Rage in Harlem (1991), Dance with the Devil (Perdita Durango) (1997) and Peut-etre (1999).
He also did commercials in Japan where he was immensely popular.
He moved to Paris, France in the late 1990s and sadly Screamin’ Jay Hawkins died aged 70, in 2000 following surgery to treat an aneurysm.
Worth a listen
I Put a Spell On You/Little Demon (1956)
Frenzy/Person to Person (1957)
Alligator Wine (1958)
I Hear Voices (1962)
Constipation Blues (1970)
Screamin' Lord Sutch
Jack the Ripper