He dressed in wild capes, crawled out of a smoke filled coffin, wore a bone through his nose.
But the man called Screamin’ Jay Hawkins never wanted to scream. See, he loved big band music.
Born Jalacy Hawkins, he was actually a classically trained musician. He really wanted to be an opera singer. So when the band went to record “I Put a Spell on You,” he heard it as a sweet love song. A ballad.
But that’s not what happened. The story goes that Screamin’ Jay walked into the studio with a ballad in mind…and woke up the next day in a fog. Couldn’t remember a thing. See, the whole band got wasted. A little too much hard drinking. Screamin’ Jay himself was blackout. But somehow he made it to the microphone, and what came out of his body were primal screams, guttural moans, and one of the greatest vocal performances on vinyl.
“Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins was born Jalacy Hawkins on July 18, 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child, Hawkins learned classical piano and studied opera, intending to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Paul Robeson. When his operatic career ambitions didn’t pan out, Jalacy tried his hand at boxing. A talented fighter, he was the 1949 middleweight champion of Alaska.
But music was his real passion. He returned to performing in 1951, and joined jazz/r&b guitarist Tiny Grimes’ band. But Hawkins was no sideman. He began a solo career, creating an onstage persona—the man who’d become known as “Screamin’ Jay.” He began to perform in capes, wild clothes, put a bone through his nose—and used unconventional props to electrify his audience. The story goes that radio DJ Allan Freed (the man widely credited with popularizing the term Rock and Roll to refer to a new style of music) paid Screamin’ Jay $300 to emerge from a coffin onstage, which soon became one of his performance gimmicks. Voodoo stage props became his calling card, as did his omnipresent plastic skull, which he named Henry.
His only really big hit was “I Put A Spell On You,” a song so wild and overtly sexual it was banned from the radio in many places. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—the record surpassed a million sales. Though he never achieved the same commercial success, Hawkins continued to make music and record until his death in 2000. He was also a sometime actor, appearing in the Jim Jarmusch films Stranger than Paradise and Mystery Train, as well as other roles. Somethin’ else Hawkins made a lot of? Children. At the time of his passing the estimate was 55 children by multiple women, with the number growing to 75.