Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: Shock Rock Innovator

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: Rockabilly Legend & Influential Glam Rock Pioneer

Despite the continued popularity of R’n’R in the UK, it’s safe to say that there aren’t really any Jive performers today attempting to emulate the wild cat antics of one of Rockabilly’s weirdest performers.

James Hawkins, as we he was born, did not have the easiest of starts in life yet you could say that his diverse upbringing helped him achieve the kind of orginality and style that other performers could only wish they thought of at the time. Abandoned by his mother at birth, he was raised in an orphanage until he was adopted by a Native American family at 18 months old. During his early years he developed an affinity with music, teaching himself to play the piano and learning to read music by the age of six. At fourteen he had picked up the saxophone and was also developing a considerable talent with his fists.

Hawkins took home the top prize at the Golden Gloves Championship in 1943 at the age of 14, but his love for musical eclipsed his natural talents as a fighter. That same year he enrolled at the Ohio Conservatory for Music to follow in the footsteps of his idol Paul Robeson and learn to sing operatically. Hawkins did not complete his education there, soon he’d dropped out to join the War effort and found himself entertaining tired soldiers with his unique brand of blues.

Hawkins was often known to tell outlandish tales of his times in the army including stories of parachuting behind enemy lines and becoming a POW. One particular story, which remains completely unsubstantiated, details a grisly encounter between Hawkins and one of his captors, involving the forced swallowing of a live grenade. This kind of bizarre, shocking humour was very much apart of Hawkins’ nature and would prove to be both his undoing and his making.

After his discharge from the army and a brief return to boxing, Hawkins began playing music professionally for a number of renowned jazz performers including Charlie Parker and the Art Tatum Trio. His career as a session musician soon came to and end when he was fired by Fats Domino for attempting to perform in a leopard skin suit. Although his wild-man style did not sit with the traditional jazz band leaders of the time, he soon caught the eye of Okeh Records who signed him. His first record with them did not sell well but has come to be recognised as a true cultural landmark in popular music.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, as he was now known, is said to have recorded an early version of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ in 1956 whilst in the midst of a booze-fuelled binge. The next day, when going over the take, all involved agreed that the wildness of his vocals was something that should be replicated again. The record did not perform well, but laid the foundation for his identity as a shamanic, ritualistic performer who drew ire from groups as disparate as the NAACP and the National Coffin Association.

Hawkins continued performing right through to the mid-90s, opening for acts that he had influenced such as Nick Cave and The Clash. During his period he scored his one and only UK hit, a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Heart Attack and Vine‘ which peaked at number 42 in 1993. Screamin’ Jay might not have been appreciated during his heyday but it’s a testament to his ingenuity as an artist that he was able to be recognised by his peers later in life.

Filmmaker Nicholas Triandafyllidis made a documentary based on Hawkins’ life and featuring his last ever performance, which you can watch below: