Screamin' Jay Hawkins was the most outrageous performer extant during rock's dawn. Prone to emerging out of coffins on-stage, a flaming skull named Henry his constant companion, Screamin' Jay was an insanely theatrical figure long before it was even remotely acceptable.
Hawkins' life story is almost as bizarre as his on-stage schtick. Originally inspired by the booming baritone of Paul Robeson, Hawkins was unable to break through as an opera singer. His boxing prowess was every bit as lethal as his vocal cords; many of his most hilarious tales revolve around Jay beating the hell out of a musical rival.
Hawkins caught his first musical break in 1951 as pianist/valet to veteran jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes. He debuted on wax for Gotham the following year with "Why Did You Waste My Time," backed by Grimes & His Rockin' Highlanders (they donned kilts and tam o' shanters on-stage). Singles for Timely ("Baptize Me in Wine") and Mercury's Wing subsidiary (1955's otherworldly "[She Put The] Wamee [On Me]," a harbinger of things to come) preceded Hawkins' immortal 1956 rendering of "I Put a Spell on You" for Columbia's OKeh imprint.
Hawkins originally envisioned the tune as a refined ballad. After he and his New York session aces (notably guitarist Mickey Baker and saxist Sam "The Man" Taylor) had imbibed to the point of no return, Hawkins screamed, grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon. A resultant success despite the protests of uptight suits-in-power, "I Put a Spell on You" became Screamin' Jay's biggest seller ("Little Demon," its rocking flip, is a minor classic itself).
Hawkins cut several amazing 1957-1958 follow-ups in the same crazed vein -- "Hong Kong," a surreal "Yellow Coat," the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-penned "Alligator Wine" -- but none of them clicked the way "Spell" had. DJ Alan Freed convinced Screamin' Jay that popping out of a coffin might be a show-stopping gimmick by handing him a $300 bonus (long after Freed's demise, Screamin' Jay Hawkins was still benefiting from his crass brainstorm).
Hawkins' next truly inspired waxing came in 1969 when he was contracted to Philips Records (where he made two albums). His gross "Constipation Blues" wouldn't garner much airplay, but remained an integral part of his legacy for quite a while.
The cinema was a beneficiary of Screamin' Jay's larger-than-life persona in later years. His featured roles in Mystery Train and A Rage in Harlem made Hawkins a familiar visage to youngsters who never even heard "I Put a Spell on You." He died February 12, 2000 following surgery to treat an aneurysm; Hawkins was 70.