Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

TrackSingle / Album   
(She Put The) Wamee (On Me)Mercury 70549
I IsGrand 135
I Put A Spell On YouOKeh 7072
Little DemonOKeh 7072
Alligator WineOKeh 7101
I Love ParisAt Home With ...
AshesChancellor 1117
Feast Of The Mau MauWhat That Is!
Portrait Of A ManPortrait Of A Man And His Woman
Heart Attack And VineBlack Music For White People

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Screamin' Jay Hawkins photo

Jay with Henry the skull

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

You’d have thought this Toppermost would have had One Hit Wonder plastered all over it. I Put A Spell On You was a big hit surely? Wrong. It didn’t even trouble the US R&B Chart, let alone any devoted to the pop stuff. Over the years though, the record sold well over a million copies, and Rolling Stone rated it at #313 in their 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. So, maybe it’s an honourable One Hit Wonder Hit if not an actual one.

It wasn’t even the first time that Jay, or Jalacy to give him his full name, had recorded the song. He laid down four tracks for the Grand label of Philadelphia in November 1955. Two of them – the splendidly ungrammatical I Is, coupled with Take Me Back – got issued that same year, while the other two remained in the can. That pair comprised a number called $10,000 Lincoln Continental plus the first version of I Put A Spell On You. For the record – and apologies for the pun – this is it.

Emotion packed blues ballad and a very good example of the genre. Who knows, if this record had been issued and had got itself a positive reaction from record buyers, Jay’s career path might have been rather different.

The following year, 1956, Jay signed for OKeh Records, a subsidiary of the mighty Columbia. Among the four songs selected for the first session which was held on the 12th of September that year, A&R man Arnold Maxin chose I Put A Spell On You again, but had the intention of doing something different with the number, something that would up the spell/magic/weirdness quotient. He laid on stacks of food and drink (of the alcoholic variety) in order to shake off some of the inhibitions of the session musicians (who included Sam “The Man” Taylor on tenor sax, plus axeman Mickey Baker who would very shortly hit the charts in cahoots with Sylvia Vanderpool on Love Is Strange), the producer (Maxin himself), the arranger, the sound engineer, plus of course, Jay who probably imbibed more than his fair share. It worked a treat. Jay came out with an almost unimaginable variety of screams, grunts and gurgles that may or may not have satisfied Maxin’s target of something magical but which created a record with absolutely no precedent in the pop music world. I’m not sure whether the term ‘over the top’ had come into wide circulation by the time this single was recorded but Jay was not only there, he was, way, way beyond.

However much he’d consumed, Jay remained compos mentis enough to enunciate the lyrics of the verses of flip side, Little Demon, which gushed out in absolute torrents with more than a little imaginative skill involved – “He even made the Leap Year jump over the moon”. The chorus was sheer gibberish which our man delivered with relish. Up tempo jump blues in format but with mucho entertainment value, not to mention attitude.

He was born, Jalacy Hawkins, on 18th July 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio. Reportedly (quote from Jay in Nick Tosches’ “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”), his mother talked a wealthy tribe of Blackfoot Indians into bringing him up, after the father had left her in the lurch. He studied piano in his childhood and, with his strong voice, had an early aim to make it as an opera singer. Who knows, with that distinctive tenor he might have succeeded if he’d persisted. However, like many from the urban ghetto he turned to blues singing with jump blues bands. He also pursued a career in boxing, in which it is said he fought in the Cleveland Golden Gloves Amateur Championships in the mid-1940s and later, in 1949, during his military service he reportedly defeated a former Alaskan welterweight champion, Billy McCann. While stories about Jay’s boxing ‘success’ appear in a number of biographical pieces, actual proof of the usual claims has proved to be elusive. He dropped boxing when he got his first musical break as pianist/valet for guitarist and bandleader Tiny Grimes in 1951. His first recordings were made with the Grimes band (which, for a period, was known as Tiny Grimes’ Rocking Highlanders, kitted out with kilts) in 1952, but he didn’t even get a name check on his first outing. That record, Why Did You Waste My Time (Gotham 295), was credited to Grimes but there was no mistaking the fruity tones of Hawkins, even if he was on his best behaviour. The song was a blues ballad without too many distinguishing features other than the Hawkins voice.

If I can quote from Bill Millar’s excellent essay on Jay in his book “Let The Good Times Rock”: “He told us that his favourite singers were Roy Hamilton, Frank Sinatra, Nappy Brown (“Man that cat’s got soul”) and Brenda Lee”. In this country the least known of that grouping would be Nappy Brown followed by Roy Hamilton, both black singers and, to my ears, possibly the biggest influences on Jay vocally. Hamilton had a rich semi-classical style and he recorded power ballads of the era like You’ll Never Walk Alone and Unchained Melody – he had a crossover #6 pop hit with the song in ’54. Roy is largely forgotten now, particularly in this country, but he had US Top Fifty placings right up to 1961. The even more obscure, but charmingly named, Nappy Brown, was a jump blues singer with a voice that’s often referred to as plummy. He’s remembered for writing and recording Night Time Is The Right Time, later recorded by Ray Charles (and a big stage favourite of Long John Baldry during the days of the Brit R&B boom). Wiki makes the comment about the nappy man – “Brown’s powerful and protean voice, combined with his distinctive emotive style, is widely viewed as a key link in the development of soul music”. For comparison purposes, both these singers are well worth digging out.

That might have been a digression but I felt it worthwhile to illustrate the point that the Hawkins voice, minus the trappings which he took on board largely from Spell onwards, wasn’t totally unique in black music of the period. I’d even chuck in another jump blues gent, Roy Brown (no relation to the Napster), whose recordings were also imbued with a high level of fruitiness. Roy is, of course, remembered for writing and performing Good Rocking Tonight, way back in 1947, well before Elvis got his hands on it, dropping the ‘g’ in the process.

Why Did You Waste My Time was followed by some false follow-ups – they were false in that they didn’t see release at the time. No Hug, No Kiss (which would have come out on Gotham) and Screamin’ Blues Parts 1 & 2 plus My Dream (both from an Atlantic session) were canned, so we’ll move on.

By now Jay had set his mind on a solo career and four sides were recorded in a session in New York for the Timely record label in 1954. The sides were released as two singles that same year. The first of the pair, Not Anymore c/w Baptize Me In Wine, is notable for two reasons: it was the first release from Jay under his own name, albeit as Jalacy Hawkins since he hadn’t acquired the “Screamin’ Jay” nickname as yet, and, for the presence of an intriguing slide guitarist on the A-side. Have a listen to him and see what you think:

In the Mike Leadbitter/Neil Slaven “Blues Records 1943-1970”, the guitarist on the four Timely tracks is listed as Tiny Grimes, Jay’s erstwhile employer. It may well have been him on the other three but on this one it does sound as if a certain Elmore James has tiptoed into the studio unannounced. I hasten to add that this is a suspicion only; it’s not been verified. However, with the help of Cal, I am actively seeking such verification. Watch this space.

Well, blow me down, if I didn’t make some progress on identification later in the same day that I wrote the paragraph above – see Footnote #9.

As a semi-digression, I would note that another of this grouping of four tracks, I Found My Way To Wine, strongly suggests that Jay wasn’t unaware of certain other blues singers. Take a listen. Howlin’ Wolf?

Prior to Jay’s signing by OKeh and that magnificent debut, he recorded for not one but three other labels in addition to Timely. The releases were haphazard to the extent that there doesn’t appear to be one discography that can be regarded as completely credible, perhaps typifying much of the murk that seemed to surround the man. However, there were certainly good discs from the timeframe. The already mentioned I Is could almost have made it into my selection on title alone but the rest of the record matches it, both on performance terms and the evocative nature of the lyrics, (from Jay himself I should add). It’s a slowish stop time blues and is a splendid retort to anyone who claims that Jay couldn’t hack it on straight blues which is why he turned to the mumbo jumbo nonsense.

Lovely meandering sax intro and then it’s:

You said you didn’t want me
You said I wasn’t right
You say I like to fuss all day
Come home and pick a fight
You told your bald headed mama about me
Went to court and told the judge too
Even told your wire-head sister
I ain’t the man for you

Well, I is —— and into the chorus

He almost makes the grammar sound right.

(She Put The) Wamee (On Me) (later re-recorded as The Whammy) is another goodie from this period. A slow minor key blues with a chorus that amazingly, seems to be in almost martial waltz time. “I met a big woman, with eyes of fury” and she’s the one who put the wamee (curse) on poor Jay, who, once again, wrote the song. Very much a precursor to Spell and its successors, this one plays on the southern voodoo beliefs and has that oddball mix of humour and scariness that seemed to characterise our hero.

Spell should have been Jay’s breakthrough but wasn’t. In part this failure must have been due to a number of record stations refusing to play the single. Reportedly, the record was withdrawn “… as a result of the public outrage caused by the “suggestive and cannibalistic” sound effects provided by Hawkins” (source: “The Virgin Encyclopedia Of The Blues” by Colin Larkin). It impressed the hell out of DJ Alan Freed though and he strongly encouraged Jay to go for a full stage act based on a shlock horror persona:

“Hawkins’s act evolved into a zany freak show. Often dressed as a vampire, he was carried on stage in a blazing coffin decorated with zebra skin. One popular prop was a cigarette-smoking skull-on-a-stick, affectionately dubbed Henry. Explosions punctuated the act, and Hawkins suffered severe burns on more than one occasion.” (source: Blackcat Rockabilly Europe)

While the above will undoubtedly raise the hackles of ‘serious record listeners’, and I have to add that I unfortunately missed out on seeing the stage show so can’t draw on personal experience, I can tell you that, in the essay I’ve already referred to, renowned critic and writer Bill Millar reports on travelling to as many of Jay’s shows as he could when the man played on these shores in the mid sixties, so unmissable was the performance. Cal Taylor also managed to get to see Jay live and has assured me in no uncertain terms that the experience ranks within the top three live shows he’s ever seen (and I can add that the other two performers weren’t exactly slouches).

Screamin' Jay Hawkins autograph

OKeh and subsequent labels played up to the horror show image by featuring Jay on a series of singles that majored on the macabre theme. Frenzy, I Hear Voices (on Enrica Records), There’s Something Wrong With You were just some from the timeframe. There were exceptions though: The Past (Red Top Records) was a perfectly conventional blues ballad that benefited from the power of Jay’s big voice; You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It), the immediate follow-up to Spell, was an oldie given a heavy layering of Jay’s scat cum gobbledegook; and the self penned (several were) Armpit #6 (Red Top), a purely comedic effort about a new brand of perfume! I’ve selected a couple of the weird but wonderful tracks: the Leiber and Stoller penned Alligator Wine which would become a staple in the live act, and Ashes (Chancellor Records) which is remarkable for a number of reasons: 1) contrary to the title it wasn’t horror ham – “Ashes of a broken heart are all that remain” – instead Jay was singing about a broken romance; 2) most unusually for Jay it deployed that chord progression loved by doo woppers and teeny boppers alike; 3) it utilised a second vocalist, one Shoutin’ Pat Newborn, possibly to add interest to what might have been seen as a relentlessly repetitive melody line

 

OKeh not only put out a series of singles by Jay, they also felt there was sufficient interest to warrant an album. The title, At Home With Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, screamed forties/early fifties easy listening or lounge but if you’d come across the sleeve in one of those places that have almost disappeared now – by which I mean, of course, record shops – you might have found the picture of a be-turbanned Jay with an odd collection of items purporting to be from his home, slightly unsettling. The contents were somewhat odd too. The bulk of the tracks, outside of the predictable A-sides of the first two singles, were oldies/standards with several played in a straight or relatively straight manner. This could have been OKeh indulging Jay in his desire to perform such songs, or they might just have been short of material. No matter, there were still nuggets in there. I confess to a strong liking for his reading of I Love Paris. Jay stays strictly on piste for roughly the first half of the number but, come the instrumental break, his Dr Hyde persona appears with a vengeance and we’re treated to near racist rap styled rant combining Basil Fawlty and “I saw Mau Mau kissing Santa Claus”. Depending on how interpretive you want to be it’s not too difficult to turn much of this around and see it as remarks aimed at blacks. And it’s downright funny.

While none of the other oldies quite attain the level of Gay Paree, there were a couple of originals present – Hong Kong and Yellow Coat – either, or both, of which could have made my selections. Well worth a listen, to pull out my usual phrase.

The sixties were very much a mixed bag for our Mr Hawkins. Unlike other names from the blues and rock‘n’roll fields he didn’t fade away gracefully, or even disgracefully, though that second adverb could have been applicable to the start of the era when he was detained ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ to use our terminology, for 22 or 25 months (depending which account you believe), for having sex with an underage girl. For a significant part of the decade Jay lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, though he did embark on two successful concert tours to the UK – it’s that period that Bill Millar documents in his most enjoyable essay. Music wise there was little to interest the reader until late on in the decade when he signed with the Philips label, resulting in the release of two albums, What That Is!, and the Huey Meaux produced, Because Is In Your Mind.

1969’s What That Is! was as good as any album released by Jay. Kicking off with the title track which was almost worth the album’s price by itself, it went on to give the world not one but two more songs which would become staples in the Hawkins stage act. Constipation Blues was a title which positively screamed for adjectives like unique, remarkable and even revolting to precede it. Needless to say, the performance lived up to the title in every respect; aural excess is one way of putting it. I can’t place hand on heart and include the record in my favourites but it’s still one of the most extraordinary tracks I’ve ever heard (and this is it).

Track #2 on the album, Feast Of The Mau Mau, was actually a retread of a Jay number from earlier in the sixties and, most unusually it’s better than the original. One suspects that this little baby had been honed in the act. Unashamedly, it zeroes in on the cannibalistic accusations made over I Put A Spell On You and totally revels in the attitudes/fears about blacks held by that upright and god-fearing citizen in the middle states of America. With Jay, race was never far from the surface.

Albums releases during the seventies and eighties were infrequent and often inconsistent in quality. That lack of consistency was present on 1972’s A Portrait Of A Man And His Woman. Its contents included some revisits to his own material, several covers of fifties rock cum R&B hits or mini hits plus a few originals. Among the latter was the opening track, Portrait Of A Man for which Jay puts on his serious voice and maintains it for the length of the song. And it’s mighty effective: a deep soul number that I’m almost willing to bet you haven’t heard before, “I am using all the colours of blue, I have here on my stand. I am painting in oil, the portrait of a man”.

Jay applies a similar approach to Conway Twitty’s It’s Only Make Believe, which, for me, is the other highlight of the set. The fact that the arrangement is not a slavish copy of the original also helps.

While our hero’s early efforts to get into movieland didn’t meet with one hundred percent success – see footnotes – he eventually became something of a cult figure in the medium. Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise featured a young Hungarian woman named Eva, who would only listen to I Put A Spell On You and did so inordinately. The same director’s Mystery Train (1989) featured Jay in an acting role, playing a night clerk in a Memphis hotel. There’s no way our man can be missed; he wears what I can only describe as a violent red suit – you just can’t take your eyes off him. “Man, you got a curse on you, sure as the moon rolls around the world.”

In 2001, there was a documentary made about Jay entitled I Put A Spell On Me by Greek director Nicholas Triandafyllidis. It featured the man himself plus Bo Diddley, Eric Burdon, Arthur Brown and Jim Jarmusch among the talking heads. Quite apart from some absolutely fascinating chat (mainly from Jay who was a superb raconteur), the film also contains plenty of great live material.

My final selection comes from the post Mystery Train period when Jay was able to revel in more recognition than he’d received for several decades. A clutch of albums were released including 1991’s Black Music For White People. It was a good ‘un with two of the highlights being the pair of Tom Waits covers, Ice Cream Man and Heart Attack And Vine. The first named suffers slightly from being taken at a faster clip than the original but for me, Heart Attack And Vine is just perfect. Yes, I’m aware that it’s not universally loved by Waits fans but I reckon it’s one of the best cover versions I’ve heard of any of Tom’s songs. Whoever had the brainwave to include these numbers deserves much credit. The track got released as a single and reached the dizzy height of #43 in the UK Chart in April 1993. This was his only charting record.

For his last few years Jay lived in the city he once said he loved, Paris, France. He died in the city suburb of Neuilly-Sur-Seine following aneurysm surgery and subsequent massive organ failure on February 12th 2000, aged 70 (source: Blackcat Rockabilly Europe).

I’ve seen reference to Jay as a one or two-trick pony. I’ve also read comment along the lines of “if he hadn’t started drinking and got into all the stupid pseudo scary stuff he could have been a fine opera singer.”

Let’s get something straight. Jay was Jay. I don’t believe he was cut out to be an opera singer, nor indeed, to be a blues/soul singer, though he could lay on a mighty fine impersonation of the latter when he put his mind to it. Jay was a born entertainer and he had a form of magic even if it wasn’t the magic that those shock/horror trimmings attempted to portray. I’d even re-use the phrase that someone once very helpfully coined, the world would have been a greyer place without him.

I think it’s fitting that I leave the last words to Bill Millar:

“Screamin’ Jay Hawkins enriched my life beyond vinyl and celluloid and that part of me that first saw him off his plane, on stage and off his trolley will always be nineteen”.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The Grand label of Philadelphia was in existence from 1954 until 1963/64. Unfortunately it doesn’t get its own Wiki entry but I can tell you that the label pioneered Philadelphia doo wop and many of its releases are now highly sought after by collectors. Not to be confused with the same name label set up by the group (as opposed to the individual) Dr Feelgood, or a Russian label which also used the name.

2. OKeh Records was founded by the Otto Heinemann Phonograph Corporation but was bought out by Columbia Records in 1926. Columbia then commenced to use the label for blues and jazz records effectively aiming its releases at a black market – the phrase used at the time was “race records”. Early big names included Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Victoria Spivey. OKeh – this was how the logo appeared on the record – were pioneers in location recording, sending out mobile studios, looking for performers outside the bigger cities where the main studios were located, particularly, but not only, in the period between the two world wars.

3. I looked up the phrase ‘Over The Top’ in order to check how long it had been around. I was surprised to find that it originated in the First World War. Think trenches and you’ll get it. I was probably the only person who didn’t know this.

4. Prior to taking up his position with the Tiny Grimes outfit, Hawkins “… played piano with artists like Gene Ammons, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, James Moody, Lynn Hope, and on one occasion, Count Basie.” (source: “The Virgin Encyclopedia Of The Blues” by Colin Larkin).

5. Gotham Records, which specialised in R&B, was founded in 1946. It was initially based in New York but subsequently moved to Philadelphia, and lasted till 1956. Maybe it’s just me but it does seem fitting that Jay’s first record came out on a label the name of which was the fictional home of a certain Batman.

6. Jay’s remarkably short stay at Atlantic Records was apparently terminated when label owner Ahmet Ertegun told our hero to “sing not scream” during the session for what would have been his debut single. Jay took offence and punched Ertegun. (source: “An A to Z Of Rock And Roll” by Graham Wood).

7. The last named source also states that Jay had a brief stint with the Fats Domino band after leaving Tiny Grimes, which is confirmed elsewhere. It goes on to say that he was fired after “constantly appearing on stage in garish attire”.

8. What does get a mention by more than one source is that it was blues shouter Wynonie Harris who became friends with Jay, advised him to go solo, and took him to New York as his protégé. Wynonie Harris was notable for a number of achievements, not least of which was hitting the R&B Chart with ‘the other’ version of There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight authored by Roy Brown.

9. The possibility of Elmore James appearing uncredited (and ignored by the blues records bible, see reference in the main text) on a Screamin’ Jay record seemed too good to ignore. Cal thought it was worth contacting an acknowledged expert on Elmore for an opinion and dug out the name of Steve Franz who has written a couple of books on the great man: “The Amazing Secret History Of Elmore James” and “Elmore James: The Ultimate Guide To The Master Of Slide Guitar”. I found Steve on Facebook and sent him my query via Messenger. After a slight delay, probably because he might have been travelling – he was on holiday when he responded – Steve got back to me. He said immediately that he was without his usual reference material plus sound equipment but agreed to have a listen to the YT clip of the record in question. This was his subsequent response:

“To my ears the guitarist could be Mickey Baker. Baker plays slide on a tune that sounds almost identical to this…. it’s called “Til The Cows Come Home” and for the life of me cannot remember the name of the female vocalist…. but it did appear on one of those Stomping’ compilations… Mickey Baker was the guitarist on that and it sounds identical… so that’s my opinion off the top of my head…”

A little bit of work on my part identified the vocalist on Til The Cows Come Home as Kitty Noble, a lady who doesn’t even warrant a Wiki biography. However she did release a handful of records from the mid fifties to the early sixties. If 45cat is correct, her debut outing was with Til The Cows Come Home on Herald Records in April 1954. This is it.

One other interesting fact about Ms Noble: in the late fifties she appeared on record and I believe on stage, as “Kitty” in a double act called Mickey and Kitty. The “Mickey” was Mickey Baker and the Mickey and Kitty act was an attempt at a sort of sequel to, or continuation of, the success of the Mickey and Sylvia pairing (see my Mickey & Sylvia Toppermost).

While I’m still not 100% sure that the slide player on Jay’s Not Anymore and Kitty’s Til The Cows Come Home are/were identical (and would obviously have loved to have been the discoverer of an undiscovered Elmore James outing), I do bow to the presence of what I can only term heavy circumstantial evidence i.e. that Mickey Baker was session man on several later Hawkins records, and that I hadn’t put Baker’s name to Steve Franz as a possible ‘solution’. End of lengthy digression but, I hope, an interesting one.

10. The usual sources didn’t reveal anything about Timely Records but 45cat listed six records from the label, three of which came from a lady called Ann Cole. I’d already come across Ms Cole; she was the lady who had the original version of Got My Mojo Working. Out of curiosity I looked the lady up on Wiki and looked the record up on 45cat. The second search revealed the following interesting snippet about the record (on the New York based Baton label) from David McKee, author of “London-American Legend – A History Of The Label”:

“The Baton label’s biggest hit was ‘I’ve Got My Mo-Jo Working’ written by Preston Foster and first recorded by singer Ann Cole in 1957. Muddy Waters claimed to have written the song and put out a recording of it on Chess Records the same week as Cole’s record was released on Baton. Waters had heard Cole sing the song while they were on tour together and adopted it as his own. A court later ruled that the song was indeed written by Foster.”

11. That was in the nature of a digression but I took the view that I was so far off the straight and narrow, I might as well continue. Ann Cole’s first record on Baton was co-authored by Sheb Woolley (the Purple People Eater man) and titled Are You Satisfied. It sounded like this. Wiki informed me that the slide guitarist on this was Mickey “you see him here, you see him there” Baker which throws an interesting light on the paragraphs above which make up Footnote #9.

12. Before leaving the topic of the mysterious guitar man I felt that it was only right and proper that Cal should have his thoughts documented on the topic:

“When Dave originally suggested to me that on Not Anymore the guitar work sounded like Elmore James I tried to place the great man in New York at the time of the recording but could not. We got Steve Franz involved who suggested the guitarist might be Mickey Baker. We knew Baker was involved in other early SJH recordings and when I delved further into Baker’s career I found that from 1952 to 1965 he seemed to exclusively only record in New York. Mickey Baker was a highly versatile, accomplished, much-in-demand session man, more than capable of projecting many different styles. In “Blues Records 1943-1970”, which is usually extremely reliable, the guitarist on the four tracks from which Not Anymore came was said to be Tiny Grimes but individually Dave and I played oodles of his stuff and we agreed that it just did not sound like him. This strengthened our belief that it was Mickey Baker not Tiny Grimes. Separately, we have subsequently found other evidence that it was Baker on those four tracks. Whether Baker was a last-minute replacement for Grimes and the official session details were not amended accordingly, or whether there was something slightly more sinister, we are never likely to know but we are pretty convinced that it was Mickey Baker not Tiny Grimes. Dave deserves much credit for this ‘find’ – ‘cos if he hadn’t thought Elmore James might have snuck into the session we wouldn’t have investigated and come to the eventual conclusion that the ‘Bible’, “Blues Records 1943-1970”, is almost certainly wrong on this occasion! (Is this a case of two wrongs making a right?)”

13. Hawkins was scheduled to appear in the Alan Freed fifties musical film Mister Rock And Roll but his part was cut after he appeared in a loincloth with white shoe polish on his face and a bone in his nose.

14. In addition to appearing on record with him and on stage, Shoutin’ Pat Newborn would seem to have had some romantic interest in Jay. Graham Wood in “An A To Z Of Rock And Roll” reports on her having stabbed Jay in a peak of rage after his 1963 marriage to Virginia Sabellona. Virginia was the Ginny that Cal saw and obtained her autograph when she joined her husband during a break in the show (reference main text).

15. Screamin’ Jay records have featured in at least two television commercials that I’m aware of. Firstly, his take on Tom Waits’ Heart Attack And Vine was used for a Levi’s ad in, I think, 1993. Waits objected to the usage of his song and won an apology from Levi’s. More recently, Little Demon was used for the FitBit Blaze ad in 2016. This was it.

One gentleman, now deceased, who rarely gets a mention in those biographies, is David Edward Sutch, or to give him his full stage name, Screaming Lord Sutch, the 3rd Earl of Harrow. Not only did he pilfer part of that name from Jay he also ‘borrowed’ much of the act as well, right down to the emergence from a coffin. However, Lord Sutch might just have been the first pop star to have formed a political party. It’s not so unusual these days for celebrities to found and lead political parties but there weren’t too many doing this sort of thing back in 1983 when Sutch formed the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, and he’d been standing in general elections and by-elections for the best part of a couple of decades before that.

16. The average reader is more likely to know I Put A Spell On You from one or more of the many cover versions rather than the original. Top of that list for me, and I suspect a few more, is the one from Nina Simone. Nina also used the title for her autobiography. Our Esteemed Editor drew my attention to a connection between the Simone version and the Beatles’ record, Michelle. To quote Wiki:

“When McCartney played the song for Lennon, Lennon suggested the “I love you” bridge. Lennon was inspired by a song he heard the previous evening, Nina Simone’s version of “I Put A Spell On You”, which used the same phrase but with the emphasis on the last word, “I love you”.”

Other notable versions include Bryan Ferry of course, Alan Price – it was first hit since leaving the Animals, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, in addition to rather more mannered efforts from Nick Cave and Bette Midler.

17. Jay married six times and claimed at various times to have 57 or 75 children. A friend, Maral Nigolian, took on the task of finding the children and, by 2001, had located 33 of them. (source: Screamin’ Jay’s Illegitimate Family Reunion, a blog from Buck Wolf dated 2001)

18. In 1971, Paul McCartney included a self-written song, Monkberry Moon Delight, on the album Ram. Apparently he wrote the song with Jay in mind and he begged him to record it, which the man did in ’73. This is it. However, Jay categorically stated that he would never sing the song again, “because it was a drug record and I don’t do no drug songs”. Those were his reported words.

19. Almost every feature I’ve seen on Jay mentions, sometimes in the opening para, the debt that artists like Alice Cooper and Arthur Brown owe to the man. I very nearly omitted such a statement on the basis that it was so obvious as to not need putting in black and white. However, for completeness, here it is, and I don’t see why one shouldn’t include more sophisticated exponents of rock theatre such as Peter Gabriel.

20. I’ve commented on the fact that Jay was a great talker, so thought a couple of quotes from the man were in order. The first comes from the essay on Jay in Nick Tosches’ excellent book “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, originally published in 1984. I have the Revised Edition from 1991:

“In those days a nigger wasn’t supposed to talk back, wasn’t supposed to open his goddam mouth, wasn’t even supposed to say the word “nigger”. Now things have changed because they found out some niggers will kill ya. It’s as simple as that.”

And Cal dug out:

“I came into this world black, naked and ugly and no matter how much I accumulate here, it’s a short journey. I will go out of this world black, naked and ugly, so I enjoy life.”

21. I can’t end this Toppermost without one more mention of Bill Millar. In “Let The Good Times Rock”, his essay on Jay, which is subtitled “A Most Singular Man”, is far from the only article worth reading. The whole book is an absolute must for anyone interested in the phenomenon that we call rock and roll. Bill talks about the sorts of people that many rock critics have never even heard of. One of the most esteemed members of that breed, Peter Guralnick, who I’ve been known to quote from myself on more than one occasion, states in his introduction: “I’m still waiting to graduate from the University of Bill Millar. But I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.”

 

 

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1929–2000)

 

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On Me (2001 Documentary on YouTube)

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on 45cat

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins interviewed by Ian Johnston (London, 1989)

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens has written over thirty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Louis Armstrong, Mickey & Sylvia, Muddy Waters, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits

TopperPost #646

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Aug 12, 2017

    Thanks for this excellent piece Dave. Although I knew ‘I Put A Spell On You’, to be honest I didn’t know a great deal about Jay’s subsequent work. This has both filled in those gaps and introduced me to some very fine music, indeed (particularly ‘A Portrait of a Man’).

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