Onstage, he emerged from a coffin. His outlandish costumes included leopard-skin suits, Victorian shirts, and voodoo regalia. He brandished a smoking skull (named Henry) on a stick, wielded rubber snakes and fake tarantulas, sported a boar's tooth around his neck and a bone through his nose—all to cartoon effect. He was called "a black Vincent Price," but you could just as easily say that Alice Cooper was "a white Screamin' Jay Hawkins." Who knew that a black man invented Goth Rock?
Ironically, this former teen Golden Gloves boxing champ (b. Jalacy Hawkins, July 18, 1929, Cleveland; d. Feb. 12, 2000, Paris) aspired to follow in the footsteps of booming baritone Paul Robeson and become an opera singer. Those footsteps trod a wayward path that forged a recording career highlighted by songs like "Constipation Blues" and "Feast of the Mau Mau."
His legacy theme was "I Put A Spell On You," a song that's been covered often but never matched. The recording session is an object lesson in success at the cost of doing everything wrong. It was originally demo'ed as a refined ballad. A week later, Hawkins reviewed the disc. "I put it on, played it again and again," he said. "I thought they'd lied to me—this couldn't possibly be me singing. I tried to reproduce the style. I contorted my mouth this way and that. Couldn't do it. Finally I poured some J&B Scotch, downed it, and then could sing like the record."
That's understating the case. In most accounts of the session, Hawkins and his band were shit-faced drunk. "We partied and partied," he recalled. "I sang laying on my back on the floor, with the microphone in one hand and a bottle in the other. Everybody was going crazy. Mickey Baker on guitar was stoned out of his head. Sam 'The Man' Taylor on tenor sax was so drunk he couldn't put his lips on the mouthpiece. It was really comical." Hawkins howled, grunted, and regurgitated his way through the vocal, before blanking out in the studio. "Ten days later," he said, "they told me, 'It's on the market, it's selling, you've got a hit.' So l said, 'What's it called?' They said, 'Spell.' I listened to it and said, 'No, that's not me.' 'Yes it is,' they said"—and there were embarrassing session photos to prove it. This bacchanal-on-tape became the biggest-selling record of his career.
Not everyone appreciated the genius of Screamin' Jay. Radio stations banned his recordings. Parental watchdogs were aghast at his behavior. Even black leaders found his act repulsive. "The NAACP came after me," he recollected. "They said, 'Do you know what you're doing to your own race?' l said, 'You take your own race and you know where you can stick 'em. I'm trying to make a living. Get outta here and leave me alone.' Sammy Davis wrote me a letter saying, 'Give $500 and join the NAACP.' l said, show me one thing they've done for black people and I'll join. l never heard from either one again. I didn't care. I'm not a crusader, I'm not out to march for nothin'. I'm out to make a dollar. It's an honest statement and why knock it?" Indeed, it rained dollars: Hawkins' version of "I Put A Spell On You" was used in TV commercials for McDonalds, Burger King, Pringle's Potato Chips and Levi's Jeans.
At the time of his death at age 70 he was one of America's foremost deadbeat dads: obits claimed Hawkins fathered 57 children by different women, with later estimates as high as 75 kids carrying his DNA.
— Irwin Chusid