Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Voodoo Rock 'n' Roll

Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a veteran American blues singer and pianist, died Saturday, February 12, 2000 in Paris at the age of 70 from haemorrhaging after an operation, his agent Viviane Sicnasi told AFP. The musician, whose real name was Jalacy J. Hawkins, died in a clinic in the Neuilly suburb of Paris, where he had undergone an operation earlier in the week on an obstructed bowel. The black artist had settled in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret in later life with a wife of Cameroonian origin after complaining of "bigots" in his home country. His best-known song was "I Put a Spell On You," released in 1956, and he became known to younger audiences as an actor in the films of cult director Jim Jarmusch.

Hawkins, born on July 18, 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio, was abandoned by his mother aged only 18 months. Adopted by native Americans, he began playing the piano from a young age and became a talented amateur boxer, winning the 1947 Golden Gloves amateur championship, according to the singer's official website. He joined the army aged 16, fought in World War II, and began playing piano in nightclubs in the 1950s while on leave from his unit. On leaving the army he worked first as a bodyguard for the singer Tiny Grimes, before joining Fats Domino's famous band. Their colloboration did not last long, however, and he was eventually fired for insisting on wearing a gold and leopardskin outfit and turban, his website recounts.

His most successful song - one which never made the charts - was "I Put A Spell On You," which he recorded on the Okeh label in 1956. In order that it could be played on the radio, some of the moans and groans had to be edited out. He developed a knockout stage show to go along with it. To open his act, Screamin' Jay would be carried out onto the stage in a coffin. A coffin that was in flames. He used various props, including a rubber snake, a skull on a stick, a smoke-box that had been built by an electrician at the Apollo Theatre, and a black satin cape. He had a drive and a delivery that went along with I Put A Spell On You and it all made for quite an event. One critic described it as being on the "surrealistic borderline." "I Put a Spell On You" was composed, he said, during a drunken binge in Phildelphia after his then girlfriend left him. He claimed to have picked up his stage name while he was touring the United States to perform it. "I went to a place called Nitro, West Virginia. There was a big, big huge fat lady at the bar. She was downing scotch and Jack Daniel's at the time and whenever she looked up at me she shouted 'Scream, baby, scream'," he would later recall. "I Put a Spell on You" went on to become a worldwide success and it has since been re-recorded by artists including Nina Simone, The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Who.

The 1960s took him to Hawaii where he began an artistic partnership with the singer Shoutin' Pat Newborn, with whom he recorded some provocative and introspective songs. Their collaboration ended, however when she knifed him in a jealous rage. In later years he appeared in the 1978 film, American Hot Wax, and opened for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1980. Following that, Keith Richards helped with some of Hawkins' further recordings, including a remake of "I Put A Spell On You." Screamin' Jay had a profound influence on Arthur Brown, who copied his style. The famous stage act was replicated by the rock group Black Sabbath for its fans, who are a generation removed from those who saw Hawkins in his prime.

Despite an enforced break from touring after being badly burned by one of his flaming props, Hawkins continued to perform in the 1990s. Signed to Demon Records, Jay has returned to the charts with "Heart Attack And Vine" (1991), which was also featured in a Levi jeans advertisement, while his ground-breaking stage show continues to tour Europe. On a tour in Japan he astonished blues fans by singing in Japanese, and wowed cinema audiences with a talent for acting, brought out notably in the films of Jim Jarmusch, including "Mystery Train" in 1989 and "Stranger Than Paradise".

Jay's recordings have been issued on a double CD by the German based label Bear Family titled Spellbound 1955-1974 (BCD 15530).

Rockin Records announcement by Jon E. Johnson
The Rough Guide To Rock and various webpublications.