Screamin' Jay Hawkins was ahead of his time.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins (Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Luc Ourlin)
The singer, who was born 83 years ago today, was one of the earliest shock rockers, shouting and groaning his way through songs, and performing bizarre antics in live shows long before it was the hard-rock norm. When Hawkins was emerging from a coffin onstage, the metalheads who would one day bite off the heads of bats were still in short pants.
It all started with a song that was originally intended to be a tender ballad. But when, in 1956, Hawkins and his band recorded a drunken version of the song, something new – and lasting – was created. "I Put a Spell on You" was like nothing that came before it.
When the record became successful, DJ Alan Freed encouraged Hawkins to capitalize on its weirdness, and his stage persona was born. He wore outrageous costumes and carried a skull on a stick, goofing and mugging his way through his eerie songs. Hawkins later recalled, "Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death."
Though Hawkins' songs didn't top the charts, they've had an enormous influence on music. Every artist who has recorded creepy music in the past 50 years – or used wild and shocking props on stage – can thank Hawkins for doing it first. And his songs have made their way into the pop culture consciousness. "I Put a Spell on You" has been covered over and over; the song features prominently in the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise, and it's even in an episode of The Simpsons. Fans of a couple of spooky TV shows may recognize Hawkins' single "Frenzy" – it's been used on both True Blood and The X-Files. The truth is out there… and so was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Written by Linnea Crowther