He was born as Jalacy Hawkins but under the stage name Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he recorded a song that has become a Halloween staple- “I Put A Spell On You”.
Hawkins was born in 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio. Soon after, he was adopted and raised by Blackfoot Indians. He studied piano and guitar and wanted to grow up to be an opera singer. When that didn’t pan out, he turned to playing piano and singing the blues. His first recordings were with guitarist Tiny Grimes’ band in 1951.
Once Hawkins stepped out and began a solo career, he became known for his vivid stage costumes that consisted of leopard skins, red leather, and large hats. This was just him getting his toes wet before diving into his “shock rock” persona.
In 1956, Hawkins entered the studio with the song “I Put A Spell On You” with the intent of recording it as “a refined love song, a blues ballad”. However, on the day of recording, the record producer Arnold Maxin had brought in ribs, chicken, and alcohol for everyone. After recording, Hawkins recalled that, “we came out with this weird version…I don’t even remember making the record. 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.”
It’s kind of funny how that works out sometimes because we would hear a similar story about the 1968 Iron Butterfly epic song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, where gallons of wine would lead to “In The Garden of Eden” becoming “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”.
After “I Put A Spell On You” was released, a radio DJ approached Hawkins and offered him $300 to emerge from a coffin during a performance. Hawkins was initially against the idea, saying that, “No black dude gets in a coffin alive – they don’t expect to get out!” After more consideration though, Hawkins brought out the coffin, the smoking skulls, the rubber snacks, and more. Twenty years after the initial release of “I Put A Spell On You”, Hawkins looked back during an interview and said, “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins…James Brown did an awful lot of screamin’, but never got called Screamin’ James Brown…Why can’t people take me as a regular singer without making a bogeyman out of me?”
The song has been covered and released by other artists such as Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sonique, Annie Lennox, and Chaka Khan. Probably the most notable cover was in the 1993 Disney Halloween favorite Hocus Pocus. Star Bette Midler brought the performance back during her 2015 Divine Intervention Tour and came out complete with Mary Sanderson-esque costume.
While Hawkins may have come to hate what his act became, without his bold work, we would not have artists like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, The Misfits and Glenn Danzig, Rob Zombie, and modern theatrical rockers such as Ice Nine Kills, who have become known for their horror-themed songs and live shows, complete with bloodied costumes and murderous props.
So, here’s to you, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, from rock and horror fans all around.