I think I was probably around the age of 16 when I first heard Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, after purchasing a compilation album from one of those record stores which unfortunately no longer exists. It was a dusty, old carpet sort of place, where one could procure an LP at quite a reasonable price. They also had a healthy stock of ‘50s and ‘60s music, all on vinyl, not to mention quite a few bootlegs which were kept out the back. I bought the album based purely on the cover, along with the informative and entertaining liner notes. But nothing could prepare me for what was about to burst from out my tiny speakers. My reaction was one of shock as well as laughter. Screamin’ Jay was something of a revelation, and taught me that there was more to the 1950’s than just Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Dean Martin. This was like Muddy Waters impersonating Vincent Price, with some lugubrious opera thrown in for good measure.
So, madman or genius? One has to always ask this question when it comes to Screamin’ Jay and his, well, somewhat eccentric legacy. Every anthology seems to start off with the song most synonymous with the man himself, and that is the inimitable “I Put a Spell on You”. Made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late ‘60s, Hawkins’ 1956 version remains the best, at least in terms of sheer personality and originality. The story goes that the night it was recorded, the whole band got so drunk in the studio that the next day none of them could remember what they had recorded. But what they did record was one of the most iconic, if not quirkiest, musical statements of the decade, where Hawkins grunts, groans and roars his way through what is one the weirdest love songs ever made. The only problem was few people actually realised it at the time.
The fast and energetic “Frenzy” is next, and is one of those difficult to categorise numbers. In fact, pretty much every song on this 2cd collection is hard to classify, and should I even attempt to dissect them all it would probably turn into a thesis. Because this is the sort of music one has to hear and subsequently make up their own mind as to whether they actually enjoy it or not. On “I Love Paris” Hawkins employs his deep baritone to humorous effect one moment, before breaking out into semi-operatic mode the next. It could be one of the worst things you’ve ever heard, or one of the most pleasurable. It’s up to you. Likewise “Hong Kong”, where Screamin’ Jay gives the term political incorrectness a whole new definition, at least to modern ears. “Little Demon” is an absolute scream (no pun intended). Is it cannibal rock, R&B, or something else entirely? Your guess is as good as mine.
Some of the titles alone provide one with a strong indication of the man’s psyche: “Orange Coloured Sky”; “Deep Purple”; “Alligator Wine” (which is a real hoot by the way), and “I Hear Voices”. But not everything is Vaudeville voodoo. On some tracks he actually manages to sound quite normal, as on the aforementioned “Deep Purple”, “If You Are But A Dream”, and “You’re All My Life to Me”.
Attempting to convey anything serious or significant about his music would be impossible. Just listen to any track on The Singles Collection will reveal to the listener that Screamin’ Jay was not only larger than life, but also something of a theatrical ‘characteur’. Whose stage antics are as legendary as they were unconventional (for their day). Hawkins’ was indeed a precursor to the likes of Arthur Brown and Alice Cooper, whose own brand of “shock-rock” owed much to the man who could be said to have singlehandedly invented the genre before that term was even thought of. There can be no doubt that Hawkins was blessed with an extraordinary voice, to the extent that had he chosen to, he might well have found success as a more conservative ballad and R&B singer. But that was not to be. The man was too wild and untameable for white middle class audiences.
Imagine him duetting with Frank Sinatra on stage while brandishing a cigarette smoking human skull at the end of a pole? No, the mainstream was not for him. He liked to entertain people with his own brand of theatrics. Was he ahead of his time? Maybe. But then Hawkins was also very much a creation of the time in which he lived as a young man. America may have been largely conservative back then, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a shortage of those who were willing to push boundaries and break a few rules every once in a while. Screamin’ Jay was a complete one off, that’s for sure. And although he never achieved commercial success, at least he will always be celebrated by those who have a particular partiality for eccentricity, in all its guises.