Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Biography 1929-1949
18 July 1929
Jalacy J. Hawkins is born in Cleveland (Ohio), the boy is one of several children (the number varies, even according to Hawkins's own account). He is placed in an orphanage as an infant and adopted at the age of 18 months by some Blackfoot Indians. Jay says about his family:
- "There were seven of us with one mother and different daddies. My sister once told me that as long as my mother didn't mess with no black people, she had it made. She had babies by a Chinese man and a baby by a white man. My father was from Arabia. My mother traveled, just like Paul Robeson. She had a lot of money that was inherited. There's a bunch of Hawkinses in Washington (DC), who are filthy rich; I have no idea how they made their money.
- I understand when my mother was pregnant with me in Washington (DC), they stoned, beat, and kicked her and forced her to get on a bus and go to Cleveland. That bus arrived in Cleveland just in time for her to have me and drop me at the nearest welfare center. Then she talked a tribe of Blackfoot Indians who were very wealthy into taking me out of that welfare home when I was eighteen months old and raising me.
- I learned all about roots from living in the forest without no blanket and no food. I learned how to eat certain bark, plants, and flowers, how to get certain stones out of ponds and rivers and make rock soup and how to cure pains and cuts with certain plant - strictly old home remedies. If my Blackfoot Indian mother was from Africa, you would call her a witch doctor; if she was from New Orleans, you'd call her a voodoo priestess. I just put it to music."
Jalacy begins to show an interest in the piano and soon learns to read and write music. As a boy, he plays piano in Cleveland night spots for tips. He admires singers Paul Robeson and Enrico Caruso and later studies piano and opera at the Ohio Conservatory of Music.
Jay's musical tastes are beginning to develop. He credits a variety of influential records with getting him interested in music:
- "Ol' man river" from the musical Showboat (1928)
- "Summertime" by George Gershwin
- "My mother's eyes" by Paul Robeson, whom I liked because he was a rebel who fought the system in the United States during the '20s and the '30s, went to Russia, and made motion pictures there because he didn't get too much work here and refused to be an Uncle Tom like Stepin' Fetchit, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, or Buckwheat.
- "Caldonia" by Louis Jordan
- "Shake a hand" by Faye Adams
- "After hours" by Erskine Hawkins
- "Long gone" by Sonny Thompson
- Anything by Tiny Bradshaw, Arnette Cobb, Amos Milburn, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Shirley and Lee, Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Tiny Grimes, and Fats Domino, even though he is conceited, self-centered, and an asshole on top of that.
Hawkins remarked to researcher Norbert Hess in 1976: "Once in a while, in some of the concerts and tours I go on, I'll take out time to play the piano in my act, or I'll take out time to blow the sax, or I'll do 'em both and sing at the same time." And as his secret wish he told: "Something I wanted to do but never did is sing opera. Again, that goes back to Paul Robeson, but when I got into the business, opera didn't get into the charts; they were just putting rhythm and blues out."
At the age of 14, Jay begins boxing.
Jalacy Hawkins drops out of High School and joins the Army; World War II is still in progress and the forces accept applicants as young as 15. Hawkins is only 14, but he is big for his age. He starts playing the tenor sax in military. Accounts of his years in the service differ; the most accepted version is that he has joined the Special Services and entertained US troops at home and in Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and Korea. Hawkins himself, however, has claimed that he fought in the Pacific. "I got caught on the island of Saipan", he told Karen Schoemer of the New York Times. "Our drop zone was right in the middle of the enemy compound. Before we could get the straps of the parachutes off, we were in the enemy's hands. We never got a chance to fire a shot. It was 18 months before we got rescued."
After three years in the Army, Hawkins switches to the US Air Force. While still in the military, Hawkins also works as a boxer and wins the Cleveland Golden Glove amateur competition.
Jalacy Hawkins beats Billy McCan and wins the middleweight championship of Alaska.