Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Biography 1950-1959

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In an interview with Stuart Colman of Radio London in June 1983, Hawkins describes the genesis of the style which has made his reputation: "I couldn't sing that well until I went to a place called Nitro (near Charleston), West Virginia. This is 1950. There was a big, big huge fat lady at the bar. Just allow your mind to roam free when I say fat... Glutton! Beast! O-bese! She made the average elephant look like a pencil, that's how fat she was. And she was so happy. She was downing Black & White scotch and Jack Daniels at the same time, and whenever she looked up at me she shouted Scream, baby, scream! I said to myself: You wanted a name? There it is! and that's how the name was born, long before I got with any big name bands."

Jay has later been asked what makes him scream. His reply: "Being black. Prejudice. Marrying a girl who said she was pregnant after I'd just spent two years in Alaska and was too foolish to know better."


Hawkins catches his first musical break and takes a job as musician and chauffeur with bandleader and veteran jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes who has recorded extensively for Atlantic and Gotham and who is already reknowned for his contribution to the enduring brilliance of the Art Tatum Trio. Jay "walked up to Tiny and asked for a job" and is hired for Tiny Grimes' Rocking Highlanders on vocals, sax and keyboards, in Jay's own words: "As Tiny's valet, body guard, dog walker, piano player and blues singer and all this for $30 a week!... I'd come out in a Scottish kilt, and I'd have these two small Carnation milk cans hanging off my chest, like tits. I sang Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean and the cans would be jiggling all over the place. Ruth Brown came to see me. She said, This is the only bitch who can sing my song better than me.

Grimes' Gaelic attire readily demonstrates the advantages of drawing attention to oneself. Grimes is quick to admit that donning tammies and tartan was a good career move ("the kilts really did it for us, they were the best threads on the scene") but he is soon upstaged by his young vocalist whose stage apparel often resembles something out of an ecclesiastical shop window. According to Gerry Hirshey's book Nowhere to Run, Hawkins has not much liked the jazz music or Grimes's car - in which he has to sleep most nights. What he really wants to do is play the new post-War blues...


Hawkins eventually leaves the Army and later says: "I went through two wars and I'm still here. I got more marks on my body than the average crossword puzzle from knives, bombs, bullets, and being cut in half by a Japanese colonel in a prisoner of war camp."

Philadelphia: Screamin' Hawkins recording session for Gotham Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins (vocals) ; Tiny Grimes & The Rockin' Highlanders.

Why did you waste my time?
Blue Moon 6008(CD)
Why did you waste my time?
Gotham 295
Coronation jump (Tiny's jump) [instrumental]
Blue Moon 6008(CD)
No hug, no kiss
[Tiny Grimes compilation 1986]

Note: In fact the date of this session is unknown but it probably dates from some time in 1952, although the order to print the labels was not given until 18 May 1953. "Coronation jump" is a standard Grimes combo workout, likely with Hawkins on piano, but the flip features "Screaming Jay" Hawkins as the featured vocalist. An unissued vocal, entitled "No hug, no kiss" when it was discovered and released on album in 1986, possibly features Hawkins, although he emphatically denied his presence when it was played to him.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins debutes on wax for Gotham with "Why did you waste my time?" backed by Tiny Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders. The release however does nothing for Hawkins and remains a remarkably rare item. Nonetheless, as Bill Millar points out in the liner notes of the double CD SPELLBOUND! 1955-1974 (1990), "right away, he asked serious questions of the listener's commitment. These intimidating, even bloodcurdling performances had no obvious precedent. He started way over the top and worked upwards."

Jay Hawkins then accompanies Tiny Grimes to a recording session for Atlantic Records. The fledgling label has already scored hits with Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, and Ray Charles and is cultivating a smooth mixture of pop and rhythm and blues. Grimes has agreed to let Hawkins sing a couple of his own tunes if the main recording session goes well.


12 January 1953

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for Atlantic Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins (vocals) ; Tiny Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders

Screamin' the blues (part 1)
Screamin' the blues (part 2)
My dream

Hawkins gets his chance, but when he launches into a raucous version of a tune he has written called "Screamin' Blues", pop-minded Atlantic chief Ahmet Ertegun finds his vocals too raw and tries to get Hawkins to sing smoothly - like popular 1950s crooner Fats Domino. In the ensuing argument Hawkins nearly ends his career by trying to strike Ertegun. Says Hawkins: "He'd stopped me five times during the take. Finally he starts shouting, No, no. no, I want you to sing it just like Fats Domino, man! I said, Now listen, Fats is off to a good start, he's doing okay. I'm singing here with Tiny Grimes, and I've got a chance to record the song I chose. If you want Fats Domino, then go out and get him. He started up again and pow! I just 6 punched him in the mouth.

Needless to say, "Screamin' blues" was never released.

On leaving Tiny Grimes, Hawkins plays or sings with a host of notable jazzers and pre-rockers. He begins drifting between bands - he is fired out of Fats Domino's band for continually upstaging the boss by wearing a gold and leopard-skin outfit and turban.

May 1953

Short engagement with Gotham saxman Jimmy Sparrow at Philadelphia's Powelton Cafe.

There are equally short engagements with James Moody, Arnett Cobb, Bill Doggett and Lynn Hope, the tenor saxman who conjoined bar-walking hysterics with a graceful, sweet-toned musicianship. Hawkins acquires an interest in the Moslem faith from Hope, as well as his preference for Islamic head-dress. He is eventually encouraged to turn solo by Wynonie Harris whose gruff baritone voice remains one of Hawkins' more probable antecedents: others would surely include Slim Gaillard, Cab Calloway, King Pleasure and Billy Eckstine.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins gets his first solo gig at Small's Paradise in New York City's Harlem. It is at Small's, and later at Herman's in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Jalacy J. Hawkins plays nightly on 8 PM to 9 AM shifts, cutting up in color-coordinated cuff its ("down to the socks and cuff links") of orange, pink and fluorescent blue, and transforms himself into Screamin' Jay Hawkins. "I charged one club owner $1500 a week and three suits", Jay laughs. The commitment to high impact performing doesn't stop at the stage either. "It was always my object to do whatever I had to, to capture the interest of people who were just casually listening to the radio; the housewife ironing, or whatever. I figured, if I could hold their attention for the first eight bars, I'd sold a record."

September 1953

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for Timely Records.

Musicians: Mickey Baker (slide guitar on "Not anymore"), Screamin' Jay Hawkins (vocals)

Please try to understand
Timely 1005
Not anymore
Timely 1004
I found my way to wine
Timely 1005
Baptize me in wine
Timely 1004

Note: "Baptize me in wine" and "I found my way to wine" echo the rumbustious drinking blues which Wynonie Harris has already popularized. "Not anymore", with slide guitar wizardry from Mickey Baker, is perfectly illustrative of blues at its most exquisite.

November 1953

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Rock the house
Saxophonograph -302


Screamin' Jay Hawkins' solo career begins in earnest with the single Baptize me in wine (1954) for Timely / Apollo Records. A slew of session recordings from this time show Jay's early promise, his voice and humour cutting through the primitive R&B backing. By now he is under the management of Stan Pat, A&R man for Philly's Grand label which Herb Slotkin has started late in 1953.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins plays in Philadelphia on the same billing as the Sensations and a solo Paul Williams (of later Temptations fame)


10 January 1955

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for Mercury Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins (vocals) ; Leroy Kirkland Orchestra: Mickey Baker (guitar), Ernest Hayes (piano), Leroy Kirkland (leader), Albert Lucas (bass), David "Panama" Francis (drums), Big Al Sears (tenor sax), Sam "The Man" Taylor (tenorsax), unknown (baritone sax)

In my front room (Jalacy Hawkins)
Mercury unissued
Bear FamilyCD15530
This is all (Jalacy Hawkins / Leroy Kirkland)
Mercury 70549
Bear Family CD15530
What that is (Jalacy Hawkins)
Mercury unissued
Bear FamilyCD15530
(She put the) Wammee (on me) (Jalacy Hawkins / Leroy Kirkland)
Mercury 70549
Bear Family CD15530

Note: The supremely tacky "What that is" is remarkably both for its wordless mumbling and the marvellous saxophone solos which chase each other in a rollercoaster succession of rapid segues. It is finally re-recorded an released on 1969's Philips album WHAT THAT IS!.

... 1955

Release of the otherworldly 7" single (She put the) Wamee (on me) [US: Mercury 70549], a demonic voodoo blues and a harbinger of things to come. By the way, the "Whammy", meaning evil influence or hex, was popularised by Evil-Eye Fleegle, a character in Al Capp's "Lil Abner" comic strip.

11 May 1955

New York, possibly Fine Studio: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for Mercury Records' Wing subsidiary.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins (vocals, tambourine) ; Leroy Kirkland Orchestra: Mickey Baker (guitar), Ernest Hayes (piano), Leroy Kirkland (leader), Albert Lucas (bass), David "Panama" Francis (drums), Big Al Sears (tenor sax), Sam "The Man" Taylor (tenor sax), unknown (baritone sax)

You're all of my life to me
Wing 90005
Bear Family CD15530
W 110
Well I tried
Wing 90005
Bear Family CD15530
W 111
Even though (Evelyn / Leroy Kirkland)
Wing 90055
Bear Family CD15530
W 112
Talk about me (Jalacy Hawkins / Leroy Kirkland)
Wing 90055
Bear Family CD15530
W 113

According to Herb Slotkin, Screamin' Jay phones up one day and asks him if he would be interested in recording. Slotkin agrees to give a listen and they arrange to meet in a club where Hawkins is working. The outcome is a session at the Reco-Art Studios in Philadelphia early in November 1955, co-incidentally, the same studios which are being used by Gotham at that time.

November 1955

Philadelphia, Reco-Art Studios: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for Grand Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins (vocals).

Take me back
Grand 135
I is
Grand 135
I put a spell on you
$10'000 Lincoln Continental

Note: Five titles are recorded, of which only two are released at the time; a version of "I put a spell on you" is again recorded at this session. Despite Hawkins' hint of a Grand release, Slotkin leaves the titles in the can. The master tape gives the title of the flip side as "$10,000 car". The remaining unissued title is a fine ballad, "Pauline". Hawkins recalls: "On Grand Records was the first I put a spell on you. That was a sweet love song. On the other side $10,000 Lincoln Continental. Then I moved to Columbia and for their subsidiary company, Okeh, I re-recorded I put a spell on you, with the weird screams, grunts and groans. That was the one that was a hit."

12 December 1955

After completing a successful engagement at New York's Apollo Theater, Screamin' Jay Hawkins has been signed as one of the headliners for the Philadelphia six-day Rock & Roll show beginning at the Mastbaum Theater.

Hawkins signs with Columbia's imprint OKeh Records. The OKeh label was founded by Otto Heinemann in 1920, OKeh issued what is generally considered to be the first commercial blues recording in Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues". It provided a musical home for Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson and Bessie Smith inter alia, and after World War II released gems by Johnnie Ray, Chuck Willis and the like.

OKeh producer Arnold Maxim (or Maxon) wants Hawkins to re-record "I put a spell on you" and Maxim wants it wild. His suggestion is: turn the session into a picnic, supply Jay and the musicians with enough barbecued ribs and chicken, yams and sweet potato pie, wine, beer and whiskey, then turn on the tape. Hawkins has told to the Los Angeles Times: "[Maxim] got everybody drunk, and 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."


12 September 1956

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for OKeh Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins ; Leroy Kirkland Orchestra: Mickey Baker (guitar), Leroy Kirkland (leader), Sam "The Man" Taylor (tenor sax)

Little demon (Breakdown)
Epic 47933 CD
Little demon
Epic 47933 CD
Little demon
OKeh 7072
You ain't foolin' me
Epic 47933 CD
I put a spell on you
Epic 47933 CD
I put a spell on you
OKeh 7072
Please forgive me

Note: Hawkins has originally envisioned "I put a spell on you" as a refined ballad. After he and his New York session aces (notably guitarist Mickey Baker and saxist Sam "The Man" Taylor) have imbibed to the point of no return, Hawkins screams, grunts, and gurgles his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon. According to legend, Jay refuses to believe that the bloodcurdling baritone on the recording is his. When confronted with photographic evidence, he burned a copy of the record. He remembers: "When we started recording, we started out with a slow version. A week later I was sitting at home, and they bring me a 78 of the thing. I put it on, I played it again and again. I thought they'd lied to me: this couldn't possibly be me singing like that. So I tried to see if I could reproduce that style of singing. I contorted my mouth this way and that. I couldn't do it. Finally I poured myself some J&B Scotch, poured that down, and then I was able to do it like therecord."

"I put a spell on you" is a sensation; at first the snorting delivery gets it banned from radio stations across the country. "They said it was cannibalistic, that it sounded like a man eating somebody," Hawkins has told the Washington Post. So OKeh edits the offensive portions and the song becomes a hit. It starts in Philadelphia and Trenton, then spreads to Baltimore and eventually sells more than a million copies without ever entering the charts. One critic describes the song as being on the "surrealistic borderline". "Little demon," its rocking flip, also becomes a minor classic itself - it is an easy-gait rocker about another love-spurned critter who's "gonna run through the world till he understands his pain."

New York DJ Alan Freed convinces Screamin' Jay that popping out of a coffin might be a show-stopping gimmick by handing him a $300 bonus. Hawkins then begins barnstorming the country with his coffin, his skull and his extremely odd repertoire of deconstructed standards and novelty songs.

late November 1956

In the Top 25 at Alan Freed's Saturday morning survey show on New York City station WINS Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I put a spell on you" is played on position 15.

9 December 1956

Screamin' Jay Hawkins' knockout stage show premieres at Alan Freed's 1956 Christmas Rock 'n' Roll Revue at the prestigious Brooklyn Paramount Theater. He uses various props, including a rubber snake, a skull on a stick, a smoke-box that has been built by an electrician at the Apollo Theatre, and a black satin cape. To open his act, Screamin' Jay would be carried out onto the stage in a coffin that is in flames. Also on the bill are Mac Curtis, the Moonglows, Shirley and Lee, the Cadillacs, Jessie Belvin, Teddy Randazzo and George Hamilton IV. Freed likes Hawkins and persuades him to begin making his entrance in a coffin. According to the book Nowhere to run, Hawkins has at first been reluctant to get into the coffin, but after Freed offers him $2'000 for the stunt, he agrees to make it a part of the act. Though the untamed stage antics, coffin routine, and "I put a spell on you" keeps Hawkins's career going for many years, the "savage" persona also proves to be a liabi lity. Mike Boehm of the Los Angeles Times has reported that Hawkins "fell into a pre-show ritual of imbibing while listening to favorite records to psyche himself up for the transformation into Screamin' Jay." Hawkins has told Boehm, "I figured I couldn't sing the song unless I was drunk."

The coffin becomes Screamin' Jay's key prop, but it is also a nuisance, particularly after the National Casket Co. forbids its retailers from selling, renting or lending a coffin to him for such irreverent uses. George "Funkadelic" Clinton admits the influence of Jay Hawkins' stage shows; even Cameo's Larry Blackmon has emerged from a huge silver coffin. From the book Showtime at the Apollo by Ted Fox comes the following anecdote:

"Hawkins carried the coffin wherever he went in a zebra-striped hearse [he states, "the first expensive thing I bought was a hearse with zebra wall tires, instead of white wall tires, to carry the coffin that Alan Freed put in my act." ed. note]. It so spooked the stagehands at the Apollo that they refused to handle it. To keep the lid from locking, Hawkins used to stick a piece of matchbook in the mechanism. On one occasion at the Apollo, Screamin' Jay asked one of the members of the Drifters to stick the matchbook in the lock on his way down to the stage.
They never did it. They waited patiently until I got in the coffin, and they came offstage, slammed the lid, and the sucker was jammed lock tight. That's when I found out you only got three and a half minutes of air in that coffin. When I realized I couldn't get out of that coffin, boy, I got so scared I was cryin', I was cussin', I was prayin'. I had on a white tuxedo, tails, gloves, hat, cane, spats and all.
Then I started kicking, and that's what saved me because I knocked it off its display stand and when it hit the floor it busted open. The audience thought it was part of the act, and I forgot the words. I commenced to punchin' out every Drifter I ran into. I hit about three of them and had my sights on Ben E. King. They didn't show for the last two shows. It took seven years before we started talking again."


13 February 1957

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for OKeh Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Leroy Kirkland Orchestra

You made me love you
OKeh 7084
Yellow coat
Epic LP 3448
Hong Kong
Epic LP 3448
Darling, please forgive me
OKeh 7084

Note: "You made me love you" is a standard piece of "odd music" Jay takes a whack at. He states: "I said, I like the song and I want to do it. They said, How'd you like to approach it? I said, Like a gay person." The song "Yellow coat" features Dali-esque verses that culminate in the self-referential: "What walks on two feet and looks like a goat? / That crazy Screamin' Jay in a bright yellow coat!" and a sneak preview of that "bright red leather suit" Jay uses to steal scenes in the movie Mystery train (1989). It's also one of Jay's great grocery-list compositions, a noble tradition that includes "Alligator wine," the motto macabre "There's something wrong with you" and (later) "Feast of the Mau Mau". Says Hawkins: "I would deliberately try to concoct lyrics that created weird images for the listener. I'd go into drugstore soda fountains and steal menus, read advertising flyers from grocery stores, then sit down and see what I could come up with." The song "You ain't foolin' me" sports a big boss ballsy jump delivery. "Hong Kong" belongs in the canon of Orient fixated fifties rock 'n' roll.

"The cats dig my wardrobe", Jay tells Rock'n'Roll Stars in 1957. "Sometimes I mix it up. Last night [part of a week's engagement at the Apollo with Dr. Jive's Rhythm & Blues Revue] I did a show wearing a green turban, red tux, purple tie and white shoes. Man, the chicks were gassed..." Thus it has been that Screamin' Jay Hawkins broke new ground by devising ghoul-rock, a sub-genre which would invite many less musically credible comparisons including John Zacherle, Screaming Lord Sutch, Alice Cooper, Warren Zevon, Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of the rocky horror show. But still Screamin' Jay is a difficult singer for listeners who prefer an easier time of it. He is aware of this: "My records have been selling pretty well", he tells Rock'n'Roll Stars. "But I think you have to see me to appreciate me."

6 May 1957

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for OKeh Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Leroy Kirkland Orchestra

OKeh 7087
Person to person
OKeh 7087

Hawkins is booked to act in Alan Freed's movie Mister Rock and Roll but his appearance - in a loincloth, and with white shoe-polish on his face - ensures that his scenes are cut out. "I walked on naked apart from a loin-cloth, white shoe polish marks on my face, my hair combed straight up, a spear in one hand and a shield in the other, like one of those wild Mau Maus, and I was singing a song called Frenzy. The movie people claimed it would be an insult to the black people of the United States." But Hawkins exploits the cannibal controversy for all it is worth. He has told the Washington Post: "I stuck the bone in my nose, put on white shoe polish, combed my hair straight up and got naked with a piece of cloth around my loins, had a spear and shield. [...] So what's wrong with acting like a wild warrior? The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] didn't like it, said I was making fun of the black people... I said... I'm making a living. I'm not breaking the law. How dare you?"

... 1957

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for OKeh Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Leroy Kirkland Orchestra

There's something wrong with you
OKeh 7101
Alligator wine (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller)
OKeh 7101

When "Alligator wine" also wanders briefly onto the charts, a rubber alligator motif is added to Screamin' Jay's act for a while.

... 1957

New York: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for OKeh Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Leroy Kirkland Orchestra, * Ray Charles Singers

Orange colored sky
Epic LP-3448
If you were but a dream
Epic LP-3448
Deep purple
Epic LP-3448
Give me back my boots and Saddle *
Epic LP-3448
Temptation *
Epic LP-3448
I love Paris *
Epic LP-3448
Swing low, sweet chariot *
Epic LP-3448
Ol' man river *
Epic LP-3448

Note: Nat King Cole's "Orange colored sky" is picked by Jay "because I'd always dug its strange changes." The tune was written as an instrumental by Milton DeLugg, before his band had a Thug. He wrote it as the theme song of Broadway tonight, a variety show on the old DuMont TV network where he served as house band. The program was hosted by comedian Jerry Lester, and later by Morey Amsterdam. "My mother liked the song," Jay says of "Take me back to my boots and saddle." "I first heard it by Gene Autry." It's unlikely that anyone with close ties to Autry's version would know what to make of Jay's rendition, including Jay's mom ("She wouldn't even listen to it!"). "Boots" may be the sleeper of the whole set, for it's so abundant in all the things that make Jay's music so enjoyable: a cornball chorale arrangement (the Ray Charles singers) fitted over smooth walking bass, crisp guitar solo, and Jay's marvelously funny, powerful vocal soaring past the chorale (corral?) on the bridge to growl "Woo-hoo!".


Screamin' Jay Hawkins' first LP AT HOME WITH SCREAMIN' JAY HAWKINS is released. The contained tracks communicate that unrestrained sense of fun that forms the core of the best first-era rock 'n' roll; the guts and joy and chops of someone who's lived, and not just learned about, blues and jump and R&B. Jay's indefatigable sense of style comes through in his music, his stage act, and his attire. When asked what he would wear to have his portrait painted, he states: "A black suit with yellow polka dots and green stripes over that with a purple scarf around my neck, white ruffles on my sleeves, pants with white pleats on each side above white shoes, a snake around my neck, and a bone in my nose."

... 1958

Philadelphia: Screamin' Jay Hawkins recording session for Red Top Records.

Musicians: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, unknown orchestra

Armpit no. 6
Red Top 126
The past
Red Top 126


Hawkins tours the USA together with Chuck Willis and Nappy Brown... each in their Cadillacs with a case of Scotch, Bourbon or Brandy in the trunk of their cars stopping by the side of the road to set up a bar...

When Hawkins appears in New York's Apollo he emerges scratched and torn from his coffin. He has a diarrhoeic monkey with him at the time and the release catch has stuck...

When Jay appears in Chicago, a nightclub owner who has been reluctant about his fee, being asked to ignite the gunpowder in the special effects box at the side of the stage - Jay has thoughtfully primed it with three times the normal amount of powder - nightclub owner losing eyebrows... Jay onstage... the stage in pitch darkness... a terrifying bang which scares the audience silly... Jay emerges into the spotlight over the "I put a spell on you" riff, Henry smoking a cigarette (you know smoking's bad for you, look at Henry)...

Apparently Screamin' Jay Hawkins also tours Europe as Serge Gainsbourg sees him in Paris and records kind of an hommage to Mr. Hawkins, called "Mambo niam niam" (1959).

The time until 1962 includes a prison sentence of 22 months for whatever reason...

Biography 1960-1969