Screamin’ Jay Hawkins has always been a showman first and a musician second.
His records have never sold particularly well. In a career that spans more than three decades, Hawkins has scored only a handful of minor rhythm-and-blues hits, among them “I Put a Spell on You” in 1956, “Alligator Wine” in 1958 and “Feast of the Mau Mau” in 1967.
Yet his flamboyant on-stage shenanigans, his reputation as the father of shock rock, have made him a consistent top draw on the concert trail in the United States, Europe and Japan.
In his early live shows, Hawkins was regularly carried off stage in a flaming coffin. He has since given up the coffin--"It ain’t nothing but an unnecessary piece of furniture, getting in my way of running around and acting crazy,” he said--in favor of more mobile props such as bones through his nose, live snakes around his neck, flames shooting from his fingertips, and Henry, a human skull mounted on a palm-tree branch encircled with bats.
“If people put money out to see me, I want to give them not only what they heard on record, but a show, a real performance,” Hawkins explained. “I want to be the one entertainer who has more to offer than hit records.
“If you take all the singers in the world and let them do their hits, once they’ve done that, they ain’t got nothing else to do. Whereas, when I do my hits, I wear a snake around my neck, I make fire come out of my fingertips, I jump around and I run all over the place. I don’t sing, I scream; I don’t try to be pretty, I try to be ugly and weird.
“People don’t expect to see me be normal; they expect to see me be absolutely crazy, and they’re not happy until I am. So I give ‘em about half an hour of good music; then I grab my bone and Henry, put on my cape and lose my mind, and, from that point on, it’s one hell of a show.”
Four months shy of his 61st birthday, Hawkins--who will perform Thursday night at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach--has yet to tame down his stage show.
“If anything, it’s even worse now, even more outrageous,” he said. “At a certain point in my show, I blow up the stage. A sheet of flame jumps up and then turns into an atomic mushroom cloud.
“I want people to have one thought in their minds whenever they see me: ‘What’s he gonna do next?’ ”
Since Hawkins began his on-stage shenanigans in the mid-1950s, his outrageous antics have inspired countless other rock acts. Had it not been for Hawkins, Alice Cooper might never have draped a boa constrictor around his neck, Kiss bassist Gene Simmons might never have breathed fire and Ozzy Osbourne might never have bitten the head off a live bat.
“I don’t have to steal nothing from nobody. The secret to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is my belief that the least expected is the most effective. And, not only do I mess with people on stage, I mess with them off stage.
“Before the show, for example, I’ll take three kids and give them each a cigar box full of rubber bands. I’ll tell them that, when they hear me coughing sometime during the show, that’s their signal to drop a handful of rubber bands on the people down below and yell ‘Worms.’ People can’t see in the dark, so when the kids do that, there’s complete pandemonium.”
Hawkins was born in Cleveland, orphaned in infancy and raised by a foster family. He combined music with mania as a child, in reaction to his strict foster mother’s frequent beatings.
“Every time Mama would beat me, I could get over the pain she gave me for whatever bad thing I’d done by jumping on the piano and trying to imitate a song I heard on the radio,” Hawkins recalled. “I took out my frustrations that way; after about three or four minutes of jumping around and acting crazy, trying to find the right keys, I forgot all about the beating.
“I started out playing with just one finger; it took me six months to start playing with one hand and a whole year to play with both hands. Then I learned the keys, and that’s when Mama decided to get me a piano teacher.”
By his early teens, Hawkins was performing for tips in neighborhood bars. About the same time, he took up boxing. During his boxing career, he did a hitch with the Army and then the Air Force. He became a Golden Gloves champion by 1943, and in 1949 he won the middleweight championship of Alaska.
In 1952, Hawkins was playing piano and singing in a touring rhythm-and-blues band led by guitarist Tiny Grimes. In 1954, he recorded with the Leroy Kirkland Band and toured with Fats Domino; a year later, he struck out on his own, adopting the “Screamin” moniker to fit his manic stage act.
With the help of legendary deejay Alan Freed, Hawkins got a record on the charts, 1956’s “I Put a Spell on You,” and a spot on Freed’s rock ‘n’ roll package tours. In 1957, he appeared in the seminal rock film, “Mister Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“Unfortunately, they cut out my best scene,” Hawkins said. “I was doing a new song called ‘Frenzy,’ in which I was naked except for a loincloth and a spear and a shield and a bone in my nose, and the NAACP made them cut it out because they claimed it was making fun of black people.
“I felt like saying, ‘Where were you when they made ‘King Kong,’ who was eating black people and crushing them, or ‘Tarzan,’ with one tribe eating another.”
By the early 1960s, Hawkins was living and working primarily in Hawaii and England. He returned to the continental United States in the middle of the decade and, in 1967, scored another minor hit with “Feast of the Mau Mau.” A short time later, Creedence Clearwater Revival came out with a cover version of “I Put a Spell on You,” and Hawkins moved to New York, frequently performing at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Since the mid-1970s, Hawkins has been touring mostly in Europe and Japan, with a few scattered dates in the United States. His Belly Up gig is one of a handful of West Coast warm-up dates for a world tour.
Aside from touring, Hawkins has also kept busy in films. He’s appeared in several rock movies, including “American Hot Wax” in 1977; he played his first dramatic role in last year’s “Mystery Train,” in which he co-starred with Chauncy Lee, Spike Lee’s brother, as a hotel manager.
Touring, however, remains his first love, and he isn’t about to slow down, much less give up.
“I’ve always been on the road, traveling since I was 14,” Hawkins said. “I’m 60 now, but you wouldn’t know it. I plan to keep going till God takes me; I want to be like Eubie Blake--he stayed in this business until he was 100 years old. When he was 100, one day he hit the piano and dropped dead.
“It’s like Alan Freed told me the first time he saw me play. He said, ‘If you do this, you’re never gonna need a record in the Top 10 or even the Top 100; you’re gonna be a big box office attraction, and you’ll draw people for many, many years.’ ”