The Return of a Legendary Screamer : Pop music: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins says he’s dissatisfied with his new album, his first since 1974. He headlines the Palomino on Saturday.


Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the legendary R&B; singer renowned for his ferocious shrieking on his ‘50s single “I Put a Spell on You,” sure has a strange way of promoting his new album.

“I don’t like a lot of the stuff on it,” he says, sitting at a corner table in a Sunset Boulevard restaurant. “At the Palomino (where Hawkins headlines Saturday night), I’ll do the fast, rap version of ‘Put a Spell on You’ from the album, but not much else from it.”

Given Hawkins’ colorful persona, you don’t know whether he’s just being funny by attacking the album or if he really means it.


If it’s a gag, he never lets on.

“After waiting all these years to do (another) album, it’s a shame that it couldn’t be under more pleasant circumstances--and an album I liked,” he says, not cracking a smile.

The album--”Black Music for White People,” just released by Bizarre/Rhino Records--is Hawkins’ first since a 1974 effort that was issued only in Britain.

Though Hawkins even criticizes executive producer Herb Cohen when talking about the album, Cohen--who is also co-owner of Bizarre Records--said in a separate interview that he can’t believe that Hawkins is really serious in his remarks. “Sometimes artists have second thoughts once an album is finished, but he seemed happy with it while it was being made,” Cohen said.

Whether Hawkins does any other songs from the album Saturday, he knows the crowd will mainly be on hand to hear the classic “I Put a Spell on You.”

The song not only pops up from time to time on oldies stations, but its use in the ‘80s cult film “Stranger Than Paradise” led director Jim Jarmusch to use Hawkins in a featured role in his later “Mystery Train” film. That flashy performance as a bizarre hotel clerk introduced Hawkins to a new generation of fans and led, indirectly, to the new album.

“Movies are my ace in the hole,” he says. “If things stop working for me in the record business again, I can always turn to movies.”


Though 62, Hawkins, who lives in Pasadena, looks to be in his 40s. What’s his secret?

“I don’t have one,” he says good-naturedly--not at all like the spacey weirdo in “Mystery Train.” “I’ve lived a wild and crazy life--the kind of life that would have killed most people.”

An orphan who was raised in Cleveland by wealthy foster parents, Hawkins started his music career studying opera (still one of his passions), but eventually focused on jazz and then blues.

On the advice of a record executive in the ‘50s, he stopped singing and started screaming--and that’s what made him a hit. “I didn’t have the best voice for blues and R&B;,” he recalls. “But I could scream. I called on my opera training. I can scream soprano--like a woman.”

Hawkins was a show-stopping performer in the early days, pulling such outrageous stunts as arriving at shows in a hearse and opening his set by jumping out of a coffin. “It was just stuff I did to be different--putting on a cape and putting a bone in my nose and acting like a lunatic,” he says.

Though Hawkins doesn’t pop out of coffins much anymore--he charges promoters $5,000 extra for that--his philosophy about show biz hasn’t changed. “For me, it’s been all about being weird and different,” he says. “If you’re this weird-looking person in a coffin with a bone in his nose, who’s gonna forget you?”