Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was one of the most flamboyant of the ‘50s R&B; and rock performers, someone who not only began his act by stepping out of a casket, but whose bloodcurdling screams also made you wonder if he really couldn’t put a spell on you.
So, it was disarming to see him standing quietly in a corner of a hotel banquet room here, his eyes almost moist from pride hours before he was honored Thursday night with a pioneer award during the ninth annual Rhythm & Blues Foundation dinner at the New York Sheraton hotel.
“It’s like a blessing from heaven because I’ve never had an award . . . never even been nominated for my music,” he said slowly, without a trace of the bravado that once stood him alongside Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis among rock’s genuine “wild” men.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever won, and I’m truly grateful that an organization would go back and grab old-timers like myself and give us some recognition so that the world will know about us and realize that we contributed something to the music that everyone enjoys today.”
Hawkins, 69, was one of a dozen groups or individuals honored by the foundation--and, like him, most were being honored for the first time by a national organization.
Despite their contributions to popular culture, many of these artists had slipped through the Grammy or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame net--artists such as Faye Adams, whose gospel- and blues-tinged 1953 recording of “Shake a Hand” was one of a handful of landmark R&B; singles that directly cultivated a teenage taste for the liberating and joyful music that was soon to become known as rock ‘n’ roll.
“To me, today feels like a million dollars,” Adams, 74, said in an interview before the awards ceremony. “I am just so thrilled I don’t know what to say. It’s just wonderful to be remembered.”
The others saluted included Atlantic Records co-founder Herb Abramson; singers Bobby Byrd, Tyrone Davis, Ernie K-Doe and Kim Weston; saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman; and the vocal groups the Five Satins, the Harptones and the O’Jays. In addition, Gladys Knight & the Pips were awarded the evening’s top honor, a lifetime achievement award.
They all join a list of nearly 100 artists--from such superstars as James Brown to lesser-known figures such as writer-producer Jesse Stone--who have been honored over the years.
The joy on the faces of these veteran artists as they stepped into the spotlight again--for at least one number each before a celebrity audience that included Stevie Wonder and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince--made it a night of exceptional warmth.
That’s one reason these dinners are treasured within the music industry the way the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinners were during their early years. Though the audience for the foundation dinner has grown over the years from a few hundred to 2,000, the mood remains one of informality and even family.
Numerous contemporary artists were on hand to help celebrate the legacy of R&B;, including Grammy winner Ry Cooder, who played guitar in the house band, to rapper Chuck D., who joined Atlantic Records co-founder Amhet Ertegun in presenting Adams her award. The evening’s emcee, Smokey Robinson, even reported a Bob Dylan sighting in the crowded banquet room.
Recognition of musical contributions, however, wasn’t the only goal set by the nonprofit foundation when it was launched in 1988. The main purpose was to provide financial support for R&B; pioneers, most of whom only received a fraction of the money they deserved because of low royalty rates and other restrictive business practices.
Not only has the foundation lobbied to get record companies to upgrade the royalty rate on reissues by ‘50s and ‘60s artists, but it also provides financial grants to needy individuals.
In addition to their pioneer awards, the honorees were presented checks--$15,000 for individuals and $20,000 or more for groups--during Thursday’s dinner. The money is given regardless of need so that no one is singled out as a hardship case.
Howard Begle, a Washington attorney instrumental in starting the foundation, said the organization was seeded by a $1.5-million grant from Atlantic Records and a $450,000 grant by what is now Time Warner, and adds to its revenue through fund-raisers and contributions.
Considerable progress has been made in getting record companies to revise royalty rates and to forgive recording cost rules that had effectively kept scores of performers from getting a fair share of royalty payments, he said.
At the dinner, however, the emphasis was on music, not money, and each of the performers rose to the occasion. Whether it was Adams’ soulful rendition of “Shake a Hand” or Fred Parris and the Five Satins once more spinning the romantic magic of the seminal “In the Still of the Night,” the vocals were so passionate and pure that it was tempting to think they must be lip-syncing.
But the singing was live and the continuing vitality of the music was a stirring reminder of the foundation R&B; provided for so much of contemporary pop, from rock to hip-hop.
“To me, this dinner is all about remembering,” Jerry Butler, an R&B; star and chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees, said before it began. “A lot of these artists came before CNN and the media crush, before the big payday in music. . . . I kind of put it in the same framework as Jackie Robinson breaking the [racial barrier] in baseball, opening a door for people today to make millions of dollars a year.
“Without these artists, there would not be the music business as we know it today . . . and the dinner is our way of saying, ‘We still care about you. . . . We still salute you.’ ”