Advertisement

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; Rhythm and Blues Singer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, a legendary rhythm and blues singer with an outrageous theatrical bent that led him to pop out of a coffin onstage, died Saturday in a hospital near Paris. He was 70.

Hawkins died after emergency surgery to treat an aneurysm, local media reported.

Born Jalacy J. Hawkins in Cleveland, Hawkins created a niche for himself as what Times pop music writer Mike Boehm described as “one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first horror mongers, a howling madman who shrieked, cackled and sputtered while he shook a stick with a skull attached.”

“I’ll put a bone in my nose, wear my cape, make fire come from my fingertips,” Hawkins told Boehm some years ago. “People go ape. That’s what the public wants. I’d better give them what they want because they’re paying the freight.”

Advertisement

Hawkins will be best remembered for his song “I Put a Spell on You,” about a romantic mesmerism.

After recording the song as a standard ballad without success in the early 1950s, Hawkins was persuaded to try again. But the producer of the session wanted to loosen up Hawkins and the band before getting to work to replicate their condition before a live date. So he got them drunk.

The recorded result was an astonishing, screaming sound that grabbed listeners.

“I don’t remember making the record,” Hawkins once told Barret Hansen, the rock music expert who is better known as radio’s Dr. Demento. Remembered or not, the record changed Hawkins’ career.

Advertisement

“That session took Hawkins--and R&B--to; another dimension,” Hansen said.

But there was a downside for Hawkins. He felt compelled to imbibe heavily before live performances so that he might duplicate the sound from the record.

“I figured I couldn’t sing the song unless I was drunk,” Hawkins told Boehm. “The alcohol blew up in my head, and I was ready to do ‘Spell.’ ”

Hawkins said that by the mid-'70s, he found he could do a convincing “Spell” onstage sober, so he quit drinking.

Advertisement

The song became a standard and was discovered again and again for decades. It was covered by artists as diverse as Nina Simone and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hawkins remained active in the 1980s, opening for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden and getting some attention from film director Jim Jarmusch, who used “I Put a Spell on You” as the centerpiece of his film “Stranger Than Paradise.” Jarmusch then used Hawkins, in a non-singing role, in his film “Mystery Train.”

Hawkins continued to record songs that became cult favorites, such as “Hong Kong” and “Constipation Blues.”

“I came into this world black, naked and ugly. And no matter how much I accumulate here, it’s a short journey. I will go out of this world black, naked and ugly. So I enjoy life,” he once told an interviewer.

Hawkins’ early life was difficult. Sent to an orphanage by his mother, who had too many children to feed, he was adopted when he was 18 months old. By age 4 he had shown interest in playing the piano, and soon learned to read and write music. He admired singers such as Paul Robeson and Enrico Caruso, and studied opera before his induction into the military toward the end of World War II. Hawkins remained in the service through the Korean War and wanted to pursue opera after his discharge, but he needed to earn a living and so turned to R&B; music.

Advertisement

The coffin routine started in 1956 at the suggestion of New York disc jockey Alan Freed. Initially, Hawkins was reluctant to get into the coffin, but after Freed offered him $2,000 for the stunt, it became part of the act.

On one occasion the coffin bit didn’t work quite as expected.

“Hawkins told me he was working a date with the Drifters,” another popular R&B; group, Hansen said.

“He was in the coffin waiting to be carried onstage, when one of the Drifters locked it and Hawkins couldn’t get out.”

Advertisement


Advertisement
Advertisement