Long before Alice Cooper there was “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins
The original Shock Rocker “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins
When today we talk about Shock Rock, most people will link it back to bands or acts like Alice Cooper or even Marilyn Manson, but long before Alice Cooper, there was a talented artist who introduced the concept, influencing several other artists in a chain that lasts to this day: “Screamin'” Jay Hawkins. Hawkins, who was born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland, Ohio on July 18, 1929, wrote and became famous with his song “I Put A Spell On You”, an enduring hit that has been covered countless times by many artists since it’s original release in 1956.
But the ground breaking Hawkins almost didn’t followed a musical career (had that happened, it would had changed the whole Rock music history). Up until 1949, he was an avid and formidable boxer and the middleweight boxing champion of Alaska. It was during the early 1950’s that he joined a band and later, became a solo performer. During that period, he started to develop his on stage persona, unique and never before seen on any other artist. Hawkins performed in a stylish wardrobe of leopard skins, red leather, and wild hats, screaming and grunting years before this became a trademark for some Rock performers. In 1956, with the release of “I Put a Spell on You”, and already during the Rock N’ Roll era, Hawkins met his greatest commercial success that surpassed a million copies in sales and was a worldwide hit. The song, which was originally intended to be a ballad, turned into something totally different, when during the recording of it, Jay grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon, making it one of the most raw and guttural songs of that era, and of Rock music, as it was later selected to be one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Due to his famous on stage persona, which put together his operatic vocal delivery and wildly theatrical performance, soon after the release of “I Put a Spell on You”, famous radio disc jockey Alan Freed offered Hawkins $300 to emerge from a coffin onstage. Hawkins accepted and created his most famous and memorable trademark image. His concerts often began with the coffin and included “gold and leopard skin costumes and notable voodoo stage props, such as his smoking skull on a stick – named Henry – and rubber snakes” in an obvious reference to voodoo. Hawkins continued to tour and record through the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly in Europe, where he was very popular. By then, Shock Rock and Theatrical performances in Rock music had already became popular, through bands such as Alice Cooper and KISS and before them, Screaming Lord Sutch, Arthur Brown and Frank Zappa. “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins lost his popularity and for a while, Rock history remembered him for his 1956 hit “I Put A Spell On You” and not by being the first, and original, Shock Rocker. He got back his popularity when new generations started to get more curious about him during the 1990’s. This was also helped by the fact that Marilyn Manson covered “I Put A Spell On You”, sparkling the interest on younger people to find who was the original performer. In 1991 he released the album “Black Music For White People”, featuring two covers of Tom Waits, who is a self confessed Hawkins fan, one of the songs was “Heart Attack And Vine”. “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins ied after emergency surgery for an aneurysm on February 12, 2000, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, near Paris at age 70. Today, his influence in Rock music is well recognized and to him belongs the place of being the original Shock Rocker, without whom, we most likely would never had bands such as Alice Cooper or KISS as we know them.
Watch “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins doing his famous early performance of “I Put A Spell On You”, 1960
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