When speaking about Black pioneers in rock music of the 1950s and 1960s there are a few names to come to mind. At the top of these are Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Music historians and students will include Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Bo Diddley. A contemporary between the two sides is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Born July 18, 1929, as Jalacy Hawkins, he studied piano in Cleveland for years before picking up the guitar as an adult. As is often the case, Hawkins’ original path was to sing opera. He was inspired by Paul Robeson and trained his vocal abilities for the heavy demands of classical music. As a result, he achieved a powerful baritone delivery that he would use in dramatic fashion.
Father of Shock Rock
Starting as a singer for a blues band, he began to work on his stage presence. Later that decade in 1956, he recorded “I Put A Spell On You,” which was his signature hit. The song showcased his vocal chops as well as the screaming madman persona he had developed. It was said that in this particular recording session, he put such energy into the performance that he didn’t even remember the session itself. Oddly enough, the iconic version wasn’t his original goal for the song.
The song was meant to be a clean ballad–however, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the band were drunk and the rest is history. His record label at the time released a somewhat cleaner version since the grunts were deemed too sexual by some radio stations–which banned the song anyway.
In addition to his vocals, it would be his stage shows that served as the blueprint for shock rock. This was all snowballed by his entrance. The song proved popular in some areas and one DJ by the name of Alan Freed brought Jay Hawkins for a show. He paid Hawkins $300 to climb out a coffin before the song.
From there he began to mold the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins gimmick. His clothes became more outlandish–for the 1950s. He wore nose piercings, a cape, and carried a skull that smoked a cigarette. His stage was featured stage smoke and he threw fire at unexpected times in a performance. Overall, he quickly mastered stagecraft to create an eerie environment for his shows.
As a result, Hawkins turned songs that were supposed to be blues and rockabilly in nature into pure shock rock staples. “I Put A Spell On You” would end up being covered by a number artists and bands such as Nina Simone, Jeff Beck, Joss Stone, Carlos Santana, Tim Curry, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and The Animals.