Before Bobby (Boris) Pickett did the "Monster Mash," before Alice Cooper did himself in on stage with nooses and guillotines, before people started lining up at midnight to see a sweet transvestite from Transylvania, there was Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
Ever since 1956, when he came out with his voodoo-drenched signature song, "I Put a Spell on You," Hawkins has made rockin' horror his trademark. Pick up "Voodoo Jive," a Hawkins career retrospective released last year by Rhino Records, and you'll encounter that dark chiller, punctuated with some of the most riotous screaming (hence the nickname) on record.
You'll also hear "Feast of the Mau Mau," which cops a big Muddy Waters blues beat while describing a blowout of a dinner party thrown by cannibals: "Put on your gorilla suit, drink some elbow soup, and have a ball," Screamin' Jay cackles. "Reach into his chest and pull out his ribs/Man let me bite on that cat's bone. . . . Can I have a fried ear?"
With material like that, it isn't surprising that Hawkins has played up the humorous horror stuff in his stage show. For years, he would open or climax his concerts by climbing out of a coffin--a maneuver first suggested to him by early rock 'n' roll promoter Alan Freed. A human skull, dubbed Henry, still figures in the act, along with outrageous stage garb that includes a Dracula-style cape.
But Hawkins' talent goes beyond novelty horror appeal. His recordings showcase a genuinely terrific R & B baritone--clear, throaty and full of impact. If Hawkins was a precursor of rocky horror, his screamin' style also rates as a precursor to the soul wailing of Wilson Pickett.
And on close inspection, "I Put a Spell on You" rates as considerably more than a comic-horror notion. There's some sick, obsessive/posessive psychology stirred in with the song's funny dementia as Hawkins sings about mixing up a voodoo spell to regain control over a lover who has split. It can be viewed as a companion piece to such later darkly obsessive rock classics as "I Can See for Miles" and "Every Breath You Take."
Screamin' Jay, a Cleveland native who was born Jalacy J. Hawkins 61 years ago, served in the military and scored some Golden Gloves knockouts before beginning his musical career. He served his early apprenticeship under R & B bandleaders Tiny Grimes and Wynonie Harris. While Hawkins never became a big hit-maker (his version of "I Put a Spell on You" didn't make as big a chart impression as later covers by Nina Simone and Creedence Clearwater Revival), being an original has counted for something. It gives Hawkins, now a Los Angeles resident, a niche and a performing trademark. The singer, who once said his early ambition was to sing opera, has continued to branch out, though. Last year, he made a strong film acting debut playing the sardonic manager of a spooky, seedy Memphis hotel in "Mystery Train."
Who: Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
When: Friday, April 12, at 9 p.m.
Where: Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Center.
Where to call: (714) 496-8930.