Screamin' Jay Hawkins was one of the most flamboyant and influential entertainers in the history of American pop culture. He was born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland on July 18, 1929, and placed in an orphanage until adopted at the age of 18 months. Jalacy learned classical piano as a youth, but dreamed of singing opera like his idol Paul Robeson. Opera didn't work out for Jalacy, but it was a permanent influence on his stage persona.
Hawkins was also a boxer, and fought in Gold Gloves competitions before quitting high school to join the Army Air Force. He served in World War II primarily as an entertainer based in the Pacific Theater, but played service clubs around the world. He claimed to have been captured (and tortured) as a POW before he was able to engineer a chaotic and daring escape. He had a brief career as a professional boxer before he focused on starting a career as a blues piano player and singer. Jalacy Hawkins once said he got his nickname at a nightclub in Nitro, West Virginia, in 1950, from a fan who encouraged him to "Scream, baby, scream!".
In the early 1950s Screamin' Jay worked with artists like Tiny Grimes and Johnny Sparrow before starting his own band. It was at this time that his opera influence surfaced as he began to play in outlandish attire. 1955 was the year that Screamin' Jay Hawkins recorded his signature song. "I Put a Spell on You" was going to be a ballad, but a rowdy, drunken late-night recording session resulted in a raw performance that featured Hawkins screaming and grunting his way to what was first banned by some radio stations as being "suggestive", but became Hawkins' biggest song. He later could not remember the recording session. Disc jockey Alan Freed paid Hawkins to rise from a coffin onstage to perform "Spell", and Hawkins used the idea to create an act that included leopard skin costumes and various "voodoo" stage props, including skulls and snakes. During the 1950s he also travelled with Alan Freed's rock 'n' roll revues, appeared on "American Bandstand", and played several Cleveland venues, including Leo's Casino.
Screamin' Jay's popularity soared because of "I Put a Spell on You", but his other recordings did not approach the same level of success. He remained very popular in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, and appeared in the film American Hot Wax (1978). In 1981, he opened for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. "I Put a Spell on You" was featured in the movie Stranger Than Paradise (1983), and Screamin' Jay also appeared in Perdito Durango and A Rage in Harlem. In 1983, he relocated to New York City and worked for a few years with the garage rock band The Fuzztones. They appeared in the 1986 film Joey.
In the early 1990s Hawkins had a bit of a recording resurgence which included covers of several Tom Waits songs. His version of "Heart Attack and Vine" was his only British hit, reaching #42 on the U.K. singles chart in 1993. He recorded or toured during the 1990s with Dread Zeppelin, The Clash, and Nick Cave. His 1957 single "Frenzy" was included in the compilation CD "Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files" in 1996. In 1998, he received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins died February 12, 2000 at the Ambrose Pave clinic in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine following emergency surgery for an aneurysm. He was 70. His stage persona, with its props and wild costumes, directly influenced artists such as Little Richard, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson.