Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Reviewed on this page:
At Home With Screamin' Jay Hawkins - ...What That Is! -
She Put The Wammee On Me - Black Music For White People -
Stone Crazy - Somethin' Funny Goin' On -
At Last -
Live: Olympia, Paris 1998
Screamin' Jay Hawkins was the first rock and roll humorist, and arguably the greatest (except maybe Zappa),
salting even his most serious tunes with hilarious off-hand comments and other peculiar sounds.
Unable to make it as an opera singer in an era when Paul Robeson was the only black person welcome in the field,
Hawkins had a big booming voice.
Oh, and his stage show presaged Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, and so on: he used to climb out of a coffin at the beginning of each
performance, for starters, and carried a skull named Henry.
But his best work would stand up even without his whoopin' and hollerin' antics, like his signature tune, "I Put A Spell On You,"
covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Creedence Clearwater Revival.
After a couple decades of near-obscurity, Hawkins came back into the public consciousness with appearances in two mid-80s Jim Jarmusch
films, and soon thereafter went out on the oldies circuit and resumed recording. Hawkins died in early 2000 after surgery for an aneurism.
There's a fine fan site.
At Home With Screamin' Jay Hawkins (1958)
After spending a few years with Tiny Grimes's Rocking Highlanders, Hawkins went solo, and after a couple of false starts wound up on Okeh Records.
The album is carefully arranged yet gritty full-band rhythm and blues - like contemporaneous Ray Charles, except that the singer is out of his mind.
The 1956 single "I Put A Spell On You" - which was banned from airplay and never charted, but sold heavily -
is a curiously moving performance, at least up until the snorting, grunting coda. The rest of the disc is even farther out,
and it's amazing that this record was made so early: "Little Demon" is a story about a really angry demon,
"There's Something Wrong With You" is a kiss-off to a very strange lover, and Leiber and Stoller's "Alligator Wine" - also a single - is similar.
"Hong Kong" is an excuse for Hawkins' vocal imitations of Chinese, Africans, and various other people.
But his most hilarious moments are his covers of Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" and Gene Autry's "Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle."
On the few occasions where he plays it straight, he's an effective R&B hollerer, and the backing band is precise and strong.
But his great contribution is his unfettered sense of fun.
This disc is available, with a few outtakes and alternate versions, as Cowfingers & Mosquito Pie. (DBW)
...What That Is! (1969)
Hawkins spent the next ten years dealing with a multitude of personal problems, including a prison term and a self-imposed exile to Hawaii, and released only a few singles during that period. This disc has
two tunes that didn't get a lot of airplay but certainly got people's attention: "Feast Of The Mau Mau," a grossout laundry list of feast ingredients,
along the lines of "There's Something Wrong With You"; and the self-explanatory "Constipation Blues," which is a lot more tasteful and
funnier than you might think. The backing is much heavier R&B than At Home, with wailing saxes and Hawkins banging out bluesy
piano ("Thing Called Woman"), and the band (Earl Palmer, drums; Lule Ritz, bass; Plas Johnson, sax; Mike Anthony, guitar)
is tight, though not overly so. However, the straightforward production reveals Hawkins's overreliance
on a couple of chord progressions: half the tunes sound like remakes of "I Put A Spell On You."
And Hawkins gets a demerit for including a closing medley featuring snippets of each song.
Produced by Milan Melvin; the liner notes say the album was recorded live at the Club Amigo, but it's clearly recorded in a studio,
so I think that's a joke of some kind - the notes also thank President Nixon for "his efforts to recapture the era of the early 50's."
Because Is In Your Mind (1970)
The second and last album for Philips, with a cover of Fats Domino's "Please Don't Leave Me," "Bite It" - Jay's smutty rewrite of the Mar-Keys' "Last Night" - and originals like "I Need You" and "Move Me."
Produced by Huey P. Meaux.
She Put The Wammee On Me (rec. 1953-1970)
A compilation of recordings from the early 50s through the mid-60s, plus two cuts from 1970.
There's a great deal of pedestrian R&B, often dimly recorded (the pre-Okeh "Baptize Me In Wine"). The closest thing to a hit was "The
Whammy" from 1963 - the title track is a 1954 recording of the same tune - which is amusing though it's a rather obvious
tables-turned rewrite of "Spell On You."
The cover of Paul McCartney's "Monkberry Moon Delight" comes closest to the crazed pleasures of
At Home, as Hawkins' outré mannerisms sound best when set against a catchy tune and corny backing vocals;
everything else is a Screamin' Jay original.
Originally released as Screamin' The Blues.
Rated "X" (rec. 1970, rel. 1993)
A live record; aside from "Constipation Blues," "Spell" and "Bite It," there are covers of oldies like "Shout" and "Funky Broadway." Collected on CD with the previous album as Feast Of The Mau Mau. (DBW)
Portrait Of A Man And His Woman (1972)
Don't quote me, but I think this has been re-released on CD as My Little Shop Of Horrors.
I Put A Spell On You (1977)
Re-recordings of "Move Me," "I Need You" and the title track, plus a few new tunes ("Africa Gone Funky").
Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1979)
Real Life (1983)
A mix of re-recordings of earlier hits - "Feast Of The Mau-Mau," "Alligator Wine" - and new material. (DBW)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins And The Fuzztones Live (1984)
At Home With Jay In The Wee Wee Hours (1988)
Another live album. (DBW)
Live & Crazy (1989)
I Shake My Stick At You (1991)
All-new, all originals, recorded in Australia and self-produced. (DBW)
Black Music For White People (1991)
A careful comeback attempt cut after the film appearances gave Hawkins some currency. Perhaps too careful: I've read that
producer Robert Duffey wiped all of Hawkins' piano tracks each night after he left, and generally smoothed out the sound so much there was nothing
worth listening to.
On the other hand, Stone Crazy, made up of unadulterated outtakes from these sessions, is not so great either...
For some reason, Hawkins is unusually sedate on the covers - Louis Jordan's "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby";
Tom Waits's "Heart Attack And Vine" - some jokey screaming on "Ol' Man River" is the only exception.
He does cut loose on his own compositions ("Swamp Gas," with a groovy tribal
beat; the lengthy diatribe "Ignant And Shit"), but he's not at his best.
Predictably, there's a remake of "Spell": allegedly a "dance version," it features not one but three lame
raps from someone called Tonio.
The band is Michael Keneally (guitars and keys), Mark Goldberg (bass), Rik Shannon (drums), Dana Garrett (sax)
and Bo Diddley Jr. (guitars).
Stone Crazy (1993)
By now Hawkins's voice still sounds good (a cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talkin'"), but his delivery lacks
imagination: the throat-clearing noises from "Spell On You" appear where they aren't welcome ("I Don't Know") and there are no humorous asides
- though "Last Saturday Night" has its moments.
The most unusual lyric is "Sherilyn Fenn," an occasionally raunchy ode to the actress Hawkins had worked with in Two Moon
Junction (a brief excerpt from the tune had appeared on Black Music).
Once again, the band is overprofessional, churning out R&B backing so clean you could eat off it, which leaves you
nothing to think about but how familiar the melodies are ("I Believe"). Adding insult to injury, Hawkins had originally cut the title track
back on What That Is!.
Produced by Robert Duffey. (DBW)
Somethin' Funny Goin' On (1995)
Again produced by Duffey, but this time he gets a loose, raunchy R&B vibe that's a lot of fun even when the lyrics aren't
strong ("Rock The House").
The band - Keneally and Buddy Blue (guitar), Oscar Barajas (bass), Jeff Aafedt (drums), Robbie Helm (sax), Steve Ebner
(trumpet), Felix Flanagan (harmonica, notably on "Give It A Break"), and Jim Monroe (percussion) - isn't overawed by the
leader, playing even the most familiar figures ("When You Walked Out That Door") with conviction and enthusiasm.
Hawkins himself is raucous and unrestrained, going for broke on grossout numbers ("You
Make Me Sick") and scarier fare ("Whistling Past The Graveyard") alike.
In the vein of "Sherilyn Fenn," there are three brief uncredited tracks extolling the virtues of Amy Fisher, while "I Am The Cool"
namedrops Madonna and Calvin Klein among many others.
At Last (1998)
Produced by Jim Dickinson, with the Hood-Hawkins rhythm section anchoring the band, and the tone is serious Rhythm
& Blues. Well, mostly serious ("Pot Luck" is a list of unsavory comestibles a la "Feast Of The Mau Mau," reusing the melody of "Alligator Wine"). And Screamin' Jay pulls it off, writing a bunch of simple but effective tunes ("Because Of You"; "Deceived"; the sorrowful love song "Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda").
Even the cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff" is given relevance by inspired ad libs on the outro.
Live: Olympia, Paris 1998 (1999)
A generous double CD with a surprising number of 50s tunes: "Shout,"
"What'd I Say," "Stand By Me."
Naturally, though, there's room for extended versions of hits like "Constipation Blues," "Alligator Wine" (with a deadpan, operatic interpolation
of "Go Down Moses") and "I Put A Spell On You."
Hawkins plays the crowd expertly, with plenty of between-song patter and some lengthy semi-improvised narratives ("I'm
Lonely"), though unfortunately that sort of thing doesn't come across as well when you're in your living room. Or at least in my living room.
The band is Frank Ash (guitar, usually undermixed), Frederic Fall (bass, including an extended solo on "Pretty Girls Everywhere"), Dider Marty (sax) and José Babeu (drums);
a bonus studio instrumental "Frankly Speaking" features Hood-Hawkins. The rating is tentative because I haven't yet heard any of Jay's numerous other live albums. (DBW)
Who's been talkin'?