The Spell of Shock Rock: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

2 Mar

Screamin Jay Hawkins

People who view the Music Court frequently know that I am a big fan of the roots of rock n’ roll. No, not the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I’m talking about musicians who inspired famous artists to perform. Rarely do you get to label someone as the sole progenitor of a certain genre, but for the maniacal genre of Shock Rock, one particular forefather sticks out. When Alice Cooper, The New York Dolls and Kiss talk about inspiration they often site Arthur Brown and Screaming Lord Sutch. But when Arthur Brown and Lord Sutch talk about their inspiration, one man sticks out as the man behind Shock Rock. That is the man above. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Everyone knows shock rock. It is the wild, hyperbolic genre that sees musicians dress in costume and put on a theatrical act for the crowd. The songs are over-the-top, sometimes marked by yells and guttural noises. No one did this better than Screamin’ Jay. Not only did he create the genre, but also because he was so absolutely fantastic at performing it, no one could ever reproduce his sound.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was crazy; a solid background for shock rock. He served in the Air Force during World War II and claimed that he was tortured. One story states that upon being liberated, he taped a hand-grenade to his torturer’s mouth and pulled the pin thereby blowing his head off. He also was a boxing champion in Alaska. He was born in Cleveland.

On stage, he began to be known for his gaudy stage outfits, adorning himself in leopard skin and leather. His main influence to shock rockers lies in his performance of “I Put a Spell on You” which is one of the most influential rock songs ever. And, no, that is not an exaggeration.

The song, which was originally supposed to be a blues ballad, turned into an inebriated donnybrook of painful groans, wide-eyed stares and an evil repetitive riff that is both scary and infectious. In layman terms, the entire band was drunk when they recorded the song, and what was once a love song turned into a lascivious, demonic ritual. He doesn’t even remember recording it because he blacked out after. But it is sweet, sweet music to my ears.

It is absolute genius. This is what inspired the shock rockers. This extravagant display of sexually charged music was preposterous in 1956, when the song was released. Carl Perkins had just released “Blue Suede Shoes” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was releasing this transmogrification of the blues. He was 12 years ahead of his time. Blues would once again feature songs like “I Put a Spell on You,” but not at Hawkins’ level. Hawkins continued to take his act to new levels and that can be seen in his performance below. This is music!

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