Music History

Screamin' Jay Hawkins


Before Marilyn Manson shocked the world with his outlandish, occult-themed, and highly sexually-charged onstage antics, Screamin' Jay Hawkins emerged from a coffin as he screamed and grunted suggestively during his performance of "I Put A Spell on You." In fact, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins--born Jalacy Hawkins--is considered to be one of the earliest pioneers of the “shock rock” genre with his energetic and macabre-themed performances that shocked audiences throughout the 50s and 60s.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, adopted and raised by Blackfoot Indians after he was abandoned as a child. He was a skilled boxer and also served in World War II, but nevertheless remained tied to music throughout his life. He studied classical piano as a child and later on learned to play guitar in his twenties. He initially wanted to become an opera singer, but those dreams fell through and he went on to play in various R&B bands throughout the early 50s developing his style and aesthetic over time. Eventually he emerged as a solo artist with his first recording, a ballad called, “I Put A Spell On You,” in 1956. Upon its initial release, it wasn’t met with much success in the music industry. However, after a night of eating and excessive drinking during a re-recording session of “I Put A Spell On You,” Hawkins ended up with an iconic recording of him grunting, growling, and screaming while he sang in a deep and foreboding tone. The release of this recording was met with much controversy for its association with witchcraft, voodoo, and raw sexuality, which caused it to be banned.

Hawkins went on to incorporate even more occult and macabre themes into his performances. He brought props onstage including skulls, bones, spears, severed (hopefully fake) body parts, and firecrackers. After being bribed to emerge out of a coffin by a radio DJ during one of his performances, he incorporated that into his act as well. He wore animal skins, donned a spear, and wore a bone in his nose to match the stereotypical image of a witchdoctor. He grunted and growled suggestively as he moved about the stage. This type of performance was unheard of at the time and was frowned upon by not only white audiences who would run for the exits in fear, but black audiences, particularly spearheaded by the NAACP, who complained that Hawkins was promoting a stereotypical image of blacks as magical, cannibalistic tribespeople. Hawkins was unbothered by the criticism.

He was an innovator and way ahead of his time. In fact, what caused great controversy in his era (and to some degree still does today) has definitely become a lot more widespread today in many popular musicians' music videos and live performances. In his lifetime, he didn’t receive the recognition he deserved, and received no royalties from the many covers done of “I Put A Spell On You.” Still, he was an active and influential musician in his prime, having opened for Fats Domino and the Rolling Stones, and even influenced the likes of Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Rob Zombie, and Marilyn Manson. So next Halloween, as you celebrate the life of the dead, play Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and remember those who came before to pave the way for your favorite musicians. It only helps music to innovate further.

Further reading:

The Lasting Echo of Screamin' Jay Hawkins

The Freaky Theatrics of Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Watch Screamin' Jay Hawkins' Perform Below!