Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids? — The Complete Bizarre Sessions 1990-1994
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The history of rock and roll, jazz and blues is littered with eccentric, offbeat artists; misfits that used music as an outlet for their quirky, some may say eccentric, proclivities. From Slim Gaillard to Tiny Tim, Sun Ra, Col. Bruce Hampton, Captain Beefheart, even Little Richard and others, these musicians epitomized the concept of working outside the mainstream. It’s safe to say that even in this idiosyncratic group, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was unique.
Perhaps Hawkins, who was a frustrated opera singer in the vein of Paul Robeson (he covers Robeson’s signature tune “Ol’ Man River” on this set) and a failed boxer, created his own wild man persona when he scored a fluke hit in 1956 with the immortal, liquor-induced classic “I Put a Spell on You.” From then on, it was all crazy all the time as Hawkins came on stage in a coffin with a bone through his nose, holding a skull and singing warped versions of ’50s pop hits like “I Got You Under My Skin” and “I Love Paris” mixed with zonked out blues such as “(She Put The) Wamee (On Me),” “I Hear Voices” and the immortal “Constipation Blues” that has to be heard to be believed. He used his sturdy baritone to sound both demonic and deranged. To say there was no one doing anything like this in the ’50s and ’60s is an understatement.
But even though Hawkins had a brief flirtation with late career fame thanks to director/writer Jim Jarmusch who used “… Spell …” prominently on the soundtrack to Stranger than Fiction and gave him a small but cool part in 1989’s Mystery Train, he was little more than a relic playing small punk clubs in 1990. That’s when Bizarre label partner Robert Duffy ran into him and offered to be his manager and release new material. The resulting three albums (1990, 1993, 1994) captured all that was cool, unstable and annoying about Hawkins. Long out of print, this double disc collects every one of the 44 tracks on those discs in remastered sound.
Duffy hired a tight band that followed Hawkins on his unscripted, stream-of-consciousness ramblings over jazz/blues backing as on the rambling six-minute “Ignant and Shit.” But for every swampy, jungle rocking “Swamp Gas” or edgy, psychedelic blues Howlin’ Wolf cover (“Who’s Been Talkin’”), there are just as many times Hawkins is vamping, often unrehearsed, over a generic riff that falls flat and/or goes on too long. The singer is never less than engaging, even when he lets his misogyny get the best of him as on the cover of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’.” Hawkins interestingly raids the early Tom Waits catalog for three covers, bringing twisted interpretations and humor to songs like the relatively obscure “Ice Cream Man.” Some of it’s funny, some rollicking, some head scratching and some like a hip-hop/funk remake of, you guessed it, “I Put a Spell On You,” is unbearable. A full 2 ¾ hours of Hawkins unleashed is more than many will be able to handle.
A single disc whittling the cream of these tracks down to one 45-minute blast would have been a better, more enjoyable solution, although anyone can collate their own compilation from these tunes. Regardless, Hawkins, who passed away in 2000 while living in a Paris suburb was, to put it mildly, one of a kind. Even though his catalog and these late albums are inconsistent, there has never been another like him and he remains a distinctive if unlikely legendary character in American music.