Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was famous for performing with props. Clearly, though, contraceptives were not among them. The eccentric blues singer claimed to have sired 57 children with a combination of 6 wives, assorted girlfriends and unnumbered groupies. This makes Hawkins the most prolific procreator in rock history.
But he was so much more than a repository for super-powered sperm. Screamin’ Jay was also the original shock rocker.
He began performances by emerging from a coffin.
He wore a bone in his nose.
He kept close company with a skull named Henry. T
Truly, though, it was his throaty, gutbucket delivery and schlocky, horror-themed songs that distinguished Screamin’ Jay.
His weirdness and originality were without precedent.
Just Jay, No Screamin’
Born in Cleveland in 1929, Jay originally aspired to become an opera singer in the fashion of his hero, Paul Robeson. When he fell short of this ambition, he made the transition into blues, performing in a flamboyant but musically straightforward style.
Then, in 1956, he and his band entered the studio with the intention of recording a love song called “I Put a Spell On You.” The producer had other ideas. He stuffed the band full of chicken and ribs, got them hammered on booze, and started rolling tape. In an inebriated haze, Jay snarled and grunted his way through a song that he had originally intended as a ballad. Instead, he produced one of the most primal sounds ever to haunt a record.
Apparently, he was so drunk that he didn’t even recall the session. It was, however, the day that Jay Hawkins became Screamin’ Jay.
“Spell” Becomes a Standard
Screamin’ Jay’s version reportedly sold over a million copies but never made the charts. This is likely because numerous radio stations banned the song for its apparent allusions to cannibalism.
Still, the song would become a future Billboard staple, charting for Nina Simone (1965), Brian Ferry (1993) and Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968).
For Screamin’ Jay, the song would be a reputation-setter. The overt sexuality and unrestrained lunacy of the performance would become his template. When legendary Cleveland DJ Alan Freed offered him $300 to emerge from a coffin on stage, an accompanying persona was born.
But as the story goes, that’s not the only thing that was born.
Jay Helps Populate the Planet
Screamin’ Jay spent the next several decades crisscrossing Europe and the U.S. on tour. It would seem his favorite offstage pastime was convening with the local girls to tremendous reproductive effect.
Enjoying a mid-level cult status as well as the admiration of protégées like Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Dr. John and Arthur Brown, Screamin’ Jay spent his latter years gracing films, touring with younger artists and indulging in his image as a one-of-a-kind weirdo.
To wit, he once performed his most questionable song–“Constipation Blues”–whilst sitting on a toilet. I don’t have the video for you here, but don’t worry. The song’s still pretty disgusting all on its own.
Apparently, these antics never got in the way of his side-hustle–populating the world with his offspring.
And yet, the touring musician spoke often to friends and acquaintances about his regrets as a father. He wished that he had gotten to know his children. In his defense, that’s a lot of birthdays to remember.
Screamin’ Jay spent his last years living in Paris and remained a popular concert draw throughout Europe.
He received considerable appreciation and recognition during his lifetime for instilling Rock and Roll with a sense of humor and horror. Then, when he died at the age of 70 in 2000, the executor of his will began the work of fulfilling his final wish.
The executor set up a website and began contacting Jay’s legions of offspring. According to one report, they received over 400 submissions by people who believed that Jay might have been their father. The “Jay’s Kids” endeavor helped to identify his children and bring several dozen of them together for an event honoring their late father.