Why Today’s Performers Have Nothing On Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Last week’s news that Shane MacGowan is getting together a motley crew of musicians (including Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie, Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Glen Matlock and Johnny Depp) for a charity single in aid of Haiti was music to my ears for a multitude of reasons.

Obviously it’s helping a needy cause and of course, it’s the perfect alternative antidote to the bloated back-slap fest that was that ‘Everybody Hurts’ cover, but more than that it’s the fact that the song they chose (the 1956 Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic ‘Put A Spell On You’) will resurrect the late hero and thrust his nasally-pierced face into the grillpieces of today’s performers. And maybe, just maybe, someone will pick up a trick or two.

While we seem to have swapped stage presence for stage production, technical ability for pyrotechnics, and personality for sellability, Hawkins, in all his smoking skull and fireball-throwing glory, represented (and still represents) rock and roll at its most primal and real. Witness this with all its Jack Black-meets-Baron Samedi ramblings to see what I mean:

Sure, anyone can do theatrical – just ask Winehouse or Florence – but his schtick was no Brit school girl gone bad / Goldsmiths squat party gone good play-acting. Who from our current stable would roll out a performance like this? (Go ahead and relax into the song, just make sure you’re not slurping tea at 1’40”)


However you spin a story on Ellie Goulding, they don’t come out like Jay. Born on a bus and named after a juice bar at the bus station (Jalacy), abandoned and raised by Blackfoot Indians, enlisted in the army at 14, suffering a grenade blow to the head and escaping further duty by claiming insanity then finding himself committed for three years, he’s been a boxer and a failed opera singer, been married six times and fathered (approximately) 75 children. Gene Simmons has some way to go yet.

And that’s before you get to the stage shows (the coffins nicked from dead bodies from which he’d emerge), the tours (with Nick Cave, The Clash and Screaming Lord Sutch) and the recordings (‘Black Music For White People’’s Tom Waits covers are well worth investigaing).

Screamin Jay Hawkins recorded the original ‘I Put A Spell On You’ completely hammered, so drunk he grunted the whole way through and blacked out, and had to relearn the whole thing the next day. You can see why it appealed to Shane MacGowan.

Is it too much to ask to have one or two of these characters in our music once a decade?

More classic Screamin Jay moments: