Monday, April 13, 2009
For me, the genre known as "blues music" is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I can't stand the feel-good, commodified, white people blues popularized by Dad Rockers like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, or Corby Yates. On the other hand, though, I've got to bow down to the soul-crushing simplicity and staggering brutality of "real" blues musicians like Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. Electric guitars killed the blues. It's as simple as that.
But there is one artist whose career landed firmly between the realms of "old-school" and "new school" blues, an artist who transcends the genre by being an absolute and total FREAK.
I speak, of course, of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Screamin' Jay (born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland in 1929) burst onto the music scene in 1956 with his single "I Put A Spell On You". Characterized by Hawkins' frantic screaming and gibbering, the song was allegedly recorded with the whole band blacked-out drunk, resulting in Hawkins having to relearn the song later, with a clear head. The single was a hit, and he soon adopted an extreme stage persona to match the intensity of his music, dressing up as an African voodoo priest and bandying about a smoking human skull during performances.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins was the ORIGINAL "shock-rocker", appearing on the scene only two years after Elvis Presley's first single and a full fifteen years before "pioneer" shock-rocker Alice Cooper.
Check out a REALLY, REALLY OLD video of the man performing "I Put A Spell On You" (AMAZING):
Hawkins' legacy is one spotted with dark stories of dubious origin. He served in the Army in World War II, and claimed he was taken prisoner at one point in the South Pacific. As the story goes, he eventually gained his freedom and dispatched his captor by putting a grenade in his mouth and pulling the pin. He fathered anywhere between 55 and 75 children, depending on who you ask, and was also Alaska's middleweight boxing champion in 1949.
His musical output was eclectic but always consistent. Creedence Clearwater Revival brought him further notoriety in the late 60's by covering "I Put A Spell On You", and he even covered a couple Tom Waits songs himself in the early 90's ("Heart Attack and Vine" and "Ice Cream Man"). One of his better known tracks was a song called "Constipation Blues", a very, very thinly veiled reference to not being able to take a dump that Hawkins would perform with a toilet onstage as a prop.
Considering all of these factors, it must be noted that Screamin' Jay Hawkins was Metal as FUCK way before Sabbath ever appeared. He killed a guy with a grenade, had lots of unprotected sex, sang songs about pooping, recorded songs drunk as shit, and had some undeniable occult leanings. Plus, you could hardly ever understand a word he was saying through all the screaming and gibberish. If that's not Metal, I don't know what is.
Hawkins died from an aneurysm in 2000, but his spirit lives on wherever people are worshipping demons or smoking crack. He is by far one of my favorite performers of all time.
How 'bout a clip of Screamin' Jay performing "Constipation Blues" with Serge Gainsbourg (complete with awesome sputtering fart noises)?:
RIP: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, July 18, 1929 - February 12, 2000. Freak, genius, and Bro of the Highest Order.
Anyone who wants to get in touch with their inner psychotic-voodoo-blues-shaman can download a greatest hits album HERE