By Tomb Dragomir
History crowned Alice Cooper the king of shock rock a long time ago, and rightly so. But it’s always fun to remember who paved the path for our modern music monsters. So, with our holiest of holidays on the horizon, let’s look back at Cooper’s great-granddaddy of shock - Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins.
I was trick-or-treating as Luke Skywalker way back in 1980-something the first time I remember hearing Jay scream. “Little Demon” was blasting from a souped-up speaker on a pumpkin peppered porch somewhere in suburbia. My bitty brain was blown. What the hell was I hearing? It was a macabre combination of grunts, groans, yelps, and moans and I’d never heard anything like it. I was spellbound.
Hawkins had his biggest hit right off the bat.
His first single, “I Put a Spell on You”, was huge in 1956. It was supposed to be a proper love ballad but, during a drunken recording session, too many beers transformed Jalacy into “Screamin’ Jay”. The rest was history; a former boxer and wanna-be opera singer became America’s blues-rock Boogeyman seemingly overnight and it didn’t know what to do with him.
Draped in tattered capes with an Elvis Presley pompadour and a big bone through his nose, his performances were rife with voodoo ju-ju, rhythmic rot ’n’ roll, and a Vincent Price-like presence behind the mic. Mixing his horror with humor, he even carried around a smoking pet skull on a stick named Henry.
He made a long career by performing across the country for decades with TV appearances ranging from The Merv Griffin Show in the ’60s to Arsenio Hall in the ’90s. Sadly, he never received the acclaim of the Alice Coopers and Arthur Browns that followed, eventually resenting his own gimmick and moniker. He died of an aneurysm in February 2000.
So, when cooking up those pernicious playlists for the spooky season ahead, show a little love for the original screamin’ demon, a musical madman who literally set the stage for all the rocking monsters we love today. Lest we forget Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on our holiest of holidays this year. Happy Halloween!
———Tomb Dragomir is an artist and composer whose scores can be heard in Brett Kelly’s creature feature, Ghastlies, and Christopher’s Giroux’s horror short, Scraps. He was the long-time host and programmer of Rue Morgue Radio and recently opened his Etsy Shoppe of Horrors featuring original horror artwork.