Closing the lid on Screamin' Jay Hawkins

 If you've ever doubted the notion that jazz leads to other things, then consider the case of Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Most people younger than 60, if they know him at all, know him only second-hand, as the first to have a hit with "I Put A Spell On You," the lead-off track of Creedence Clearwater Revival's eponymous debut album in 1968.

After that West Coast rock unit hit it big on college campuses and, particularly, on Top 40 radio -- still a vital force in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- a brief period of comeback opportunity opened up for Hawkins. He was to be seen taking his wild act to television with occasional appearances on the various rock 'n' roll "in concert" broadcasts that enjoyed a brief season of popularity.

But Hawkins' apprenticeship went back to the early 1950s, when he served as a pianist for veteran jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes. That led his translation of the jazz he'd been accustomed to playing into something unlike that which anyone else was turning out.

There is probably a special category for what Hawkins produced, and I read one critic years ago who tabbed the music "voodoo jive." It's as good a label as any, I suppose, if you care about such things, and a lot of music lovers do.

Hawkins sometimes would emerge from a casket to begin his performances, and he made use of a variety of stage props and even kept a skull on hand during each of his gigs, a skull he dubbed "Henry."
The most direct descendant of Hawkins' wild brand of stagecraft is Alice Cooper, hardly a name that conjures jazz.

But, on the more deeply-rooted musical side, there also is Mac Rebennack, Dr. John, a true native son of New Orleans, who let most of us corn-fed white kids who listened to popular radio in the 1960s hear some of the real gumbo-ya-ya that is so firmly rooted in the Crescent City.

Hawkins, however, had no such romantic beginning. He was a native of Cleveland, in those days a gritty, industrial town not known particularly for its lively music scene, despite its rock 'n' roll roots as home to Alan Freed and his legendary status as naming the genre that transfigured teenagers everywhere.
But Hawkins' entree to popularity was through the portal of jazz. If you listen closely to his records -- now regrettably, somewhat difficult to find -- you'll hear the strain of jazz in that wild stew. It is the sound that issued from a thousand bandstands in a thousand towns over a thousand nights.

Hawkins died Saturday, Feb. 12, in Paris, having achieved the age of 70, quite a long life for an old rocker. But not so unusual for an old jazzer. Too bad he won't be emerging from the coffin this time, because he built a very important bridge between jazz and rock. It's too bad more people don't know about him.