With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I thought it would be nice to honor Rock ‘N Roll’s most fertile procreator. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was famous for performing with the assistance of props. However, contraceptives were apparently not among them. By his own recollection, the eccentric blues singer had sired 57 children with a combination of 6 wives, assorted girlfriends and unnumbered shameless groupies. This makes Hawkins the most prolific baby-maker 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 would begin his performances by emerging from a coffin, he wore a bone in his nose and he kept close company with a skull named Henry. Truly, though, it was his throaty, gutbucket delivery and schlocky, horror-themed and frequently bizarre songs that made Screamin’ Jay a legend.
Without precedent, and in the midst of contemporaries like James Brown, Little Richard and Ike Turner, Screamin’ Jay was unparalleled in his creative weirdness.
Born in Cleveland in 1929, Screamin’ 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 largely straightforward but most assuredly flamboyant manner.
Then, in 1956, he and his band entered the studio, got loaded on liquor, chicken and ribs, and laid down a track called “I Put a Spell On You.” In an inebriated haze, Screamin’ 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 sessions.
Though Screamin’ Jay’s version never made the charts, the song would become a future Billboard staple, charting for Nina Simone (1965), Brian Ferry (1993) and perhaps most memorably, 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 Cleveland DJ Alan Freed subsequently offered him $300 to emerge from a coffin on stage, an act was born.
As the story goes, that’s not the only thing that was born. Constant touring of Europe and the U.S. over the next several decades would bring Screamin’ Jay no shortage of opportunities to make congress with the local girls. 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 (specifically those of Jim Jarmusch), touring with younger artists and indulging his growing legacy as a one-of-a-kind oddball.
To wit, he once performed his tastefully subtle “Constipation Blues” whilst sitting on a toilet. The performance featured in the video below doesn’t include a toilet but don’t worry, it’s still pretty disgusting.
Apparently, neither these antics nor his constipation ever got in the way of Screamin’ Jay’s ability to bed his female admirers.
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 horde of illegitimate children.
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 N Roll with a sense of humor and horror. Then, when he died at the age of 70 in 2000, his closest friends began working to fulfill his final wish.
They set up a website and put out an open call for Jay’s offspring. According to one report, they received over 400 submissions by people who believed that Screamin’ Jay might have been their father. The “Jay’s Kids” endeavor helped to identify most of his living children, bringing several dozen of them together for an event honoring their late father.
Speaking of honoring fathers, this post is dedicated to all you dads out there. You may not have 57 kids, but you’re a hero to the one or two kids you do have. Happy Father’s Day Weekend!