The ’90s musical legacy of rock ’n’ roll wild man Screamin’ Jay Hawkins will be comprehensively reconsidered on a totally untethered two-CD compilation, Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids?, due from Bizarre Records on May 18, 2017.
The set collates all 44 of the raving songs recorded by the late, legendary vocalist by producer and Bizarre partner and A&R man Robert Duffey, who also acted as Hawkins’ manager during the period. The numbers first heard on Hawkins’ original Bizarre albums — Black Music for White People (1991), Stone Crazy (1993), and Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On (1994) — are augmented by five previously unreleased bonus tracks. The set includes new liner notes by music journalist Chris Morris.
Duffey says of his fruitful creative relationship with Hawkins, “He was unique. He opened me up to a different kind of creativity. Jay wasn’t trying to make hit records. Jay was just trying to be Jay. He was trying to show the world Jay. He wasn’t a pretentious rock star.”
By the time Hawkins and Duffey met in 1990, the uninhibited singer had already left a deep impression on rock ’n’ roll. During the early ’50s, he had recorded for such R&B labels as Timely, Mercury, Wing, and Grand; for the latter imprint, he wrote and recorded a smooth ballad, “I Put a Spell On You,” which the company declined to release.
But the song became the touchstone of an astonishing career after it was re-recorded at a (purportedly) drunken session by Okeh Records A&R exec Arnold Maxin. The literally screamin’ single never became a chart hit, but it endured as an underground classic, inspiring diverse covers by Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and many others.
Hawkins would spend the next three-plus decades as rock’s most formidable ogre: Carried onstage in a closed coffin, he would leap forth, with a bone stuck through his nose, to declaim such feats of dementia as “Little Demon,” “Feast of the Mau Mau,” and “Constipation Blues” for his agog audiences.
Besides his catalog of crazed records, Hawkins also left behind him a far-flung brood of illegitimate children numbering somewhere between 57 and 75 (thus inspiring the title of this collection, Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids?).
Thanks to the sponsorship of film director Jim Jarmusch, who memorably used “Spell” in his 1983 film Stranger Than Paradise and unforgettably employed Hawkins as an actor in 1989’s Mystery Train, the vocalist still sported plenty of hip cachet and name recognition when he encountered his future producer at Hollywood’s Club Lingerie, one his regular L.A. venues, in 1990.
Duffey recalls, “He talked about what he was doing, and his band. I asked him, ‘Who are you working with? Are you recording with anybody?’ He said, ‘No, nobody wants me.’ I said, ‘Well, I want you. I’m part owner in a record company, and we should work together.’ He said, ‘OK.’ I said, ‘Who’s your manager? Let me give him a call.’ He said, ‘I don’t have a manager. Nobody wants me.’ I said, ‘Well, I want you, so now you have a manager.’ He said, ‘Great — I have a manager and record deal all on the same day!’
The debut album Black Music for White People — the title of which won approval after its endorsement by Hawkins’ label mate, street musician Larry “Wild Man” Fischer — was an eclectic selection that included an off-the-chain “dance version” of “I Put a Spell On You,” an over-the-top restyling of Kern and Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River,” and two suitably gritty numbers, “Heart Attack and Vine” (later a hit in the U.K.) and “Ice Cream Man,” penned by L.A. poet laureate of the gutter Tom Waits.
Duffey says, “I did a lot of the demos with Waits [in 1971] to get him his record deal with Asylum. I used to take him in the studio in Hollywood, and we’d put down songs. I’m a huge Waits fan, and Waits’ material and Hawkins just seemed to work together.”
The sophomore Bizarre package Stone Crazy leaned heavily on cover material. Duffey recalls fondly, “Jay and I would sit up at night. I’d go over to his house, and he’d talk about Big Jay McNeely and Little Richard, all these people. He’d sit with me and reminisce about all these old guys. We’d talk about oldies radio, and listening to it. He was really knowledgeable about ’50s stuff and ’60s stuff, mostly ’50s. I asked him, ‘Would you like to do some of these on your new record?”
Tunes originated by Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Mabon, and Ray Charles are complemented by such deranged originals as the lust-crazed “Sherilyn Fenn,” a mash note to the Twin Peaks starlet, with whom Hawkins had appeared in the 1988 erotic drama Two Moon Junction.
Like its predecessor, Hawkins’ third and final Bizarre release Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On employed the playing and songwriting talents of Buddy Blue, singer-guitarist for the San Diego roots-punk band the Beat Farmers.
The collection was highlighted by a song that, like “Heart Attack and Vine,” went on to success thanks to use in a much-aired British TV spot, “I Am the Cool.” It also included another formidable Waits cover, “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” and a maniacal trio of spoken-word rants, improvised on the fly in the studio, paying homage to Amy Fisher, the “Long Island Lolita” who became a 1992 tabloid fixture after she shot her married boyfriend.
Hawkins’ association with Bizarre — the longest he ever enjoyed with a label — ended when the singer relocated to France, where he died in a Paris suburb on Feb. 12, 2000. His sessions for the label was his last significant time in the studio; as the rollicking music brought back to life on Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids? proves, he remained completely capable of putting a spell on his listeners.