At the time of writing this month’s column, Russia is still getting a real bad press over there in the UK. And it’s all Baloney. We rock’n’rollers living in Russia know the truth, which is that the people in Eastern Ukraine are fighting for their freedom. And we are with them 100%. OK, that’s enough of the preaching; just wanted to let you hear the truth that you’re not hearing over there in the West. Let’s move on to the rock’n’roll !
Recently here in Moscow we celebrated the one and only Clown Prince of Rock’n’Roll, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In September we organised a tribute concert at the Esse Café, to remember and enjoy the wonderful music and talent of the Great Man.
The star performer at the concert was the Russian King of Rock’n’Roll himself, Denis Mazhukov. Regular readers of this column will remember my reviews of him and some of his concerts. He is recognised over here as the country’s biggest rock’n’roll star. His crazy piano style has earned him the same nickname as that of his greatest musical inspiration, the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis – Denis is known as the Russian “Killer.” We had a great night celebrating Hawkins and his music. The photo you can see of Denis was taken at the event (Denis is on the left, yours truly is in the red drapes !).
My last 2 “Russia’n’Roll” columns in this magazine told the story of Screaming Lord Sutch. Sutch’s biggest musical inspiration was Hawkins and some of the greatness of Sutch can be put down to the way he performed in the style of Hawkins.
Regular readers will also probably have worked out by now that I like my rock’n’roll on the wild side. The loudness and on-the-edge nature of the best rockin’ music is one of the many reasons I love rock’n’roll so much. It’s another reason why it’s been my chosen culture for my whole life. And they didn’t come any crazier or wilder than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Hawkins had an interesting history even before he hit the big time musically. As a young American boxer he won the famous Golden Gloves competition, before joining the special services division of the US army, to perform his brand of entertainment at service clubs throughout the World.
On leaving the army in the early 1950s, he continued his musical career and very soon became known for his eccentric and over-the-top behaviour on stage. He would also wear exotic costumes, such as leopard-skin suits or shining gold cloaks. One of his favourite tricks was to have a coffin on stage at the start of his act. As the music started playing, he would then slowly emerge from the coffin with all the stage lights shining on him. He would also often carry a skull, which seen was smoking a cigarette, in his hand on stage; the skull even had a name, Henry !
Interestingly, the legendary rock’n’roll promoter Alan Freed was involved in helping Hawkins become famous, beginning with making sure his single “She put theWhammy on me” got lots of air play on the radio. Freed was a pioneer in promoting black artists like Hawkins, during a period when there was still lots of segregation in America. He also helped Hawkins by booking him on some of his package tours, as well as giving him parts in the rock’n’roll films he was involved in.
Jay’s big break came with the release of the iconic single “I put a spell on you.” The story of how this legendary record came to be cut is a famous one. Those of you who know this song will especially appreciate this story. Those that don’t, check it out on youtube. It was released in 1956 and became one of the most famous rock’n’roll songs of the 1950s. The original intention was for it to be a ballad. But things changed as the entire band of musicians, as well as Hawkins, got well and truly drunk at the recording session, with liberal quantities of alcohol being consumed at the studio. According to a music journal article written a short time afterwards, “Hawkins screamed, grunted and gurgled his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon.” It was a fantastic studio recording, but Hawkins passed out after they’d finished it, completely “plastered”. Afterwards he could not remember anything about the session. He had to re-learn the song from the recorded version ! This off-the-wall record was unlike anything else ever recorded and sold over a million copies.
He acquired his stage nickname during the 1950s. His crazy act on stage led one young female in the audience to shout out to him, “Scream, Jay, Scream !”. The “Screamin’ “ tag stayed with him to the end. His greatest period musically was undoubtedly in the 1950s, but he continued performing right into the 1990s and was still able to impress audiences with his outlandlish act. He died in 2000 at the age of 70.
I have a great and comprehensive collection of Hawkins’ records and CDs. Probably my favourite of the bunch is “Cow fingers and mosquito pie”: It’s a wonderful assortment of some of his finest compositions. In addition to the incomparable “I put a spell on you”, the following are tracks I can also play over and over and still enjoy – “There’s something wrong with you”, “Yellow coat”, “Little demon” and “Darling, please forgive me.”
And here’s a special mention of a particular Hawkins’ favourite of mine; “Constipation Blues”, in my opinion one of the funniest songs of all time. If you have time, check it out on youtube and see for yourself !
Like most famous musicians and performers, Hawkins lived an imperfect life. He was a notorious womaniser. All his marriages ended in divorce and when he died it was believed he had fathered around 55 illegitimate children. As time passed, it became clear the figure was closer to 75. But on stage he was magnificent. He became known as the “Clown Prince of Rock’n’Roll”: There are no ifs and buts about that – he was rock’n’roll’s King of Comedy !