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A star in the 50s, oft forgotten in the decades that followed, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins came back to life in the 80s via some famous friends in Hollywood. Vintage Rock looks back at a truly bizarre rock’n’roll original.


The spell-binding witchdoctor Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was the ultimate shock’n’roller
Charlie Gillett/Redferns/Getty Images

For someone whose live performances involved climbing out of a coffin, it came as no surprise that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins resurrected his career in the 80s, with a little help from some hip fans who became friends. Among them were garage rockers The Fuzztones and cult film-maker Jim Jarmusch. Arguably the latter played a pivotal role in Hawkins’ revival, using his signature song, I Put A Spell On You, in 1984 movie Stranger Than Paradise, and then casting the eccentric singer as the night clerk of a run-down Memphis flophouse in 1989’s Mystery Train, a triptych of stories evoking the spirit of Elvis Presley.

According to Jarmusch, Hawkins had no rights to I Put A Spell On You, and so he had to pay a licensing fee to some amorphous industry body to feature it in Stranger Than Paradise. The director recalled: “I knew that money never got to Jay. That really bothered me. Then I had to find him and make sure that he was OK with the song in the movie, and to make sure t hat he gets paid. We found him and he was living in a trailer in New Jersey and he had no phone.”

The soundtrack, Hawkins reckoned, got his music across, “to the young kids who weren’t even a gleam in their Daddy’s eye when I started all those years ago.” He said: “They weren’t even a smile on a man’s face when he knows he’s gonna get involved in horizontal recreation.”

Subsequently, Jarmusch created the character of the porter in Mystery Train especially for Hawkins – though the singer himself had his own idea of how he should appear. “He wanted to make the character like Screamin’ Jay all the time. I wanted parts of Screamin’ Jay, but I also wanted him to be someone else.

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