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Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was the godfather of ghoul rock, but did his wild image hold him back? To mark the publication of the first biography of his crazy life, we examine his extraordinary talent…

The rock act trading in theatrical gore has a long tradition, from the pantomime of Screaming Lord Sutch and the psychedelia of Arthur Brown, to the harder rock of Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and Kiss. But arguably none of them had an ounce of the talent of their spiritual godfather, a very strange man from Cleveland, Ohio, born Jalacy J Hawkins, who really wanted to be an opera singer.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, as he became known, is often listed as a one-hit wonder. Technically, he wasn’t even that. I Put A Spell On You was considered so disturbing on release in 1956, with its animalistic grunts and suggestions of cannibalism, that many radio programmers denied it airtime. It may have accumulated an estimated one million in sales over the years, but it never charted for the singer, with later versions by Nina Simone, Alan Price and Creedence Clearwater Revival enjoying more success.

And so, despite being a favourite of the Alan Freed rock’n’roll revues for a time, Hawkins had an in-and-out career, spasmodically recording, and playing in small clubs with pick-up bands, in between brief bouts of renewed exposure, with highlights like opening for The Rolling Stones in Madison Square Garden, New York in 1981, or touring Australia with Nick Cave in 1985.

This was less than he deserved. To interviewers across his career, he conveyed a sense of frustration that his singular talent never received its dues, and that he was treated as a gimmick who arrived on stage in a coffin and used ghoulish props, rather than a singer with a vocal range seldom heard in popular music. “If it were up to me I wouldn’t be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” he complained in 1973. “My screamin’ was always just my way of being happy on stage. James Brown, he did an awful lot of screamin’, but he never became Screamin’ James Brown! I’ve got a voice. Why can’t people take me as a regular singer, without makin’ a bogeyman out of me?”

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About Vintage Rock

In this issue of Vintage Rock we reveal our definitive Top 100 Rockabilly Tracks from classics of the genre through to lesser-known gems in the catalogue. With Halloween upon us, this issue we brush aside the cobwebs to step inside the spooky world of ghoul-rock pioneer Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and David West navigates his way through the zombie-loving ranks of Psychobilly with the help of The Sharks' frontman Alan Wilson and Dutch psychobilly giants Batmobile. 60 years on from it's release, Randy Fox investigates this month's classic album, Bo Diddley's big-selling second offering Go Bo Diddley, we hear from 21st century roots rockers The Delta Bombers who discuss their new material, and David Burke looks into the fascinating story of Hank Ballard, the rhythm and blues mastermind behind The Twist. Much more inside too, including the Jive Aces' Summertime Swing live, news – including an upcoming Netflix animation with Elvis cast as a spy, and all of the latest music reviewed! Enjoy the issue!