Mark Binelli turns his sharp, forceful prose to fiction, in an inventive retelling of the outrageous life of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a bluesman with one hit and a string of inflammatory guises
He came on stage in a coffin, carried by pallbearers, drunk enough to climb into his casket every night. Onstage he wore a cape, clamped a bone to his nose, and carried a staff topped with a human skull. Offstage, he insisted he'd been raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he'd joined the army at fourteen, that he'd defeated the middleweight boxing champion of Alaska, that he'd fathered seventy-five illegitimate children.
The R&B wildman Screamin' Jay Hawkins only had a single hit, the classic "I Put a Spell On You," and was often written off as a clownish novelty act -- or worse, an offense to his race -- but his myth-making was legendary. In his second novel, Mark Binelli embraces the man and the legend to create a hilarious, tragic, fantastical portrait of this unlikeliest of protagonists. Hawkins saw his life story as a wild picaresque, and Binelli's novel follows suit, tackling the subject in a dazzling collage-like style.
At Rolling Stone, Binelli has profiled some of the greatest musicians of our time, and this novel deftly plays with the inordinate focus on "authenticity" in so much music writing about African-Americans. An entire novel built around a musician as deliberately inauthentic as Screamin' Jay Hawkins thus becomes a sort of subversive act, as well as an extremely funny and surprisingly moving one.
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Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits
By Mark Binelli, Sasha Laskowsky-Ziguilinsky
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Mark Binelli
All rights reserved.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hit
The origin story typically goes something like this: On September 12, 1956, a rhythm-and-blues aspirant named Jalacy Hawkins, twenty-seven years old, native of Cleveland, entered a New York recording studio to cut a handful of sides for Okeh Records, a subsidiary of the Columbia label. One of the songs Hawkins brought to the session, an original he'd penned himself, followed a heartbroken protagonist who, in a fit of desperation, turns to black magic to beguile the strayed object of his affection.
He'd actually recorded another version of "I Put a Spell on You" months earlier. It's difficult to imagine, considering the sturdiness of Hawkins' baritone, but at that time, he crooned the number entirely straight. His model was Johnny Ace, the Memphis preacher's son with the impossibly tender voice — specifically, the hit single "Pledging My Love," a favorite of Hawkins', with its syrupy arrangement, heavy on the tinkling vibes, Johnny purring the lyrics like a lullaby.
Forrrrever my darrrrling ...
"I Put a Spell on You" was a sweet ballad when I wrote it.
* * *
Arnold Maxin, the Columbia A&R man meant to supervise the session, wasn't interested in ballads, though. Rock and roll, that mongrel genre, with its raw appeals to youth, had become the sound of the moment. Hawkins and the session musicians, to Maxin, sounded hopelessly stiff by comparison. In frustration, he ordered up a case of cheap wine: Swiss Colony, an Italian muscatel.
We all got blind drunk.
The singer awoke the following afternoon, worked over by a brute of a hangover, the rest of the night lost in the fog of war. Nearly two weeks later, when Maxin presented him with a newly pressed 78 recording of "I Put a Spell on You," Hawkins hardly recognized his song. Its melody had been sliced apart and overtaken by a shuffling somnambulist's rhythm, the vocal track similarly debased by a series of "drunken screams and groans and yells" (Hawkins' words). His sweet ballad, ensorcelled, now walked like a zombie, the arms of his lovelorn hero, thus embodied, no longer outthrust to embrace, but to strangle.
And that is how I became Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
Ten days later, he had to learn the song.
* * *
It's a great story, one that Hawkins told again and again. His masterpiece, born in the missing hours of a bacchanal! The tale has an archetypal purity: magic elixirs granting dark wishes to the imbiber, the bitter taste only hinting at the hidden price to come; a hidden Hyde, coaxed to the surface by chemistry and hubris.
The anecdote has been dutifully reprinted in liner notes, profiles, and capsule biographies. The only problem is, it's almost certainly untrue. Like many of the plot strands Hawkins affixed to the narrative of his own life — that he'd been adopted and raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he'd studied opera at a Cleveland conservatory, that he had lied about his age at fourteen in order to join the army during the Second World War, that he'd been a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska, that he had fathered seventy-five illegitimate children — the notion of a liquid muse wildly conjuring "I Put a Spell on You" is most useful as evidence of the singer's penchant for self-mythologizing.
The reality, on the other hand, was likely far more quotidian. It turns out Hawkins loved, and unabashedly modeled his persona after, blues shouters like Wynonie Harris and and the mad swing vocalist Slim Gaillard. On his very first recorded song, a Tiny Grimes number called "Why Did You Waste My Time?" cut four years before "I Put a Spell on You," Hawkins begins to openly sob around the two-minute mark. The incipient screaming on "No Hug No Kiss," recorded at the same session, is more of a humid, viscera-soaked wail, here triggered when a voice, possibly Grimes', pleads, "Take it easy, man. You don't want her to be back. Everything gonna be alright!"
Listen to either of these tracks and there's no denying "I Put a Spell on You" rests comfortably along the same hysterical continuum. Which is not to argue against the song's eccentric, sui generis brilliance. A perfect mitteleisenhower artifact from rock and roll's unruly pubescence, "Spell" has dated atypically well. One attempts to reverse engineer the alchemy at work and comes up short. At heart, of course, the song is a joke, the bawdiness of a waltz as channeled by a piano player in a saloon, a horn section frothing itself to a frenzy, Hawkins' loopy and parodic baritone, his winking delivery at once ironizing the material and including himself in the gag. But somehow, after all these years, "Spell" still retains a lingeringly sinister air.
Consider the lyrics, often overlooked — in particular, the excellent twist that comes about when Hawkins reveals the final three words of the title phrase: Because you're mine. Isolated like so, it's a Cole Porter fragment, just about. But in context, you have to wonder, why bother with all of this hoodoo jive if she already belongs to you, man? I've placed you under a spell because I possess you: granted, there's a perverse, near-tautological elegance to the claim. Though it also sounds like a threat. Later in the number, Hawkins menacingly flips the question of ownership, because you're mine metamorphosing into
I don't care if you want me
I'm yours right now
Emphasis the singer's. Doesn't sound like a gift.
* * *
Aside from "I Put a Spell on You," Hawkins' legacy rests primarily upon his outrageous live show. Pallbearers hauled him onstage in a coffin. (Alan Freed's idea. Hawkins always hated climbing into that box. His heavy drinking began, he said, as a means of coping with his nightly entombments.) He wore a cape, clamped a bone to his nose, and carried a staff topped with a human skull. The skull's name was Henry.
It's difficult to overstate the sheer perversity of the choice, especially considering the historical tendency among music fans (i.e., white music fans) to exoticize African American artists, Robert Johnson's devil-hocked soul only the most prominent example of a racialized infatuation with black masculinity, carnality, appetite, transgression — in a word, authenticity — that's permanently distorted the ways in which we all think about, and listen to, music, and which demands a requisite level of "realness" from so many of our performers, who, never mind the songs, must also be junkies, killers, outlaws, colorfully touched, fiending on something, primitives whose compositions aren't written so much as discharged, ideally from a suppurating wound. This is not the history of black music in America, but of its commodification, from which Screamin' Jay Hawkins, this most deliberately inauthentic of performers, stands apart.
The early notoriety of "I Put a Spell on You" would mold his stage persona forever, prompting him to embrace, for the remainder of his career, cartoonish witch doctor imagery straight out of Hollywood B-pictures. Surely in part for that reason, he never achieved anything like that success again. Today's average music listener has more likely heard one of the famous cover versions of "I Put a Spell on You" (Nina Simone's overproduced, melodramatic dirge, Creedence Clearwater Revival's bar-band atrocity) than Hawkins' original. The song did periodically resurface on enough occasions (most notably, in the 1984 Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise) to grant the singer a certain cult status in the final years of his life. To Hawkins, most likely, the embrace felt little and belated. Back in the early sixties, his career had foundered so spectacularly he'd been forced to take a gig as the musical act at a Honolulu strip club.
If there's something unsettling about a black American so gleefully embodying such crude racial caricature — the NAACP would call Hawkins out, denouncing his act alongside square parents and skittish radio programmers — there's also a postmodern tweaking of (white) audience expectation going on. Ditto the "Screamin'" part of the act, for Hawkins surely understood, as Albert Murray writes in the brilliant Stomping the Blues, the ways in which "references to singing the blues have come to suggest crying over misfortune ... a species of direct emotional expression in the raw, the natural outpouring of personal anxiety and anguish," when in fact artists announcing themselves as blues musicians "do not mean they are about to display their own raw emotion. They are not really going to be crying, grieving, groaning, moaning, or shouting and screaming."
Such a reading "ignores what a blues performance so obviously is," Murray continues. "It is precisely an artful contrivance."CHAPTER 2
Born and Abandoned
The mother had come west to bear the child. It was July 1929. West to Cleveland, three months before the crash.
Wilson, the lay handyman at St. Jude's, an asylum for destitute and abandoned children, discovered the boy in his wheelbarrow, swaddled in quilting. Minutes later, he burst into the breakfast assembly, announcing with an idiot's grin, "Some fool has left a lump of coal on our doorstep, Father Nowicki!"
In the note, the mother hinted at a row with her family, subsequent disowning. For her loose ways, one would assume.
Handsome enough child, for all that. She had named him Jalacy, after a neighborhood juice cart. The owner had been an Arabian fellow.
"Do they think," Wilson, unveiling the pipsqueak, trying again to coax a smile from the priest, "we light our furnace in the summertime?"
St. Jude's also took in adults (feebleminded or crippled), and Sister Frederick, the senior nun on the hospital staff, generally avoided working with the youngsters. But she would always remember the boy, or claim to.
"Had you seen the child back then," she would insist, "you, too, would appreciate the irony. Scream? Ho."
Not a peep. He stared at you, like a little man. Like a skeptic.
One evening in the nursery, long after the dousing of the lamps, the regular girl having taken ill, Sister Frederick performed the nightly rounds. She found all of the children asleep and at peace, except for the boy. That one lay on his back, with his eyes wide open, as if awaiting the tit. But so still, she thought the worst, right off, and must have loosed a gasp. At the sound, he swiveled his head in her direction and fixed her with a cold glower. Such a serious expression on that face!
"What's wrong with you, now?" she whispered. "It's dark outside. You must rest. Don't you like to rest?"
He gazed directly into her eyes, blinking calmly.
"Sleepy, sleepy," she whispered, hoping to suggest, and closing her own eyes, to demonstrate. But she could still feel that unnatural gaze burning her skin. Sure enough, when she peeked again, he just lay there, aloof as a senator.
"Cuckoo!" she began to whisper. She'd become desperate, by this point, to force a smile out of the boy. "Cuckoo! Cuckoo!"
Nothing. Suddenly, she felt embarrassed. As if she were playing the clown in the presence of a peer.
Can you imagine? Reddened by that little plum pit?
"Are you familiar with his music, Sister?" a visitor once wondered, years later.
Oh, yes: she loved nothing better than a sock hop!
She was not familiar with his music.
Eyes that judged, and not a sound.
Jalacy liked to tell people he'd been raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, an impossibly romantic notion for an orphan — adoption by tribe! — though it was a young couple who had contacted Father Nowicki, the director of St. Jude's, concerning the possibility of taking in a child.
Peering nervously into the visiting room the afternoon after the phone call, the priest and his secretary, Brother Karl, spotted a man in a feathered headdress, a tan leather vest, and vivid facial "war paint."
"Purely decorative, one should hope," Father Nowicki murmured.
"He seems very ... stoic," whispered Brother Karl.
"A long-suffering people," Father Nowicki replied. "That, none can deny."
This particular Indian turned out to be an adult inmate named Herman Shapiro, deranged at Verdun after a mustard gas attack. The actual Blackfeet had been sitting patiently on a chair meant for one, the prospective father perched on an overstuffed arm. The man wore a tight herringbone suit and held his hat in his lap; his wife, a muted knee-length jersey dress enlivened with a yellow carnation.
Father Nowicki had decided to offer the couple the colored child. If they were in any way disappointed, they did not reveal it.
"So healthy!" the man exclaimed as his wife silently cradled Jalacy. Without looking at Father Nowicki, he continued, "We already have two daughters of our own. But we just wanted a boy. Our girls need a stinker. Someone to pull their braids, expose them to rude noises."
"I can't have any more children," the wife explained brusquely.
At this moment, the boy, tugging on a stuffed ragamuffin the wife had produced from her purse, suddenly tossed the doll to the ground and began to wriggle and fuss.
The husband lifted Jalacy from his wife's arms and, clutching the child under the armpits, used his thumbs to pat out a light percussion on either breastbone. At the same time, as if dusting off an old bedtime song, he launched into a recent popular tune by Millicent Morrow, his attempt at a feminine trill at once spoofing and oddly sincere.
Don't cry, boy,
Though it's true I'm a-leavin'
(And yet ...!)
Too much joy
Might wind up deceivin'
(You think ...?)
Who needs dancin'?
We'd all live in mansions
(But would they still be mansions?)
Well I don't think so
But I'm no philosopher
So what the (hey!) do I know?
Just one thing
Now this part is certain
Take a bit of comfort
That after this hurtin'
The next girl you meet
Will seem awful sweet
I'm easy to beat
Won't that be a treat?
(I'm not sure if ...)
Well I am!
Au revoir, kiddo!
The couple had met and married on a Montana reservation, eventually moving to Cleveland to find work; after a string of menial jobs, the husband became a chief mixer at Henry Sherwin's paint factory. They settled in the Central Avenue district, populated, primarily, by blacks and Jewish and Italian immigrants. Jalacy's references to his new family as a "tribe" were an embellishment, of course. Though it was true that certain of the neighbors privately referred to the Indians as such.
Piano lessons. Catch. Mother's cooking. Tag. Sister-fights. Foot races. A bicycle. Saturday matinees. School, mostly dull.
Fishing from the pier, using lumps of cheese gummed to a hook.
The high dive. That awful climb. Other kids clowning, pretending they'd been convicted of treason on the high seas and forced to walk the plank.
Jalacy could never take the high dive lightly.
On Tuesdays, the dreaded "boiled dinner." (Chicken or brisket, with carrots, potatoes.) Jalacy's favorite meal: city chicken, actually cubed pork scraps on a stick, breaded and then baked in the oven.
Jacks. Box fort. The alley behind Kelvin's garage, narrow enough to feel like a tunnel.
Holding a girl's fingers during a movie. Clustered sticks.
Hurling lit matches at each other in the field behind the Fords'.
White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi. Also, The Magic Island, chronicling true-life encounters with the mystical in Haiti. One of his favorite books as a boy. After, Jalacy began walking stiff-armed, pretending at being the risen dead. He liked this idea better than heaven.
He also played at blind once. Marched into a door.
Squirrel hunting with his Indian grandfather in the tiny yard behind the house on Amos. The yard was indistinguishable from any other on the block, an entire alley's worth of them set behind a string of row houses. It had just enough room for a vegetable garden, which attracted the squirrels.
Excerpted from Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits by Mark Binelli, Sasha Laskowsky-Ziguilinsky. Copyright © 2016 Mark Binelli. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: The Funeral Procession of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
1. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hit
2. Born and Abandoned
3. A Boyhood Love of Opera
4. Army Years
6. Atlantic City
7. Scream Blacula Scream
8. Because You’re Mine
9. Jailhouse Rock
10. Gilchrist’s Ghost
Epilogue: Paradise, Hawaiian Style