27 / 12 / 10 : Screamin’ Jay Hawkins…rock n roll’s real deal…interview by Ian Johnston
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is one of the classic pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll…mainly remembered for ‘I Put A Spell On You’ there is so much more of story as Ian Johnston points out in the following full length interview…
“Everybody started getting weird after there was a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins 07/07/1989
On 7th July 1989, I had the good fortune to meet and interview one of the genuine, to borrow Nick Tosches’ book title, Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, the late, great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1929 – 2000). Hawkins was indisputably the real deal. A few days before his sixtieth birthday, the tall, imperious Hawkins looked remarkably fit and in robust health, with only a large pair of highly powerful Michael Caine style glasses giving any real indication of the passing of the years.
Having been a long time fervent aficionado of Hawkins’ wild, innovatory and eclectic music, the chance to even just see the legendary blues singer and pianist at close quarters in the Grafton Hotel on Tottenham Court Road, before he played a gig (a rescheduled booking of a cancelled gig from the previous year) at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town, London, was a real thrill. The interview (for the long defunct music paper Sounds’ media page, of which only a small fraction was ever used) was to promote the forthcoming Jim Jarmusch classic movie Mystery Train, in which Hawkins unforgettably appeared as an actor, rather than as a performer, for the first time. Of course, Jarmusch had extensively used Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ signature tune, the OKEH 1956 single ‘I Put A Spell On You’, a brilliantly unhinged best seller which was recorded with singer and band in an advanced state of inebriation and was subsequently banned by many radio stations because it was deemed to sound “cannibalistic”, in his 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise. Down through the decades Hawkins’ decadent waltz time dance of the damned ‘I Put A Spell On You’ has been covered by just about everyone, from Nina Simone down to Marilyn Manson.
I was more than a little nervous; perhaps finally proving that I had some common sense, as Jalacy J. Hawkins’ notorious reputation preceded him. Hawkins was born on 18th July 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio. Placed in an orphanage by his mother, from where he was taken and subsequently raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, Hawkins enlisted in the US Army in 1944, before entering the Army Air Force. It was here his career as an entertainer began, playing tenor sax to GIs. This was not his only talent. By the age of sixteen Hawkins had become a Goldern Gloves boxing champion. Two years later he won the middleweight championship of Alaska by beating Billy McCann. The stubbornness of this last 1949 fight, and the injuries he sustained, discouraged Jay Hawkins from pursuing a vocation as a pugilist, so he turned all his attention to creating his own singular music. This happened first in 1952 with jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders (the band all wore Scottish kilts on stage), followed by Johnny Sparrow and His Sparrows, supporting the incendiary R&B legend Wynonie Harris as his anointed protégé, before developing his ghoulish and shocking vocal delivery on the 1955 Mercury single, ‘(She Put the) Wammee (On Me)’.
Jay Hawkins’ outlandish dress sense and stage performances would only become more eccentric as he incessantly toured America. He either dressed up as an African chieftain or sported a green turban, shades, a pink tuxedo, a zebra cape and white shoes while jumping out of coffins, to the accompaniment of thunderous fireworks and flash boxes. In the process Hawkins inspired countless Rock ‘N’ Roll performers from Little Richard to Alice Cooper. Snakes, a cigarette-smoking skull on a stick called Henry, model severed hands, tarantulas and shrunken heads heightened the drama, and the subsequent outrage voiced by various concerned citizens committees and the National Casket Company.
Nevertheless the singer’s stage act certainly proved popular with the female section of his audience. Hawkins had three children with his first wife, but was certain that he fathered at least another fifty children with an endless succession of girlfriends and groupies. Two years before his death, Hawkins married his ninth wife, a 29-year-old from Cameroon.
They where so many questions I wanted to ask, so many answers that needed to be addressed, but I did not really get a chance to utter many of them. Jay Hawkins initially was not in the best of humours, for reasons that will become immediately evident in the interview, but he definitely had much to say and I just prayed that the tape recorder (20th century technology) was running properly. Despite the ‘interview’ becoming a Hawkins monologue, I felt at the time it was going well. At first I would glance down at my notes while Hawkins was talking, to see where I wanted the interview to head, but I discovered that the singer would only except locked eye contact at all times when he was conversing, otherwise you just were not paying attention. That was not acceptable. Hawkins’ baritone speaking voice was naturally loud but it definitely got even louder when he wanted to punctuate a point, which he did on numerous occasions.
If you are not familiar with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ work seek out immediately the following compilation LP’s, Screamin’ The Blues (1979) and Frenzy (1982), and the studio albums At Home With Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the singer’s celebrated 1958 wacked out loungecore/Rock ‘N’ Roll debut LP, and What That Is (1969). The 1995 Edsel CD compilation, Portrait of a Man, also serves as a good introduction to Hawkins. Satisfaction is definitely guaranteed and you will inevitably want to hear every note the man ever recorded.
SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS INTERVIEW BY IAN JOHNSTON 07/07/1989
PAT (Hawkins’ road manager): ‘I’m going to take care of some business, your coffee will be delivered for you.”
JAY HAWKINS: “Err… who ever ‘s delivering it… give them a tip and write out a receipt cos I don’t have any English money. I gave some guy 50 francs cos I don’t have no English money. I tipped the guy 50 francs and I know I gave him too much money but err….”
PAT: “I gave him American as well.” (She leaves)
JAY HAWKINS: “Got to catch a plane tomorrow to go to Barcelona…
Is that where you’re playing next?
JAY HAWKINS: “Tomorrow night we’re in Barcelona, the following we’re in Madrid, the following night we’re in Cannes, the following night we’re in Amsterdam, the following night we’re in Nice and the following night we’re going back to the States to work Las Vegas then going to Atlantic City, from there I will go to five of the big plush hotels in Miami beach. From there I will catch a plane… (Hawkins proceeds in this fashion for a few minutes more, listing about every city in the world)…. Catch a plane to go to Japan, and work Japan for a couple of weeks, New Zealand for three months, including Australia, and I don’t know what happens after that! And that’s my itinerary up to at least March or April of next year.”
I think you’ll need a long rest after that.
JAY HAWKINS: “I am considering retiring… I’ve had it. I will turn 60 this month, July. I’ve been living out of a suitcase since I was 14 and I’m going on 60. I’m tired. (Pauses)
I can understand that….
JAY HAWKINS: “I love the people, God bless’um, they still love me, they still want to see me and I think that’s because of people like Jim Jarmusch and the motion pictures I’ve been making. Two Moon junction, Joey, a picture about Alan Freed’s life American Hot Wax, First Twenty Five Years of Rock ‘N’ Roll, The Dick Clark Story and the picture I just finished with Jim Jarmusch last September called Mystery Train, which will be out this November. I do an acting role; no singing, no piano, no band. I wear a blood read suit, blood red shoes, blood red tie, black shirt and I sit behind a desk… (Lowering his voice) and check rooms out. We have three different stories, which cover a span of 24 hours. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong in this hotel and I have to straighten it out. I even get shot, I don’t get killed, I get shot in the shoulder. They say that the picture may win an award.”
How did you get involved with Jarmusch, had you seen Stranger Than Paradise?
JAY HAWKINS: “Yeah, Jarmusch took me to see that. (Telephone rings and Hawkins answers it) I don’t want that, I want a doggy bag, I want to polish my shoes, I have to shave, I’ve got to get out my weirdest uniform…. I’ve got too much to do. After the show I’m not going nowhere with nobody, I’m coming back to this hotel. I don’t hang out after I work. If the band want to go out they can leg it. I want to sleep on that plane all the way to Barcelona and I can’t sleep because we’re going over the Swiss Alps and they don’t fly over them, they fly around them and through ‘um. Make sure the dressing room have a lock and make sure you have the key and get onto Gwyn about my money. All right, thank you.” (Puts the phone down).
What do you think Jarmusch wanted you to bring to the role, did he talk to you about…
JAY HAWKINS: “Jarmusch took a liking to me because Stranger Than Paradise won some sort of award. He said, ‘Jay, if it wasn’t for ‘Spell’ I wouldn’t have won the award. I made money hand over fist. What I’m going to do, I’m going to feature you in my next movie called Mystery Train and you’re going to be an actor.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be an actor.’ And he said, ‘You are going to be an actor whether you like it or not.’ “I can’t remember some the lyrics of my own songs, how do you expect me to remember the script?’ He says, ’Jay you WILL read the script and you will remember AND YOU WILL BE AN ACTOR!’ The money he paid. My God, the man made an offer I couldn’t refuse. He’s done for me in 1988 what Alan Freed done for me in 1952 and Alan Freed helped make my act. This man changed my life.”
Mystery Train is probably going to bring you to a wider audience.
JAY HAWKINS: “I’m tired, I want to retire and sit down, relax and have peace and comfort. God bless those people out there in the world who want me to work forever but the body can’t take it no more. I’m getting on in age. I don’t care if I don’t look like it. I’m getting ON IN AGE! And I need to relax. Have you ever seen the film, The Picture of Dorian Grey? You remember the portrait changed while he stayed young?”
(Brian Smith, a photographer and friend of Jay’s, interjects – “He’s got a picture of James Brown in his attic!”)
JAY HAWKINS: (Laughs uproariously) “JAMES BROWN! Oh I can’t stand James Brown. I hate that man. I’m sorry he’s doing time in jail but it couldn’t happen to a better man. It couldn’t because he’s a no good scoundrel. He deserved exactly what he got. If I did to women and to my band and to people what James Brown has done to the people who’ve helped make his career, I’d deserve to go to jail. That’s right! He should’ve gone to a maximum-security prison where they could make a woman out of him. Where he could holler loud I’m a female and I’m black and I’m proud!”
So is acting the next logical step because that won’t involve such a tiring schedule like you’re working on now?
JAY HAWKINS – “Well that depends on the directors and producer, suppose they want to go overseas and shoot? But that doesn’t matter; at least I’d be out of nightclubs. I WOULD LIKE TO BE OUT OF NIGHTCLUBS. I prefer working places like Vegas. I prefer travelling to Europe as opposed to working the clubs in the United States. I do not wish to work any more nightclubs. I have, thank God, knock on wood, now become financially independent enough where I can say NO! There was a time I dare not say no. Now I say NO to everybody. If I feel up to it, I’ll do it. If the public says do it and the call is that great, Jay Hawkins will answer it. Right now, Jay Hawkins has decided to start thinking about Jay Hawkins. I’ve given 50 years to those wonderful people out there who’ve bought my records. They deserve the best that I’ve got to offer. I think now I should worry about Jay Hawkins. After 50 years I think I have that right.”
At one time weren’t you were really into opera?
JAY HAWKINS – “Well, that’s something I never think I’ll get…. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to give me the chance to sing opera so what I do when I make appearances, I throw in an opera song on stage – that’s my only way of doing it. Sure they come to see me act crazy and they’ll see that but I throw in the opera. What I do is I put it in the one song they don’t expect…. ’SPELL’! I take ‘Spell’ and I make it longer than the actual record. I’ve added a new part to it now and it’s pure opera. And it’s changing key, coming down the scale, I do nothing but opera all the way down. I do it on two songs, ‘Itty Bitty Pretty One’ and ‘I Put A Spell On You’, so I give the people what they want but I give them just a little bit more and I get a chance to do my opera at the same time and that’s my only out.”
You’ve got this incredible ability to move between some many different musical styles, from Rhythm & Blues, Rock ‘N’ Roll, blues, funk, right through to ballads.
JAY HAWKINS – “I have to! I must have, what you call it, variety is the spice of life. I must show these people that I am not just a screamer, I’m not just a clown, I’m not just an idiot but I can also be serious. I can sing ballads and I can sing opera. Now besides that I’m a musician. Beside that I also perform. And besides that I entertain. So I’m giving them five, six times their money’s worth. I won’t come ff in an hour. I won’t come off in an hour and a half. I do a two-hour show and that’s not in the contract. I deliberately give the people 100% more than they really expect in such a way that they won’t even bother me with encores. I just won’t stop! I’ve had problems with promoters who’ve said, ‘Hey, cut the time.’ Now tonight I’m only supposed to do one show but it’s going to be the longest show ever done in that club and I resent that club because they actually had the audacity to get mad because I got sick last year. I had to go home. I was sick on the 1st June all the way up to the 23rd. They had five doctors check me, each one says give him three days off. Oh no! The people I was booked over here for got greedy, they saw money! We only get him once a year; let’s keep him as long as we can. When I finished working the Hotel Meridian, a doctor in Frankfurt said, ’He’s got to have ten days off.’ Now that scared ‘em! You kept saying you wanted blood, well, I’ve come very close to giving you my life but now we stop. Now it’s not just me complaining, this comes under what is known in the contract as an Act of god. I had the biggest cyst behind this knee that busted and went down to the inside of my ankle. My ankle swelled up. I couldn’t wear shoes. I brought some shoes in Holland and I had to do my show in Dutch shoes. I put on these weird coloured socks because I had on weird coloured suits and it worked out fine. Nobody knew it except the people that booked me and my band and the doctors.
I read some article that someone sent to me that said, ’Anyone would have to be out of their minds to book Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the UK.’ They also showed a letter in the same article that said, ‘I must have 14 days off.’
The guy who runs The Town and Country Club called me, and I got angry because I said, ‘This is an unlisted number, how did you get it?’ ‘We got it from the people in France.’ ‘Why don’t you ask the people in France why I’m not here?’ I said, ’This is still the 4th July, how dare you call me in June and raise hell with me? Let me put it this way, if it comes to my life, opposed to working in your club, you take your club and stick it up your ass! I don’t like your attitude. Sooner or later I’ll be in England and I will come to you, so gather your guns, your knifes and your bodyguards and I will still come. Now, two things are going to happen – I’m either gonna kick your ass or you’re gonna kick mine.’
I’m here! Now when I go in there tonight to work, I’m going in there for war! I pray there’ll be no war. Pray that they accept what has happened. I’m back; they decided they wanted to book me again, that’s fine. I will give them the best show they ever had but as far as I’m concerned the club can go to hell! And I will say that to them and I will stand on the stage and say it!”
Well, it’s good to have you back in England….
JAY HAWKINS – “I’m glad to be back! It’s wonderful to be here! The last time that I was here, when I stayed two years, I lived over there near Regent’s Park Zoo, where Goldie used to get away – the bird – and I lived at a little place called The White House. I enjoyed living there, I even learned the difference between shillings and guineas – MAN, I WAS GETTING INTO IT YOU KNOW! Catching the cabs and riding the streetcars and stuff, I was having a BALL in England! I wanted to be a black Englishman, you know, and I don’t mean like the ones out there in Brixton. Them fools are crazy out there!”
You must feel very bitter at having been ripped off over the years?
JAY HAWKINS – “Well, let’s put it this way, the rip off that I had was not so much financially. The rip off that I got from this world and the people and the record companies and the agents and the promoters is that they didn’t want to admit that they had an artist out here was a teeny bit different from other artists, crazy and weird. My act started people like Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Manfred Mann, Alan Price, The Who, The Trackers, Alice Cooper. Everybody started getting weird after there was a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Even a guy in France named Hector Lang was doing me… some guy in the United States won Starsearch cos he came on in a cape carrying a skull and he sang all my records and it won him a couple of hundred thousand dollars.”
(Brian Smith: “Don’t forget Screamin’ Lord Sutch.”)
JAY HAWKINS – “Oh, yeah, how can we leave out Screamin’ Lord Sutch! He even ran for politics, isn’t that wonderful? You know, I’m grateful for it. But I resent the fact that they said I was rebellious. They said that I was a rebel and that I didn’t like the system…. Well, WHO IN HELL DOES LIKE THE SYSTEM! NOBODY LIKES THE SYSTEM, when they want you to be an Uncle Tom or kiss ass or you got to suck somebody’s kneecap to get into a certain club. Like Vegas told me, ‘ You would have been here long ago if you had just obeyed.’ I said, ‘Obey what? OBEY WHO? WHAT FOR? WHY?’
B.B. King will go on the Johnny Carson Show to sing but Johnny Carson won’t let him sit there and talk to him. But somebody else whose written a book on astrology can come right on in and sit down and talk. Why can’t B.B. King talk; he’s an intelligent man. We’re not all John Lee Hookers….. YES!
John Lee Hooker could never hold a decent conversation and I know that. Neither could Champion Jack Dupre. But in their own right they’re stars. You’ve got to give credit where credit belongs. So, if Johnny Carson don’t want me to sit down I said, ‘Then tell Johnny Carson to go to hell!’
I started Dick Clark on American Bandstand when they busted Bob Horn in 1954 for messin’ with young girls. Dick Clark tell me, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, ‘If you ever need a favour, cal on me.’ I called him in 1964. Dick Clark said, ’Who’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins?’ I said fine…. The day will come when we’ll meet and we’ll meet on TV and I will expose him for what he is. He wants to be an all-American Pat Boone on American Bandstand when he’s nothing but a damn liar. He would not let blacks come in there to dance with the white girls. But Alan Freed did it! Way before we EVER HEARD OF DICK CLARK. So what did they do? They crucified Alan Freed until he finally went to his grave. They got him on the payola scandal. Now there’s a white man who something for black people that you’ve got to respect. The Martin Luther King’s of this world get killed because they open their mouths too much and fight the system. I don’t march, I don’t give a damn about the system, I just do what I have to do. I’m more interested in what my audience thinks about my performance than I am about the system.
I’ve had black people in the United States tell me, ‘You’re making fun of the dead by coming out of the coffin and we want you to stop.’ Hey! A white man told me to do it. That man said that this will keep you working longer than a hit record when you’ve got nothing in the charts. He had to be right! And he done that in 1952. People are still buying me because of the coffin. I give that white man all the credit in the world. There have been two white people who have helped me, three all told, with my manager of 36 years, Alan Freed who started out first and now Jim Jarmusch. I judge a man by what he does, not by his colour. I want to be judged by what I do. Judge me by my stage performance. I either work like hell or I’m no good and I don’t know how to be no good. All I know how to do is get up there and work. WORK! And that’s what I’m all about.
You know I dig England; I’ve missed you people. I’ve made some of the best friends in my life here and this is one of them standing right there…. Brian Smith. I’ve even met Screamin’ Lord Sutch. He come up to me in 1964 and said, ‘I am to England what you are to America!’ I said, ‘Can you scream?’ ‘YES!’ You know, I’ve watched one of his shows and I’ve never heard him scream. I’ve seen him run after women with knives, kick at people and get his butt kicked like a fool! I’ve seen him running for Parliament. I wouldn’t run for office in the United States. You know what happened to Reverend Martin Luther King…. I want to live!”
Are there any contemporary bands that you like at the moment? Did you like Nick Cave’s cover of ‘I Put A Spell On You’?
JAY HAWKINS – “I can’t stand Nick Cave! I worked with Nick Cave in Australia in 1985. They had the AUDACITY to tell ME I was going to be the opening band for Nick Cave. I said, ’Just a minute… back up… my records sold here before Nick Cave was born. Before he was a twinkle in his daddy’s eye. Before his daddy knew how to get an erection! ‘ But I said, ‘I tell you what, just for one night, I’ll open the show for Nick Cave, but you’ll be sorry I did it.’ And I used every trick in the bag. Nick Cave could not get on the stage. So the promoters got wise and they separated us. I said, ‘You should have done that in the beginning.’
Nobody can get on the stage after me. You know who paid e that compliment? It was Nat King Cole who told me that when I was still a youngster learning the business. He said, ‘You’ve got too much energy, if I was on a show with you I would want to go on before you. I would never follow you.’ Now I shook his hand you know, it almost brought tears to my eyes, for Nat King Cole, one of the greatest singers in the world, to give me a compliment like that…… OHHH! I stuck my chest out and I felt GOOD! Stan Kenton said to me, ‘I play unusual music, but YOU are one of the most unusual big mouthed black man I have ever seen in my LIFE!’ Well, when you get compliments like that from the masters, from people that heavy, that deep…. You’ve got to be on the right track, it’s just a matter of time.
The guys then who were running show business, they’re nearly all dead, I’ve outlived them! Now you get the young kids taking over, they want more Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and I (he reaches out and grabs my hand)…. Thank God for ‘um! Cos it’s given me a new lease of life. However, I’m getting older. I have reached the point where I’m tired but nobody will know it tonight….. You’ll know it, the audience will know it when they read whatever you write, but when you’re watching me on stage you won’t see it.”
I can believe that.
JAY HAWKINS – “You won’t see it! When I go on that stage I’ll be there until they close that club. They’re going to have to drag me off. I told the band. I don’t want to hear no shit cos I pay you good money and I’ll work the hell out of you. I’ll work you to death.”
Do you have any plans to make any new records?
JAY HAWKINS – “I will always make records! But I will concentrate more on movies. Every two or three years I may do a personal appearance. But my goal is to OWN a nightclub, connected to a motel and an all-night restaurant where I can cook, cos I love to cook! I’ve learnt the Far Eastern cuisine, the European cuisine, the Caribbean cuisine, American cuisine I love to cook. So I’m going to be behind the stove. If I want to sing, in my own club, I can go up there and belt out an hour’s worth of music. Then I can come down and walk behind the bar, go to the cash register and pay myself. Then I can turn round and serve some drinks or go around and be a bouncer. I’m going to have music playing, only 50’s and 40’s, and I mean the original artists. That kind of music… there’ll be no juke box in there but there’ll be one hell of a record player in my office. There’ll be speakers all over the place. Even in the motel into the restaurant, as well as the nightclub. There’ll be continuous music 24 hours around the clock. Music that people can relate to whether they’re old, like me, or the younger generation. I’m going to pick that kind of music.”
That music is so popular because it’s so timeless. The feeling and emotion, particularly in your own records, just can’t be…..
JAY HAWKINS – “ The best part of it is the blues. It’s the beginning. And that’s what I play. And when you hear what this band and I do, you will know that I did not lie to you at this moment in this room. See the show tonight and tell me I was wrong. (Puts his large hand on my shoulder) I don’t think you will, no sir, I don’t think you will.”
How did your stage act develop? I know about the Alan Freed connection, but did it all come together at the same time? The skull, called Henry and…
JAY HAWKINS – “No, no, no, no, no, Freed only had the idea for the coffin. There was a guy called Bob Hall, a black electrician, who put the fuse box into my act. But Henry was my idea. I found a stick in a grocery store and I had the skull. What I have done is take the skull off the stick and found me a palm tree branch and run the sucker right through his head. I’ve painted him over the years; now he’s so gruesome looking it’s horrible. He’s aged just like me, you know. You wouldn’t recognize him now, but it’s the same skull. HE’S WERID LOOKING NOW! In my act I look more like a witch doctor than ever. I’ve gone back to the old primitive ways and wear a bone through my nose and stuff. I’ve got a hand crawling across the piano, fire coming from my fingertips and I blow the place up. Then me and my sax player get together and walk among the people….. We do EVERYTHING most bands don’t do! We do all kinds of music but we stick to the roots. When I do ‘I Love Paris’ I leave out the strings and the voices, but they just want to hear me anyhow and that’s what I’m doin’ and what I don’t leave out I have my band singing in background. So you’re really going to think you’re looking at a group up there. A vocal background group cos that’s the way I train ‘um.”
Did you ever find that the ‘voodoo’ persona was getting to be a problem, having to maintain that image all the time?
JAY HAWKINS – “No, no, now it works even better! I don’t know how this happened but as I sit here and speak to you, it’s the truth. August 1988, Jim Jarmusch and I were out on location filming Mystery Train, they’d already checked the weather bureau and they’d said that it was going to rain five times that day. The crew would wait for the rain to stop. They’d then have 20 brooms sweeping the streets, everybody sweeping the water towards the sewer. Than a sanitary blower would come along and blow the street dry. They’d set up the scene and start shooting and then it would rain and they’d have to stop. After the fourth time it rained Jarmusch said, ‘Jay, roll your bones.’ These are my bones…. (Jay Hawkins produces an old leather pouch from his bag and pours the contents onto the bed. His bones are a bizarre collection of small plastic skeletons, toy skulls and skeletal hands, gums, teeth and pebbles). I was raised by Blackfoot Indians and I do believe in the occult, metaphysics and stuff like that…. And I rolled these bones and IT DID NOT RAIN THE FIFTH TIME. I don’t know how it happened, it just happened. Jarmusch said, ‘I don’t give a damn, when I make a picture I want you there to control the weather.’
But that was September 1988, now I take you to May of 1989. Some of the people who worked on the film (Mystery Train) was now working on another motion picture called Mother Load, in Montana. They called me in California. They said, ’Jay, I know you may think this is a bunch of jive, but would you do us a favour?’ I said, ‘If I can.’ ‘Would you get your bones?’ I says, ‘ hold it, you’re going to ask me about the rain cos I’m looking at the TV and I can see it’s raining in that part of the country.’ They said, ‘Jay, we’re filming, we want you to roll the bones.’ I said, ‘It wouldn’t work. It worked in Memphis last year and I don’t know how. I’m not a witch doctor, a voodoo maker, I act it like a fool on stage. People love it, it sells, I make money. You’re asking me to do the impossible.’ ‘Roll the bones!’ So I rolled the bones (Jay proceeds to recreate the moment by casting the assorted trinkets across the bed). And that hand was pointing downwards twice out of three throws (the plastic skeletal hand has a small skull in its palm and looks remarkably like something you might find on the end of a key ring in a Christmas cracker). When that hand is up, twice out of three rolls, that’s bad luck. When the hand is down twice out of three rolls, everything is beautiful…. There’s something missing, now where is it, gums and teeth, these are supposed to represent demons and goblins…. These are pebbles on the grave of Dracula, supposedly…. There’s a tooth missing, a tooth that was pulled out of my mouth, big wisdom tooth, damn, it’s gone. It was important to me. Anyhow, to end a long story, it stopped raining in Montana. The crew called me and told me they were ready to wrap, they had managed to film the scene. They sent me money, T-shirts, gifts, cigarette lighters and stuff. Everybody pitched in and I got a letter of thanks and I put that in a frame. I still don’t believe that I had the power, but they said I did. Now, I’m not going to argue with them. If I’ve got a power that I don’t know about, I’m going to develop it!
I was talking to the daughter of the woman who raised me, she’s a Blackfoot Indian, and I told her what I’d done. She said, ‘There are powers between heaven and earth that most people do not understand.’ She said, ‘ Mama put powers on you and you don’t know anything about it. You have power, and you don’t know how to use it. ‘ I said, ‘What about this rain stuff?’ She said, ‘That’s part of it. You don’t have to believe it. We don’t care if you don’t believe it, but you have it.’ I said, ‘How come these powers didn’t save my last three marriages?’ She said, ‘That’s the dog in you. You blew your own marriages. You have powers but if you do wrong, it’s gonna come back to you, so you’d better do good.’ I’ve never done nothing bad.” (Jay promptly has a coughing fit).
How long have you had that bag with you?
JAY HAWKINS – “ Fifty –two, fifty-three years… that and Henry have been with me the longest I’ve had anything in my life.” (Coughing continues).
They must have seen you through thick and thin?
JAY HAWKINS – “They’ve been around the scene…”
Why do you think you’ve survived when many of your contemporaries haven’t?
JAY HAWKINS – “Because I kept adding. I kept trying to improve my act. If I look like some weird witch doctor that walked out of Africa… fine! The people who banned me from using a coffin…. I went out and bought a coffin. The people who said I was making fun of the dead, they are dead. And for some reason I’m still alive and I don’t even look my age. I don’t know what forces I’ve been tampering with. I don’t know if God’s going to punish me and I’m afraid, but right now it enables me to go to the bank and that’s all I worry about.”
Have you ever seen a ghost?
JAY HAWKINS – “ Well, I’m not afraid of the dead, the dead can’t hurt you. It’s the living that you’ve got to worry about. But I do believe, and I’m sincere about this, that before this hotel was put up… there was dead people here. There had to be. There were wars, people died on this ground. I believe there are people in this room but they are in another dimension, so they’re invisible. Somebody is always watching, even if we had the curtain closed and the door locked, there is always an eye. Even if it’s only God.”
Was it the Blackfoot Indians who instilled this belief in you?
JAY HAWKINS – “Well listen…. They rushed it down my throat. They took me out of the orphanage when I was 18 months old. All I can remember is them telling me what to do, how to think. Take charge of yourself, have control, remember with patience you can do anything. It may take 10 years but keep your mind on that one goal and work towards it. So my goal is music. When I go on stage I tell myself I’m an amateur so I’ll give the audience everything I’ve got. I can invent while I’m on stage. I’m so unorthodox that… if I was to fart, they’d think it was part of the act. That’s when I do ‘Constipation Blues’. Who else can sing a song like ‘Bite It’ and make it clean? Now I’m trying to come up with a song about throwing up…. BLAH! And I’ve got to come up with a title – ‘You Make Me Sick’ BLAA! Now I’ve just got to put it to music. Cos I want a record better than ‘I Put A Spell On You’. I’m sick of living in the image of ‘Spell’. I’ve got more records out than ‘I Put A Spell On You’, BUT THEY KEEP GOING BACK TO THAT ONE RECORD! People keep using it in motion pictures… Jim Jarmusch broke that habit and made me an actor.”
You’ve got an incredible back catalogue which ….
JAY HAWKINS: “ I’ve been in so many different styles. I’ve done Country and Western! It shook a lot of people up in Honolulu cos I used a steel guitar! They said, ‘Is that the same Jay Hawkins that came out of the coffin?’ They say I’m crazy but I’ll be back in the bank tomorrow morning. (Suddenly Jay Hawkins’ conversation changes track and he takes great delight in telling me about his new fuse box which he uses to create fire during his act). … Since last year they have stepped up security at the airport so they think I’m carrying a bomb when they see that fuse box. THEY GO CRAZY! ‘What’s that?’ Well I don’t help matters any cos I say, ‘It’s Moses and he’s still alive.’ ‘Get security, we’ve got a live one!’
People think I’m weird, there’s nothing wrong with me…. It goes back to the film Mr. Rock ‘N’ Roll which they banned because the NAACP said I was making fun of black people. I said, ‘You didn’t say that when they put out them Tarzan pictures, King Solomon’s Mines and King Kong steppin’ on ‘em and biting the babies in half. Why are you picking on me? I’m a blues singer.’ I chose to out as a black African blues singer and be different like Boy George and Little Richard would be different. I didn’t steal from nobody; this came out of my stupid head. If I’m smart enough to make it pay off, what are you bitching about? They then said, ’Why are you making fun of the death?’ And so they got onto the National Casket Association. ‘Don’t rent him no more coffins.’ Cos every city I went to I would rent a coffin, sometimes they’d take the body out and throw it under a curtain and rent the coffin to me. I’d use it and bring it back. So, when they said, ‘No, we cannot rent you a coffin’, I said,’ well now you think you’re stopping me?’ The next morning I went out and bought a coffin. Went out and bought a hearse. Painted it zebra striped. Instead of white walled tyres, I painted them zebra striped. After I got enough tickets I got rid of the hearse but I kept the coffin. Now I’ve got two hearses in my garage. Beautiful, one pure white and one pure black and either on Hallowe’en or New Year’s I bring them out and drive around.”
Nice. You seem to have the philosophy of the blues singer Leadbelly; “Act like crazy and take the white folk’s money.” Would you agree?
JAY HAWKINS: “Mmmm. Well, I don’t refer to them as white folks, people are people to me. I have no colour distinction. WHAT RILES ME IS PEOPLE WHO WILL CRITICIZE AND RIDICULE ME BECAUSE OF MY IDEAS AND WHAT I DO ON THE STAGE! I’m not stealing another person’s act. I had Black Sabbath saying I was rippin’ off Creedence Clearwater Revival by singing ‘I Put A Spell On You’ (uproarious laughter). And I told Black Sabbath tell you what you do, I took out 100 dollars and said you match this and any record you find of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ that hasn’t got my name underneath as writer than I will give you another 100 and kiss your ass! They came back and apologised. ‘We didn’t know.’ I said, ‘How could you know? YOU’RE YOUNG, DUMB AND STUPID. I was doing this shit before your daddy knew anything about sexual intercourse!’”