I love Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and feel that he was never really given a fair shake. Indeed, it’s been tricky for me to even find out which album his only “hit” song was on, much less find it on CD at a reasonable price. Time is running out, and I feel that, in order to talk once more about this unique character in music, I’ll just have to go with the one album I actually have, an unassuming live album called Live And Crazy:
This album is pretty amazing, don’t get me wrong, and I kind of can’t believe that I haven’t written about it yet. Now, by “amazing” I don’t mean to say that “you have to hear this”, in fact you’d probably be better off without unless you know what you’re getting into. Still, this is my chance to tell you what you’d be getting into so you can make this decision for yourself.
Now, the story of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins versus someone like, say, Johnny Cash, is not really a heroic one. The man found a unique spin on performing music (while drunk) and had one really big hit when Rock N’ Roll was being born, and spent the rest of his days finding steady success as a live act wherein he basically played a mentally unstable mix between a black dracula and a voodoo priest, often with his friend Henry in tow:
Indeed, no matter what might have been seen visually on that stage in France wherein this album was recorded, there was definitely a lot of insanity and screaming going on. The album did well to capture that; the only issue I have with the album is its inconsistency. While we get all kinds of great Screamin’ Jay tunes, that only makes up about half the album; the other half is Jay butchering the classics, which would be pretty nice, but they’re padded out with so many instrumental solos, usually switching between the guitar and the saxophone, that one might forget what song we’re even on.
The song selection, as far as the covers go, isn’t exactly stellar. We start with a version of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” that is more like “bellowing” rather than “screamin”, and half way through, there’s a cover of “Ain’t That A Shame” that is equally dull. By the time one gets to “Little Bitty Pretty One”, the lyrics for which are simply “Hmmmmmmm”, and “Tutti Frutti” at the end of the album, one may be wondering if Screamin’ Jay Hawkins only ever performed just to troll people.
Still, that’s the negative side of this album. The positive side is that all the essential Hawkins’ tracks are here, and indeed hearing a particular three of them is kind of interesting.
Of course, “I Put A Spell On You” is here in all its screaming glory. In fact, the song completely cuts out right before the coda so that Jay can have a makeshift screaming match with the audience before ending the song. He really sings it like it was the song that made him famous, and in fact one may try to see the ways in which he was trying to replicate perhaps not so much the song’s success, but just straight up rip himself off twice, but the answers remain unclear.
Basically, early in the set, we get a song that I really love called “The Whammy”. It’s in the same key as “I Put A Spell On You”, and in fact, only the fact that the awesome piano count-down isn’t present keeps one from mistaking it for that particular hit song. The song is brilliant though, as it is about falling in love with a bald-headed voodoo woman, and suffering the consequences (the titular “Whammy”) for pissing her off. This punishment is basically something that, were one to picture it, probably involves Screamin’ Jay being picked up off the ground by voodoo magic, tossed around the room, forced to walk sideways across the wall, screaming in terror as he goes. The song is kind of amazing like that, and is one that I feel should have had more attention.
Then we get a song a little later that is introduced as being “close to ‘The Whammy’, close to ‘I Put A Spell On You’, but is better”. Of course, it’s absolutely not true, but “Hong Kong” is an interesting song nonetheless. Basically, the lyrics are fairly simple, it’s about waiting for your baby in Hong Kong, but inexplicably, between every verse, there’s a tourettes-style outburst of stuff like “BING BONG BING BONG WAP!” and various other stereotypical mockery of asian languages. The song is hilarious, seriously, because that’s all it is. I really have to take my hat off to Screamin’ Jay for this. The best part is, this song is again in the same B flat minor key that the other two songs are in, and doesn’t even bother to change the chord progression or rhythm. It’s just a ripoff of “I Put A Spell On You” that is also making fun of asian people, why didn’t this guy get into some kind of hall of fame?
Another song that isn’t anything like the others is another of my favorite of Screamin’ Jay’s “hits”, famously badly covered by Jeff Buckley, called “Alligator Wine“. The song is basically about a magic potion made out of some crazy voodoo ingredients:
Take the blood out of an alligator
Take the left eye out of a fish
Take the skin off of a frog
And mix it all up in a dish
Add a cup of greasy swamp water
And then count from one to nine
Spit over your left shoulder
And you got alligator wine
I’ve never heard anything but live versions of this song, and sure enough, toward the end, he just starts naming off all kinds of jungle delicacies such as “broiled orangutan hips” and “hippopotamus toes” and various shapes of alligator. One of my favorite lines is “Henry drinks it all the time, that’s why Henry is dying, from drinking that alligator wine”.
If you can make it through the rather bland covers with a million solos, this is a pretty excellent album, especially with Screamin’ Jay’s amazing stage banter and improvisation, which really pulls the tiny audience into his show and makes it sound like it was quite the experience. Hopefully I’ll get to talk about this man once again soon, but until then, I’ve got some sleeping to do.