Arts: Here comes the crazy man

Screamin' Jay Hawkins, alive and well and holed up in a chic Paris suburb. Now that's voodoo

Phillip Sweeney
Saturday 02 January 1999 00:02 GMT

In the western suburbs of Paris, by the Bois de Bolougne, the Seine contains a thin strip of expensive real estate, the Ile de la Jatte. Famously painted by Seurat last century, the island today harbours big white blocks of flats, the offices of Yves Saint Laurent, and a riverside supper club: the Maxwell Cafe, formerly known as the Quai du Blues. Through the open stage door comes the sound of a mellifluous but irritated Ohio baritone. "That ain't mah shit. That's Vacher's shit. Where's mah shit?" And an answering voice, Parisian and perplexed: "Er, je ne sais pas, mais voici le papier a cul musique."

Inside, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, in bronze silk suit and snakeskin boots, is rooting around in a crated toilet bowl, watched by a workman who holds out placatingly a roll of toilet paper printed with staves of music.

We go up to the bar to sit down. Jay lights a Pall Mall ("a bad habit I picked up during the Korean war") and explains. The toilet is his prop for the song "Constipation Blues". "After a long, agonisin', almost 15 minutes of that song I reach in and show the audience I did manage to produce somethin" - but the Cafe's proprietor, Gerard Vacher, has replaced the usual correct plastic piece of excrement with a French joke one, which will not do.

A lapse of standards is something Jay is not about to tolerate, as his French musicians have learnt. "I still get 'em back in the daytime and work 'em hard and they say, `Oh do we have to?' And I says yeah - you play `Tea for Two', rollerskatin' music, dyin' music, Dixieland jazz... the people gotta be happy with it."

Evidently the people are happy, if the continual full houses of the Paris residency are anything to go by. To much of the world, Screamin' Jay Hawkins is a name from the golden age of rock and roll, author of the glorious single "I Put a Spell On You" in 1956 and subsequently forgotten. The more culturally alert will be aware of Hawkins, now aged almost 70, as a cult-film cameo actor for the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, Chester Himes and Harvey Keitel. For the inhabitants of Levallois-Perret, a genteel and nondescript suburb across the river from the Ile de la Jatte, Hawkins has been a neighbour for the last six years, buying his Pall Malls at the tabac, and popping into the Cafe Le Limousin for a soft drink and a workout for his half-dozen words of French.

Three or four times a month, Jay drives over to the Maxwell Cafe, where twice a night, a hundred punters sit down to piece de boeuf, sauce roquefort in the red plush interior. On the small stage Screamin' Jay regales them with 90 minutes of howling, snarling, windbreaking, scatological, scat- singing blues vaudeville of his classics, and a host of newly written numbers such as "Pot Luck" ("crocodile bladders and gum... French fried baboon lips... bring on the knees and make all the gals say please... pot luck has struck!"). Meanwhile the toilet makes way for coffins, skulls, cannibal outfits, smoke bombs and much more. "I find I can make people react more quickly if I walk on with a skull and snakes... I see smiles on their faces and they're clappin' and sayin' here come the crazy man and I know it's gonna be alright."

Canniness runs like a seam through Hawkins' conversation, which is a chat-show hosts' dream, unstoppable, indiscreet, packed with anecdote and, against all the odds, apparently based on truth.

Where did he get the idea for the cannibal nose-bone? In the Philippines, where he lived in the 1960s working US Army nightclubs, marrying his second wife and exercising anthropological curiosity. "You remember the Moro tribe? In World War Two motion pictures the Japanese hate to fall into the hands of the Moros cos they got these big banshee knives and they dice the Japanese up like little pieces o' carrot. Well, they says to me Jay Hawkins, you strange, you sure you ain't a witch doctor? I says thank you very much, that's a compliment. They says no, we mean you're wicked and evil... you come on stage with skelikons hanging from your ears and fire from your hands. I says this is normal, you gotta have something different to get people payin' to come into a nightclub..."

The Filipino interlude occurs midway through Jalacy Hawkins' life, which began "black, naked and ugly" and one of eight kids, "all bastards", in 1929 in Cleveland. At age one and a half Jay was fostered with a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, rich ones with houses in the city, who "raised me real good and taught me the value of a dollar". Hawkins joined the Army aged 14, fought in the Pacific, took up boxing and finished the 1940s Middleweight Champion of Alaska.

In the early 1950s he decided to use his dramatic voice and newly acquired piano and saxophone skills. His break came via the patronage of a New York blues singer named Wynonie Harris - "the most stinkin' crooked criminal black man in the whole of show business. He shoulda married Dinah Washington, the only woman like him" - who got Hawkins a residence in the Baby Grand Club in Harlem. In late 1956 Hawkins recorded for the second time his ballad "I Put a Spell On You", a "pretty version" of which had flopped earlier. This time the studio was full of pork chops, greens and booze, more like a party, and Jay first applied his demented embellishment of vocal effects from jungle and lavatory. The result was banned by many radio stations but still sold a million copies. "Spell" assured both Jay's position in pop music history and a steady royalties income, which he still uses to import for himself Campbells soup and razors, and passes on in hand-outs to any of the "25 to 75" children he's sired who still speak to him.

"Spell" also endowed Hawkins with an internationally marketable name. "I joined all the screen guilds and performing-rights societies and stuff like that to git in with the right crowd in different countries." Four decades of roaming ensued. In 1985 he began visits to the Lionel Hampton room at the Meridien Hotel in Paris, and thus joined the ranks of American blues and gospel artists better known in France than at home. In 1993, accompanied by eight trunks of his finest clothes, he moved permanently to Paris; three years later he was living in Levallois, married to his second French wife and the father of a new baby. Improbably, petit bourgeois French life suits him perfectly. "Marlon Brando found his paradise on a South Sea island - I found mine in Levallois-Per-ray".

Last year, Hawkins made a new record, Last Call, for a French independent. A very good one, though he currently denies it, complaining about the addition of organ to the final edit and the company's insistence he include a version of "I Shot the Sheriff". Actually, the track is great fun, transforming the self-righteous Rasta narrator of the Marley version into a rip-snorting psychopath that the author of Silence of the Lambs would have killed, as it were, to create.

Busy falling out, and back in, with collaborators, Jay can't plan too far ahead. There's a new Jim Jarmusch movie about his life, soon to be released, and an album of operatic arias planned. The Maxwell Cafe, says Jay, asked him to extend his contract but he's keeping his options open. One thing's for sure, he wants to die on stage, like the pianist Eubie Blake. Maybe you'll be the first person in history to die on the toilet on stage, I suggest. "Woooh!" says Screamin' Jay. "That'd be beautiful!"

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