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Awesome Men Throughout History: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

It’s often said that the foundations of history are built upon the backs of great men. Presidents. Captains of industry. Military heroes. Presidents again. The accepted canon of great men is both well-known and frustratingly short.

What’s missing, in my view, are the awesome men. The men who didn’t improve the lot of mankind so much as make it more interesting. These are the inventors, the artists, the entertainers, the daredevils, the men whose accomplishments helped mark the boundaries between men we’re obligated to respect and men we actually care about.

In this column, I will profile these awesome men of history and explain the circumstances that made them so awesome. I will also say the word “awesome” a lot, so you’d better get used to that now.

Right. Now then, the first man in our Awesome Men of History roll call is legendary blues musician:

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Hawkins, born Jalacy Hawkins in 1929, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, so one of his first accomplishments was to not kill himself out of existential despair. Instead, he learned to play the guitar and became a musician after serving in World War II.

His big break, as it were, came with his now-legendary drunken recording of “I Put A Spell On You” in 1956. Despite being so hammered that he blacked out and couldn’t even remember going into the studio, Hawkins’ rendition of the blues standard sold over a million copies and, like everything else in the 1950s, was banned for “overt sexuality.”

Hawkins earned further infamy with his live performances. After accepting $300 from disc jockey Alan Freed to emerge from a coffin onstage, Hawkins’ stage persona became increasingly macabre, including voodoo stage props, skulls, snakes, and fake blood. He was basically Alice Cooper twenty years before Alice Cooper, and during a time when black performers were arrested for getting too friendly with the white halves of segregated audiences, let alone the kind of stuff Hawkins was doing.

Can you imagine the steel sack that sort of thing required? Dude must have been out of his mind.

And speaking of sacks, Hawkins’ other claim to fame was the number of illegitimate children he left in his wake – upwards of 75 and probably close to 100, courtesy of numerous women across the country. I’m not condoning the man’s personal life, you understand, but if any of those PUA dorks scored even half that amount of times, I’d be impressed.

But Hawkins’ chief accomplishment was not siring a larger filial army than Genghis Khan. No, Screamin’ Jay should be remembered for pioneering shock rock showmanship, because there probably wouldn’t be a David Bowie or an Alice Cooper or a Marilyn Manson without him opening that door. He put a spell on us, all right, even if we didn’t always know it.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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