Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins was one of music’s most interesting characters whose career never realized its full potential or received the recognition it deserved. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929, put up for adoption at the age of 18 months and adopted by Blackfoot Indians; it was these beginnings that he began walking his path which lead to acting, boxing, opera singing and eventually blues and rock music where he became one of the pioneers of what would later become known as “Shock Rock.”
Hawkins was somewhat of an enigma to many he encountered and others found him rough around the edges and perhaps it was for these reasons he at times struggled but one thing is for sure; his contribution to music should not be overlooked.
Long-time Hawkins guitarist Mike Armando realized the importance of carrying on the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins legacy and has formed a tribute to his late stage partner and he is bringing it to a town near you.
“The Resurrection of The Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Band,” he stated proudly. “There are five people in the band; there is The “Real” Shakar Brumfield and he is the vocalist, myself, Mike Armando and I play guitar; I was with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the 70’s, Andrew Golba is the bass player, Michael Fox is our drummer and Tony Michaels is our saxophone player. So, back in the 70’s a good friend of mine worked for MCA Records, he was the music director and he would hire new talent for the record label, listen to it and if they were good he’d bring it to the other higher-ups and suggest they get a recording contract or use a song that they wrote and give it to another famous artist to put out. So, one day, he called me and asked if I’d like to try out for the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins band and I said; what song did he do? He said, “I Put A Spell On You” and he said that the audition would be in Manhattan and I said, OK. He gave me Screamin’ Jay’s phone number and I went there, he liked the way I played and he hired me on the spot. Do you know about the book by Steve Bergsman, “I Put A Spell On You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins?” Everything is in there about that; after that the band formed. Screamin’ Jay never really had a steady band, he used freelance musicians but at this time he had a steady band and we’d rehearse three times a week at his apartment in Manhattan and then once we got our repertoire down his agent started booking tours.”
Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Ah but life with Hawkins was not always simple; well, at least not according to Armando.
“We played The Virginia Theater with The Platters, The Marvelettes and us; Jay blew himself up on stage by accident and I was right next to him. He had flash powder in a box and he would hit it with his foot and it would go off and explode and there would be a flash and smoke. This particular time, he kept hitting it and it wouldn’t go off so, he knelt down and hit it with his hand and it blew up in his face; it singed his forehead, his hair was burnt and he fell on the stage. All of the people thought it was part of the act and as the stagehands came out to get him off the stage and administer first aid; the people were clapping and giving him a standing ovation and as he was being taken from the stage he yelled to me, “Keep on playin’, keep on playin’” and we went into a shuffle blues for about 20-minutes until he finally came back out on stage. They had put stuff on his head and his hair and everybody went wild; it was really quite a show. There was another gig that we did with a group called The Critters; remember them? We were on the same bill as them and this was back in the 70’s; Hawkins always caused a problem when we had to perform with other groups. The Critters had some hits back then and the only hit that Hawkins had was “I Put A Spell On You” which other people were doing like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone and a whole bunch of others and he wanted to change the bill so that we went on last and they would go on first so that we would become the main act which was not the case. He didn’t like that we would be opening for them; a big argument ensued with their manager and the people running the show. I was surprised that they all gave in and changed the format of how the show would begin but that created a big mix-up because people bought tickets; it was a big mess. So, they went on first and then when we went on, we were doing our soundcheck and we couldn’t get any sound out of the PA system, the amps; the engineer thought we blew a fuse but it turns out that someone took all of the tubes out of our amps and the PA system; we think it was The Critters who did it because they wanted to get even. We couldn’t perform, we didn’t get paid; it was a big mess. We toured a lot, all over the United States and East Coast and the shows were great. He would do “Constipation Blues,” he would come out of a coffin and there was a lot of adlibbing in the shows. He was a great performer, one of a kind, there was nobody like him and he always treated his band well. He always paid us well and treated us fairly; he wasn’t a selfish type musician who just put the spotlight on himself. He would give people solos and then say solo again; he wouldn’t hog the stage. He was excellent like that, he was a great performer and a great person; he had some parts of his life where some people thought he was pretty rough and he was a rough guy but he treated his band great.”
Musicians can deal with quirky when they are being treated well and according to Armando, Hawkins was a great boss. He was so good that he’d even go to battle for them; literally.
One day we were practicing in his apartment and there was a guy next door who was a big Beatles fan and he didn’t like the music we were playing and he would bang on the walls. One day we were playing and Hawkins says, “Stop!” You could hear the guy knocking on the door and Hawkins opens the door and the guy said, “I’m tired of hearing this music, it’s loud and I don’t like it” and Hawkins says to him, “If you step one foot in this door I’m gonna hit you” and the guy stepped into the apartment and Hawkins hit him and knocked him to the ground. The police came and he explained to them that the guy tried to come into his apartment and that he was fearing for his life. The guy was about five foot two and Hawkins was six foot four and he was an ex-boxer (laughs). He was a pretty rough guy, had a great voice; he wanted to be an opera singer at one time but he couldn’t make any money doing that; Alan Freed got him to come out of the coffin and that’s what started it all for him.”
So, how did he get the name “Screamin’ Jay?”
“There’s two conflicting stories,” he began with a laugh. “One is that when he was a kid his mother would hit him with a belt and he’d be screaming and the other was that he played at a club in Ohio and he was screaming with the song and some woman yelled out, “Scream baby, scream” and that’s the more credible one that I heard as to how he got that name and it stuck with him.”
One day, Armando said he had a thought; it had occurred to him that there were so many books written about entertainers but none very credible to his knowledge about Hawkins. This spurred him into action; first to contact an author and then second to perhaps “Resurrect” the music.
“I had contacted Steve Bergsman and suggested that he do the book because no one had really put out a book on Hawkins that was credible. He said, “I’ll get back to you, let me think about it” and then one day he calls me and says that he had done a lot of research and that Hawkins was a very interesting guy so, he did the book. He interviewed me and other artists and musicians that dealt with Jay and had played with him from the 50’s until he passed away; his life history, his wives and all of the misconceptions of the 50 kids he had, it’s all in the book. Once the book came out I realized that there are a lot of people who might read the book but haven’t really seen Screamin’ Jay do a live performance. So, I put the band together and we were going really well until the Covid virus came about and all of our shows were cancelled. So, it has been a year since we’ve performed, we’ve been practicing but we are trying to get back to normal now and we have a new booking agent named Fernando who is already looking into bookings for 2022. So, this gig at Randy’s Man Cave is our first one in over a year; we had another but the venue had some structural issues and it was cancelled.”
Armando is an experienced musician who has seen the peaks and some of the ugly valleys of being a performer. Coming of age in the 1960’s and early 70’s was a turbulent time, he and Hawkins hit it off in part because they both came from blues roots and rock backgrounds but for them both; there were some difficult times.
“I was in a blues band back in the 60’s called the New City Blues Band and we had this manager who was insane. He came to my house at ten o’clock at night one time and said he booked us a job at a theater in Brooklyn on Liberty Avenue and that was a rough area back then; it was called The Biltmore Theater. We go there with a full band and a sax player; he wouldn’t put us on stage he had us playing in the lobby while the movie was going which didn’t make sense. So, we’re playing “Hoochie Coochie Man” and all of these people start coming out and we’re thinking, yeah, they like the band; forget it! One guy comes out and says to our sax player Jimmy Pitts who was a big black guy; it was a black audience and he turned to Jimmy and said, “If you play that sax one time, we’re gonna break that sax” and then he turned to our drummer and said, “If you play those drums we are gonna break’em all up” and I said, let’s get out of here. That was the weirdest thing I ever played but with Hawkins, he was a blues man. He was playing a lot of great blues but it didn’t make him much money until he met Alan Freed and was convinced to get into that coffin and then he got into his version of shock rock or whatever you want to call it and things got better but he was playing a lot of great blues before that.”
“There was a lot of prejudice back then, Screamin’ Jay said in an interview that he was playing in Alabama I believe it was and he said that if you were black and had a white band backing you, they would close the curtain and they wouldn’t show the white band because they weren’t allowed to show the white band backing a black guy.”
Sadly for Armando and the band, they parted ways with Hawkins who passed away a bit later; they weren’t on the best of terms but it hasn’t stopped him from wanting to carry on the music.
“He had an aneurysm in France; he died on the operating table, he was 70 years old. Before the band split with him we used to practice three days a week and then suddenly there was no more jobs and we were saying, we have to support ourselves and there is no more work. He promised us that we had Radio City Music Hall, we didn’t believe him and he said, “If you don’t believe me, I’ll call them right now” and there were no speaker phones back then so he took a microphone, called Radio City Music Hall and put it by the phone. He calls and says who is playing on such and such a date; is it Screamin’ Jay Hawkins? She said, “Wait a minute; no we have the Rockettes playing” and he said, “What!? Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is supposed to be playing,” he was trying to hold the band together but it didn’t work out. Then he wanted us to go to France with him but we didn’t have the money to get to France and the band broke up. Then later on he got a call that there was a show at Madison Square Garden opening for The Rolling Stones. James Brown was supposed to open but there was a dispute with the contract and he pulled out. So, they had nobody to open and as it was getting closer to the date they called Screamin’ Jay and we thought he was going to call us back but he was so pissed off that he never called us back and that was the end of that. Jay paid us well for back then, in the 70’s we were making $300 per man every gig and it was going good for a while but nothing lasts forever.”
Yes, nothing is forever and everything is temporary but it seems like the Covid is somewhere in between. The Resurrection of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Band had a scheduled gig on October 24 in Bordentown, NJ at Randy Now’s Man Cave but unfortunately Covid and slow ticket sales due to Covid has forced the postponement of this event and others at The Man Cave for this weekend.
“We played at The man Cave in 2019, we have to move everything around but we make it happen. We were going to do all of the songs we did when I was with him; we’re recreating what it was like when Screamin’ Jay was alive. We’ve been doing this for a while but everything keeps getting cancelled because of Covid; so, we’ve been hanging out just waiting for things to change. We’ve gotten some pretty good reviews and articles about our shows; Tommy Castro is a good friend of mine and he recently gave us a really good plug on WBGO Radio. Tommy is on Alligator Records and he’s a real hustler and that was very nice of him.”
To discover more about The Resurrection of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Band, please visit www.mjajazz.wixsite.com/screamin-jayhawkins .
Another event of note involves The Philadelphia International Film Festival and the rock band Triumph. Banger Films has made a rockumentary about this three piece Canadian power trio and it is premiering on Friday October 22 and then again on Monday October 25 in two separate locations at the festival. Previews and advanced screenings of the hour and 40-minute film reveal a deeper, relaxed, gutsy and funnier side of the band than their legions of faithful fans has ever seen. Bassist Mike Levine will be calling “Danny Coleman’s Rock On Radio” on Sunday October 24 to discuss the Fridy event and the Monday showing as well as give a little insight to the juggernaut that was Triumph. Tune into www.coaradio.com at 7 p.m. EST to hear the complete interview.
That's it for this week! Please continue to support live and original music and until next week....ROCK ON!