Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a blues-rock singer/pianist best known for the
classic "I Put a Spell on You" and for shows in which he was carried onstage in a flaming coffin, died Saturday in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. He was 70.
The musician underwent surgery earlier in the week to treat an aneurysm at the Ambroise Pave clinic and subsequently suffered multiple organ failure, according to the Associated Press.
Hawkins was often quoted as saying, "When I go, I don't want to be buried. I've been in too many damn coffins already!"
He was born Jalacy Hawkins on July 18, 1929, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was orphaned as an infant and raised by a foster family. Inspired by the legendary baritone Paul Robeson, Hawkins took piano lessons as a child and began singing and playing in bars as a teenager.
In 1943, Hawkins won a Golden Gloves boxing championship, and six years later he was the middleweight champion of Alaska.
In 1952 he sang and played piano in guitarist Tiny Grimes' band. Hawkins also recorded with Grimes and with the Leroy Kirkland Band. In 1954 he toured the U.S. with Fats Domino.
Hawkins went solo the following year, putting "Screamin' " before his name because of his wild mix of R&B and rock and his uninhibited performances. While appearing in Alan Freed's package tours, Hawkins took the famed DJ's advice and was carried onstage in a flaming coffin.
That signature act and such other performance trademarks as wearing a black cape and wielding a rubber snake inspired later theatrical rock acts, including Alice Cooper, Kiss, David Bowie and others.
Hawkins was, perhaps, best known as the composer of the 1956 rock classic, "I Put a Spell on You," which has been covered by such artists as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone, the Animals, and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
Hawkins originally wrote the song as a ballad he said, to win back a former love. But following a drunken spree, he recorded it with screams, yells and groans that were later edited out by radio stations. Hawkins believed some programmers banned the song because they thought it had cannibalistic connotations.
His other records included the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-written "Alligator Wine" (1958) and "Feast of the Mau Mau" (1967).
Hawkins lived and worked in Hawaii in the early '60s, but toured mostly mainland U.S. clubs in the latter half of the decade, where he also gained attention by performing alongside a flaming skull named Henry.
In the '70s he was based in New York and often performed at Harlem's Apollo Theater. During this period, he took a hiatus from performing after being burned by one of his flaming props. Hawkins also toured Europe with a revue called the Rhythm and Blues Roots of Rock and Roll.
In 1980 Hawkins opened for the Rolling Stones at New York's Madison Square Garden and later re-recorded "I Put a Spell on You" with the group's guitarist, Keith Richards.
Hawkins appeared in music movies over the years, including 1957's "Mister Rock 'n' Roll" and "American Hot Wax," a 1978 biopic about Freed. He also appeared as himself in 1991's "A Rage in Harlem."
Hawkins' first LP was At Home with Screamin' Jay Hawkins (1957). One of his most notorious was What That Is (1969), which featured the cannibalistic "Mau Mau" and "Constipation Blues," with appropriately offensive sound effects.
After appearing in the erotic film "Two Moon Junction" (1988) with actress Sherilyn Fenn, he wrote an untitled country blues song about her for his Black Music for White People (1991). Another version of the track also appeared on his LP Stone Crazy (1993).
Last year came Portrait of a Maniac and Live at the Olympia
Paris. His final LP of new material was At Last (1998), featuring "Shoulda' Woulda' Coulda' " and a cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff."
Wade Wright, owner of San Francisco music store Jack's Record Cellar, met Hawkins during one of the singer's appearances at his store.
"He was very friendly and very knowledgeable about music," Wright said. "[Our store] sold a lot of 'I Put a Spell on You.' "