Gothic Icon: Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Hawkins' legacy doesn't get talked about much these days, but if you're a fan of macabre music and spooky spectacle, you probably have him to thank. Jalacy "Screamin' Jay" Hawkins is considered one of the earliest pioneers of shock rock, and his theatricality and macabre aesthetic would later strongly influence goth. An African-American man born in 1929, Jay was adopted and raised by members of the Blackfoot Indian tribe. He is said to have been a musical prodigy, teaching himself to read music and play piano at a young age. He began his musical career as a fairly conventional rhythm & blues singer and pianist, performing with artists such as Tiny Grimes and Fats Domino.
But everything changed for Hawkins when he recorded his 1956 song "I Put a Spell on You." The track was wild and passionate, with guttural screams and groans that shocked the sensibilities of 1950s America. The song was widely criticized and banned from many radio stations. But this sense of taboo only increased its popularity. Hawkins soon developed a dramatic stage persona to match the sensational reputation of the song. Performances often involved Hawkins rising out of a coffin, wearing an elaborate costume with a flowing cape, and dancing around with macabre props, including his infamous skull on a stick. (The skull's name was Henry, and he was often seen smoking a cigarette.) The performances also played into stereotypes around voodoo and African spiritual traditions, blurring the line between subversive and exploitative.
Though these performances catapulted Hawkins to fame, he often resented only being known for his "screamin'" and stage antics, instead of being respected as a serious music artist. Hawkins went on to record many more songs, some solemn blues ballads and some more humorous tunes like "Constipation Blues," though nothing else surpassed the popularity of his first breakout number. Hawkins continued to sing and perform for nearly half a century more, traveling around the world and even touring with Nick Cave in the 1990s. He died in France in the year 2000. "I Put a Spell On You" has been recognized by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll, and it has been covered by artists ranging from Nick Cave and Marilyn Manson to Bette Midler in the popular Halloween film Hocus Pocus.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins represents the theatrical side of goth—where the costumes, the props, and the décor are nearly inseparable from the music. His legacy also shows that goth borrows from more than one musical tradition, and that its aesthetic has been influenced by multiple different cultures. The stereotypical image of a goth as white and pale-skinned has given rise to the misconception both within and outside of the goth scene that Black people cannot be goth. In reality Black artists were foundational to the subculture's music and aesthetic, and Black goths continue to be a valued part of our community.
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