By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
When Screamin' Jay Hawkins performed onstage, he'd emerge from a coffin, toss around fake tarantulas and rubber snakes, and wear a Dracula cape and a bone clipped to his nose. Mind you, he was flaunting such bizarre antics in the 1950s. Audiences, as you'd expect, often exited his shows bewildered.
As kooky as Hawkins was in concert, though, nothing was as odd as his personal life. When he died in Paris at 70 this past February after an aneurysm, he left with a dying wish. He wanted all of his children to meet. But here's the problem: Hawkins fathered (no joke) 57 kids. And oddly, none of that impressive brood attended his funeral.
A reunion of Hawkins's offspring was originally scheduled this month at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, but coordinating difficulties pushed back that date indefinitely. Still, the scheduling problems haven't stopped a group of the half brothers and sisters from planning a Thanksgiving dinner in Jersey.
"I thought he was great. He was this eccentric, crazy man and I was getting a father late in life. I just thought, 'Why not?' "
"We believe he had at least 57 children, but it's probably more," says Maral Nigolian, his biographer. "We have a videotape with him saying he had 75."
Nigolian, an investment banker by day, has put the biography on hold to become the official Hawkins uniter. Putting together the reunion is relatively easy, though, compared to tracking down the children and making sure they really are his kids. She says she's found 33 so far, typically confirming their identities with birth certificates.
When she can't obtain certificates with Hawkins's name, she uses verbal and anecdotal evidence. It's not scientific, but neither was Hawkins.
Shortly after Hawkins's death, Nigolian created a Web sitewww.jayskids.comwhich asks potential Hawkins children to submit information about themselves. She has received approximately 2500 submissions.
"About half of them are obvious jokes, Nigolian says. "How I look at it is that Screamin' Jay had a big sense of humor, so it's OK."
And some of the kids sound just as offbeat as he was. The three oldest identifiedLee Ann, Irene, and Jalacy Jr.are 50, 48, and 47 respectively, and live in the Cleveland area. Lee Ann is a mail carrier who sings cabaret in her off-time. Irene drives an ambulance during the graveyard shift and works days as a puppeteer. Jalacy spent 30 years in the army.
"He used to tease me and tell me I was the female Screamin' Jay," Irene says. "He told me, 'I got other kids, but none are more like me than you.' Once he sent me an album with him on the back holding a shotgun. I used the picture to make a puppet of him."
Sporting Screamin' Jay's own cape and wedding band and other jewels, Irene's life-size puppet of her dad is made of pillows, drapes, and old clothes. Irene has used it in puppet shows in Cleveland and on local TV.
She has other puppets, too, including one called Danny Boy, which smokes cigars and cigarettes. "I gave him a windpipe," she says. "I attached a bicycle horn to the chest, and it blows smoke. My father loved that one. He said he only heard of two puppeteers, Charlie somebody and another guy who was dead, and he never saw any puppets walk and talk."
Maral Nigolian was drawn to Hawkins in the same way many of his fans were. She heard his most famous song, "I Put a Spell on You" from 1956, and became enthralled with his odd ways. The song was written as a ballad, but after a night of boozing, Hawkins added screams, yells, and groans. While the tune was strangely appealing to some, several radio stations banned it because, they said, it sounded cannibalistic.
He had a nutty, demented persona. He often burned himself onstage with exploding fuse boxes. While his backup musicians changed frequently, he had one mainstay: a cigarette-smoking, flaming skull named Henry.
Hawkins made his biggest mark in New York, shocking the city's club scene. After a stint in the army, he arrived in 1952, and recorded at Atlantic and Gotham Records. In May 1953, he snagged his first solo gig at Small's Paradise in Harlem. He developed most of his shtick there, and insisted on an eccentric schedule in which he performed periodic stints between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m. each night.
Throughout the '50s, Hawkins spent most of his time in Harlem and Philadelphia. But the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, in December 1956, was where Alan Freed convinced him, by paying him $2000, to start his show by rising out of a coffin. Hawkins received such an overwhelming response that he kept the stunt in his act until he died.
Hawkins, whose full first name was Jalacy, never sold a lot of records ("I Put a Spell on You" didn't even go Top 40), but his stage show won him a place in the history books. In more recent years, he moved into film and had acting parts in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train in 1989 and Bill Duke's Rage in Harlem in 1991; Jarmusch had already used "I Put a Spell on You" throughout his 1984 Stranger Than Paradise. Hawkins has also been recognized as a precursor of the horror-metal of Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, and Marilyn Manson.