I’ve always felt as if I have a personal relationship with the man + musician known in popular culture as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, so I felt a special thrill of excitement when, rounding the corner of the modern fiction section of The Last Bookstore, I spied his visage peeking out from the shelf. “Wow”, I thought, amazed that his image could draw me in and cause me to pick up the book, a rather smallish pink + yellow, newly released hardcover entitled Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, penned by a rather boring-looking writer named Mark Binelli.
Flashback to the 1990’s, when I was a teenager living in the midwest. I had an obsession with a rock band called The Cramps. Now, The Cramps only have a limited number of records (nine studio albums, two live albums, four compilations and 24 singles, to be exact), so I was always on the hunt for something – anything – that looked Crampsy, and that’s how I found Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His look is so iconic: a voodoo devil man from the swamps of rhythm and blues debauchery with his black, wavy pompadour, bone in his nose, flowing cape and his faithful sidekick, a skull on a staff named Henry. He looked cool – no, SUPER cool – a real wild man, and slightly dangerous too. He looked like Lux from The Cramps, a real gone Elvis from Hell and a kindred spirit for sure.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits is a novel (or so it states on the dust jacket) perhaps a historical novel? Maybe. I’m actually kind of confused on how to categorize this book that seems like a rock biography – but is not really. The timeline is mostly linear as we follow Jay through his happy childhood in Ohio (where he studies classical piano, guitar and opera), his years serving in World War 2, his brief career as boxer, his road life as a touring performer (supposedly fathering between 57-75 extramarital offspring along the way), and finally his death in France at the ripe age of 70.
There is a lot of mythology that remains surrounding the life of Hawkins, and some of the best bits of Binelli’s book include humorous accounts of some of these legends. Hawkins’ relationship with his stage coffin (or, as he refers to it, his awaiting chariot) is amusing for sure. The story of the origin of Screamin’ Jay’s skull Henry is pretty great, and of course the publicized and posthumous family reunion of Jay’s illegitimate children left me with a new understanding of Hawkins’ legacy and of his life as showman and as a character lost in time but immortalized in pop culture by those who understand and appreciate the strange and unusual.