Screamin' Jay Hawkins—
I Hear Voices/Just Don't Care

Released 1962 on Enrica
The Seth Man, September 2003ce
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins chased his blues just as frantic as they chased him.

In most photos you’ll usually find him with at least one of his many visual horror props: whether clutching his skull-on-a-stick sidekick Henry (resplendent with lit cigarette in between his grinning jaws), donning a wide satin cape, wearing a white clip-on moustache doubling as a cannibal nose-bone and/or emerging up and out of a coffin onstage. All of these images combined with Hawkins’ wildly unique voice single-handedly pioneered a vision of death and resurrection during a time in the fifties when rock’n’roll was just completing its gestation period inside the Memphis/Delta womb as hillbilly’n’blues’ true runaway son. But Screamin’ Jay’s music isn’t quite as easily defined as his horrorshow image. Although it was comprised of elements of jump blues, R&B, opera and everything else he listened to while growing up, it was none of these but rock’n’roll instead as soon as he first opened his mouth to unleash THAT VOICE: that voice that projected unspeakably HUGE as if calling for release and redemption from the deepest pit of entrapment as it bellowed out life stories of wrath, pain and magic beyond ordinary experiences. So much so that even when Screamin’ Jay himself first heard the recording of his best-known moment “I Put A Spell On You” he truly did not believe it was he who was responsible for what he heard coming out from that platter spinning at 78 revolutions per minute and subsequently took it off and burned it.

At worst, people can’t see through all his onstage trappings and therefore place him in the league of novelty although at his best Screamin’ Jay’s voice was anything but: it was unearthly, tortured and seemed to emanate forth from a man both beset AND freeing himself from his demons all at once with the feeling and emotion of a man double his age. And like Sun Ra and many other accomplished artists before him, Screamin’ Jay reinvented his onstage persona with antics outwardly distant from who he really was as he simultaneously dredged up and channeled all his deepest, darkest fears and lay them to rest at the foot of the performing stage or recording studio. So behind the scowling, grinning, and threatening bogeyman façade lurked a voice far deeper than his antics and the most hypnotic of them all was the demented death-waltz that ran on the top side of his 1962 single: “I Hear Voices.” It is a completely possessed freak-out executed within the confines of a 6 foot deep tomb of an echo chamber and lyrically is more out there than anything else he whooped up (and he made an entire career out of whooping it up) accompanied by an overlay by screams, whispers and high-pitched chattering of graveyard teeth. Dig:


I hear voices...!
Whoo-cifuss! Asussusus...
I hear the foot tracks...!
Ch-ch-ch-ch...wooo...EEE...Arrrgghh...Whoa, whoa...”

All this is demonstrated loudly over constrained organ tones that reappear and vanish behind an ever-descending pendulum rhythm comprised of guitar, upright bass and snare that sounds more like madly finessed piano chords played with a slow, menacing rocking chair rhythm too swimmingly cool to hold the bounds of Screamin’ Jay’s own ever-slipping hold on sanity:


You don’t just come up with a terrifying lyric like that and belt it out as frantically panic-stricken as it is here without meaning it: It is sheer, unbridled madness as it gets an entire lifetime’s worth of ya-ya’s out into one song with sheer psychic soul-wrestling alone. Over and over he hears those voices of conscience-racking hobgoblins surrounding him and pushing him over the edge, causing him to caterwaul his pants off about them once more, joined by more of those freakazoid smaller voices tootling and taunting all around his bellowing vocals.

The flipside “Just Don’t Care” is located in both tempo and stroll rhythm somewhere between “Kansas City” and “Ain’t That Loving You, Baby” but is far more sedate an affair in comparison with its stellar A-side because the honking sax doesn’t go crazy and let loose like it could and neither does Screamin’ Jay because upbeat R&B songs about heartbreak fell far too short of the mark with providing him with a large enough canvas for his primeval genius to run riot all over. And his was a genius large and wide enough to terrify audiences of his early glory days as well as provide a key influence for many latter day vocalists who would invoke their own private demons onstage in order to wrestle them all down to the ground in full view and win hands down.