This edition of Medialoper’s occasional podcast features an interview with the legendary blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Jay passed away in February of 2000, but I was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with him back in October of 1987.
When I think back to that day, over twenty years ago, a few moments are indelibly etched in my memory. I remember standing in Jay’s kitchen, staring at the coffin propped up beside his refrigerator, and thinking “that’s Screamin’ Jay’s coffin!”.
Jay made quite a name for himself jumping out of that coffin and scaring the hell out of young, middle-class, white kids back in the mid-50’s when the whole Rock-and-Roll thing was just getting started.
As I was to find out, the coffin in Jay’s kitchen wasn’t THE coffin. Instead, it was one of many. For a guy like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, one coffin just won’t do. Jay had nearly a half dozen coffins squirreled away around the country, waiting to be deployed on a moments notice. Which is strange, considering that Jay claimed to have given up using the coffin as part of his act nearly 30 years prior to our meeting.
As it turns out, Screamin’ Jay was always willing to jump out of a coffin provided the price was right.
And that’s the other thing that stands out in my mind about Jay. While he might have been crazy — completely insane, even — he was also a surprisingly savvy businessman. He managed his own affairs, booked his own tours, and generally ran Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Inc. on his own — if for no other reason because he couldn’t trust anyone else to perform up to his standards.
This podcast contains excerpts from several hours of tape. Many of the sections I’ve cut out feature Jay talking at length about various business dealings, foreign and domestic.
We had a lengthy discussion about his ongoing problems with various Australian concert promoters. At one point Jay pulled out a cassette recorder and started playing recordings of his negotiations with a promoter. Jay went into great detail describing the many ways the promoter had breached their contract – a contract Jay wrote himself.
Yet another Australian concert promoter had the nerve to interrupt one of Jay’s sound checks because it apparently wasn’t theatrical enough.
Jay, who’d been focused on teaching the band how to play his songs, dropped everything, gave the promoter one of his trademark evil glares, and seethed, “I didn’t fly half way around the world for some young punk to tell me how to be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins”.
This was the same promoter who had the bright idea of scheduling Jay to open a series of shows for Nick Cave. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins opening for Nick Cave?! What on earth was that man thinking?
Jay took it all in stride, and put on a typically high energy show that had the audience begging for more. When Nick Cave finally took the stage, the crowd was still chanting “Screamin’ Jay, all the way!”
When it finally became apparent that Screamin’ Jay wasn’t coming back, they began chanting “Nick Cave, dickhead!”
Jay looked at me, completely deadpan, and said “apparently that’s some kind of insult in Australia.”
Business man, blues legend, and raving lunatic. Screamin’ Jay was all of those things and more. I feel fortunate to have spent an afternoon with him. This podcast features the highlights of our conversation.