Rock and roll has always been about shtick, some more well-defined and eccentric than others, but ultimately all in service of the showmanship of it all. And while the majority stuck with the requisite attitude and posturing, there existed some on the fringes who employed an almost Vaudevillian approach to their act, creating a character larger – and more often than not, stranger – than anyone found in real life. This approach more often than not resulted in an artist foregoing any sort of marketable commercial success in favor of a decidedly niche or cult approach. Perhaps no other artist better exemplifies this approach than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, an artist whose ghoulish persona and general freakiness have long outlived his scant musical contributions within the pantheon of pop cultural weirdoes.
Best known for his iconic 1956 hit “I Put a Spell on You”, Hawkins’ act was so far out that, from note one, he never stood a chance of any sort of greater commercial success beyond that of mere novelty. And yet he somehow managed to maintain some semblance of a career for nearly half a century thereafter, albeit one built around derivations of his initial brush with success (just how many times did he rework “I Put a Spell on You” over the years?) But the persona he created for himself was unique and out-there enough to be able to sustain an interest of cult proportions that saw him recording right up to his death in 2000.
A decade prior to that, however, Hawkins made a series of recordings for the recently revitalized Bizarre Records imprint started by Frank Zappa in the late 1960s to capture performances by artists very much in the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins vein of outsider appeal. Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids?: The Complete Bizarre Sessions 1990-1994 brings together all three albums he recorded for the label plus an assortment of previously unreleased tracks. It’s an awful lot of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to begin with and from a period during which he’d largely faded from the public conscience, the occasional resurgence of “I Put a Spell on You” notwithstanding.
Predictably, these 40-odd tracks feature a series of bizarre lyrics, unhinged performances, and lowbrow humor. “Amy Fisher is my fantasy girl / I’d love to give her a necklace of pearls,” he sings on the woefully dated “Amy Fisher Part 1” – oh, and don’t worry, it’s something of a thematic trilogy that finds Hawkins going from thinly veiled innuendo to straight on dick jokes, sophomoric STD jokes, bestiality and a series of increasingly weak attempts at gross-out humor. Given the label’s history with such eccentrics as “Wild Man” Fischer, its little surprise that, when looking to relaunch, they’d look to someone like Hawkins who went on to release three albums between 1990 and 1994: Black Music for White People (1991), Stone Crazy (1993) and Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On (1994).
Each has been out of print for years and largely for good reason as there’s not much to recommend beyond Hawkins’ well-established persona. The music itself is largely based around slick, lifeless blues arrangements atop which Hawkins’ spouts just about anything that comes to mind. Because of this, there’s an unhinged, improvisatory feel to the album that makes it alternately thrilling and unbelievably annoying as the words come fast and furious only to be followed by a series of nonsense syllables and blown raspberries. Credit must be given to the game backing players who, particularly on tracks like “Who’s Been Talkin’,” a genuinely stellar blues number, manage to provide the unstable Hawkins with a rock-solid base upon which to spout his studied eccentricities.
If you’re already enamored of Hawkins, Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids? will be well worth checking out as it features the singular artist in his waning years screaming and wailing as in his prime and having a blast in the process. It’s just that, while he was clearly enjoying himself throughout, it becomes increasingly difficult as a listener to do so given the one-note performance shtick he maintains throughout. An interesting curio for those interested in outsider artists like Fischer or Wesley Willis, those looking for ferociously primal R&B will be better served checking out his early recordings as well as those of his contemporaries. By the time these recordings were made, it had all been done before – and done better.