Review Summary: Because you're MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNNNNEEEEEEEEEE
The madcap image of Jalacy "Screamin' Jay" Hawkins was not one created of his own volition, nor was it one that he particularly enjoyed having. One boozed-up night at a recording studio in 1956 lent itself to the previously little-known Hawkins tracking what would become his most well-known song, "I Put a Spell on You" - and from that once-in-a-lifetime performance, the "screamer" image was born. Despite Hawkins' already-existent tendencies towards eccentric stage performances - he would often wear outlandish attire during performances, and his style of singing was very emotive to begin with - he resented the idea of having the eccentricity completely define him as a performer, for fear it would lead people to not take him seriously. The fact that Hawkins' image became immersed in racially stereotypical voodoo imagery did not help matters in his eyes.
I say all this because it is important to understand the seriousness behind the schlock-y gimmickry that is often associated with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, in order to further understand just how ahead-of-the-curve he was. At Home with Screamin' Jay Hawkins
, for being as off-the-rails absurd as it is, is also the product of a man who was one of the most skilled vocalists and entertainers of his era. When he is not maniacally bouncing his voice off the walls and tearing his lungs through his rib-cage with his screaming, we get a very clear look at the essence of Hawkins, a classically-trained singer and pianist who pursued a career in opera at one point, before ditching classical music in favor of the blues. In many ways, Hawkins' voice is much like that of Paul Robeson (who Hawkins pays tribute with his rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"): very rich, grit-heavy and powerful, with a distinct, quavering vibrato. This power is essential to the Hawkins sound, because it allows him to push his singing to stratospheric limits that even Little Richard would struggle with.
At Home with Screamin' Jay Hawkins
rarely ever plays it straight, although few songs reach the comical excesses of "I Put a Spell on You", which keeps the album from feeling absurd to the point of being unpleasant. The rendition of "Ol' Man River" is an incredible exception to this, as Hawkins sings the song straight through like any great balladeer would, before launching into a double-time swing feel and half-scatting his way through a repeat of the track's bridge. Beyond even Hawkins' contributions, however, the album itself contains an unusually diverse collection of styles/genres for its era, from the extreme camp of cabaret music to straight-ahead electric blues. Not everything on the record has aged well ("Hong Kong" and "I Love Paris" diddle around with pretty repulsive Asian stereotypes at times), but the sheer ridiculousness of Hawkins' character make the worse parts a bit easier to digest.
For coming into prominence around the time when acts as tame as Elvis were being barred from national TV shows because of their "uncouth" behavior, what Jay Hawkins managed to accomplish on this record was unheard-of. Unfortunately, while Elvis, Little Richard and others were able to break past those barriers and gain national worldwide recognition, Hawkins' music did not receive the same treatment. Much of it has been forgotten, and "I Put a Spell on You" has received the unfortunate fate of being shelved with the likes of "The Purple People Eater" into the record bin of hell known as "novelty music". This is not just insulting, but a sign of Hawkins' worst fears coming true: his eccentricity coming to define him and his worth as a musician. Consider it time to reevaluate Hawkins' impact on the musical landscape and to view his debut record as the classic it is.