Friday, February 06, 2009

Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Frenzy

One of the true madmen of 50’s r’n’r is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. This cat would make his entrance from a coffin, dressed in a cape, holding a skull, setting off flash paper and screamin’ (literally) that he “put a spell on you”! This man was designed to scare the most stalwart parent! Funnily enough, he started his career as more of a lounge singer and only after a drunken session produced his twisted, howling and yelping rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” and became a hit (one story goes that Hawkins didn’t even know that this had been recorded, much less released, before it broke through on the radio) did he create his famous persona. He still tried to do some more “straight” songs, but always fell back to his madness.

I had a chance to see him live once in the 80’s but unfortunately he just had a pick up band who wasn’t familiar with his songs and simply played blues licks behind him rather than the actual song riffs. I understand that he had more successful gigs after this with more sympathetic bands.

This compilation truly is some of his best and opens with the classic “Spell”. If you’ve never heard this, it is almost impossible to explain the grunts, groans, moans and psychotic laughter that permeates this! Great, pounding backing, as well, with an excellent sax solo!

A more upbeat, rockabilly-ish tune with horns (ironically!) is “Little Demon” which lets Jay show off his unique vocal talents again as he imitates the demon in the title. This has some pumpin’ piano, rockin’ guitar and a wild, dancin’ beat. Another near-perfect tune is “Alligator Wine”. Sultry and slow, but incredibly intense, the guitar lick is simple but sublime as Hawkins provides a variety of jungle sounds and walks you through the ingredients needed to produce Alligator Wine. This mixes some of the best blues tunes with new riffs and Jay’s originality to create something new and wonderful.

Another guitar-centric, bluesy tune, “Frenzy”, is up-tempo without being frantic and allows Hawkins to explore yet more new sounds! I think that he tried to be serious with the lounge-y “I Love Paris”, right down to the white-boy, almost-barber-shop harmonies at the beginning but it wasn’t long before he started in with extremely un-PC imitations of other cultures, which is pretty hilarious! More of this theme is explored in “Hong Kong”, which is basically a reworking of the music of “Spell” with some wacky ranting about Asia. He’s not quite as extreme in the semi-bluesy “Person to Person” but he can’t help but acting up a little here, as well.

Similar to “Alligator Wine” mixed with a dose of “Spell”, “There’s Something Wrong With You” lists numerous unlikely items that the woman deals with as Jay tries to rid himself of her. Of course, it was common practice to re-write hit songs in the hopes that the familiarity will create another smash, but as close as the backings can be, each of the tunes are given a different treatment and are equally great!

As odd as the title is, “Orange Colored Sky” is a fairly straight-forward standard, as is “Temptation”, a “Jezebel”-like number. Jay is a little overly dramatic at times, but overall these could fit in with other bluesy/loungey interpreters. Back to his looney side for “Yellow Coat” in which he rants over a “No Money Down” inspired backing, sounding like a psychotic Chuck Berry!

He reverts to his more serious side for “If You Are But a Dream” and, unfortunately, this is a little dull, even for what it is. He is wild as ever in “You Made Me Love You”, and though the backing isn’t quite so exciting, he keeps it entertaining. For the finale, he gives a straight reading with his powerful baritone on “Deep Purple”.

This is definitely the best compilation I have seen on this genius and it gives you a good overview of his styles. Absolutely one of the unsung (or under-sung) heroes of the original r’n’r era.