When I was 13, I bought a beat-up copy of Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies album at a yard sale, and was amazed that anyone would part with such a treasure for $1. Cooper’s “School’s Out” still fills me with teenage rebellion despite the fact that I’m nearly 40 years beyond teenaged. I’m such a fan of the three principal players in Alice Cooper’s career, songwriter/producer Bob Ezrin, Alice himself, and his manager Shep Gordon, that I’d be gob-smacked if I were to meet any one of them.
Their approach was brilliantly simple—they stirred in anything they knew parents would hate. So I excitedly sat down to watch the documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper, and I relished every boa constrictor, beheading, and electrocution that it contained—all standard elements of Alice Cooper’s theatrical stage show.
I was aghast that all three of the principals fail to give any credit to the most important person to the success of Alice Cooper; Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In the interest of fairness, I also watched VH-1’s Behind The Music on Alice Cooper… but, again, no mention of Screamin’ Jay. Even AllMusic.com’s front page on Cooper lists his influences as The Doors (which is ridiculous) and Frank Zappa (which is valid) and omits Screamin’ Jay entirely. At the risk of being sued by Marc Maron; WTF??
I re-watched a Screamin’ Jay documentary, I Put A Spell On Me, wondering if Cooper and Hawkins had ever crossed paths. There was no mention of them meeting, and I found myself wondering why Alice never offered Screamin’ Jay an opening slot on one of Cooper’s wildly successful tours as The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen have done with their influences.
Bo Diddley sums up Hawkins best in I Put A Spell On Me: “He was comical and scary… a lot of people can’t do that.” “Forget Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was Abbott and Costello AND Dracula!”
Screamin’ Jay’s career peaked in 1956 with his self-penned ode to stalking “I Put A Spell On You,” which has been covered by The Animals, Manfred Mann, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Brian Ferry, Nina Simone, Marilyn Manson, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, David Gilmour, Bette Midler, and Van Morrison. Although the song failed to chart for Hawkins, it was a hit for others, and anyone who records more than a handful of albums seems to eventually get around to covering it. It’s a testament to the song’s power that, even though it could easily lend itself to parody, ironic renditions are rare.
It was originally intended as a blues ballad, but after a frustrating and fruitless session, Jay and the musicians got drunk and recorded a raucous version–that Jay didn’t even remember recording–full of grunts, groans and tortured screams. DJ/concert promoter Alan Freed convinced the newly named Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to take the stage by being carried out in a coffin, which became part of Hawkin’s act, along with voodoo attire, a bone through his nose, and a cigarette smoking “skull on a stick” named Henry. Years before the civil rights movement, Screamin’ Jay was dressing like a cannibal and scaring the hell out of white people, and they were paying him handsomely to do so.
Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch cast Jay alongside fellow musicians John Lurie and Tom Waits in his cult-classic Down By Law, and called Hawkins “a national treasure.” “I Put A Spell On You” was included on the soundtrack of Stranger Than Paradise, and Jarmusch realized that the fee he paid went to the people who owned the licensing. Hawkins was living in a trailer in NJ, without a phone at the time, and Jarmusch tracked him down and saw to it that Hawkins received an equal amount, eventually casting Jay in Down By Law.
“I Put A Spell On You” was voted one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Songs Of All Time” and included in The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock & Roll.” Hawkins’ recording of the song startled parents and was subsequently banned, but eventually gained widespread acceptance. It’s now featured in Walt Disney World’s annual Halloween Fireworks display.
I Put A Spell On Me drives home how Jay inspired a legion of rockers beyond Cooper, including The Fleshtones’ Peter Zaremba, and The Fuzztones’ Rudi Protrudi, who backed Screamin’ Jay on an EP in ’84. Protrudi’s wears his influences on his fur-lined sleeve, going as far as cutting two albums of Link Wray songs. Rudi, Blaine Capatch, and I attended a Link Wray concert together in L.A. around 2003, which is one of my fondest memories.
Zaremba points out that the 50’s were thought of as conservative and straight, yet that’s when Screamin’ Jay was popular. He goes on to say that it’s inconceivable that Hawkins didn’t experience a resurgence when Alice Cooper was at his peak, possibly because he was too real; “It was part of him.”
It may have been by design. It’s unlikely that Jay’s contribution was an oversight in two documentaries. There seems to be a wholesale attempt to erase Jay’s influence; we’re not talking Bobby “Boris” Pickett here. On VH-1’s Behind The Music, Alice says; “Nobody had ever seen anything like this…” Nobody except everybody who’s seen Screamin’ Jay, that is.
All of that aside, I enjoyed Super Duper Alice Cooper, which does a great job outlining the early years of the band, and how they changed their name from The Spiders to The Nazz, and finally settled on calling the group Alice Cooper. It was only later that the lead singer, Vincent Furnier, adopted the band’s name as his own. At first, they were glam rockers who fell into the orbit and under the influence of Frank Zappa and The G.T.O’s after moving from Arizona to California.
Super Duper tells of the band’s appearance at a Detroit rock concert where the line-up was The MC5, Iggy Pop and then a little-known Alice Cooper. Iggy says: “There seemed to be a contest in the band; who could have the longest, most feminine hair—and I think the drummer won.” The drummer, Neal Smith, claims the band got their name from an Ouija Board, and adds that the original Alice Cooper had been burned as a witch. Alice himself takes credit for coming up with the name in VH-1’s Behind The Music.
Regardless of who came up with it, it was one of the best decisions in rock history. Their second best decision was choosing to record at Nimbus 9 Studios because The Guess Who had made hit records there. It was there that Bob Ezrin (who went on to produce Lou Reed, KISS, and Pink Floyd) produced “I’m Eighteen” for the band and really started the guillotined head rolling.
During Alice Cooper’s appearance at The Toronto Rock Festival, the band went on right before John Lennon and accidentally killed a chicken in front of 70,000 people, thereby entering rock & roll folklore. Someone in the crew tossed a chicken onstage, and Alice figured that, since they had wings, chickens could fly, so he threw it into the audience, and it came back in tiny pieces. Their record label’s owner, Frank Zappa, called them to ask if it were true that Alice had killed a chicken onstage, and told them to say that it was.
Alice eventually split with his original band and hired two members of Lou Reed’s touring band to back him, leading to even greater success. They broke new ground as one of the first hard rock bands to score a Top 20 hit with a ballad; “Only Women Bleed.” As is often the case with rock stars, Alice spiraled into alcoholism, wound up in a psychiatric treatment center, and struggled to regain his relevance once he’d replaced his obsession with Budweiser with an obsession with playing golf. Cooper relates how he had to draw a distinct line between the macabre character he played onstage and the preacher’s son he was in real life. And through it all Cooper remained married to the same woman.
Alice’s longtime manager, Shep Gordon was also the subject of a recent documentary by Mike Myers Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon which, along with Super Duper, would make a killer double feature!