The sometimes-murky details behind a rhythm-and-blues legend are transformed by dark magic and even darker comedy into an eccentric mélange of imaginative speculation and cultural criticism.
The artist known for much of his adult life as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1929-2000) is pre-eminent among one-hit wonders for his hyperbolic 1956 R&B classic, “I Put A Spell On You,” whose shrieking and yowling vocal effects were enhanced in live performances by gaudy horror-movie theatrics—e.g. a real coffin from which he would emerge. Because that sui generis blend of novelty tune and blues shout has been both the first and last thing most people think about when thinking about Hawkins, outsized legends about his life have superseded known facts. But that doesn’t bother Binelli, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone best known for his bluesy, impassioned 2012 travelogue of urban decline, Detroit City Is the Place to Be. Binelli uses the mythology Hawkins helped create about himself as a means of getting at the essence of his lasting appeal. He also debunks some myths; notably the oft-repeated—and, in Binelli’s words, “almost certainly untrue”—tale of how Hawkins’ greatest hit was the result of him and his session musicians getting “blind drunk” recording what was supposed to be a straight ballad. Binelli steeps other, more furtive elements of Hawkins’ life story in impressionistic scenes from Jalacy Hawkins’ Ohio upbringing, followed by even more impressionistic vignettes, including speculative reconstructions of dialogue Hawkins had with such myriad figures as guitarist Tiny Grimes; legendary, ill-fated rock DJ Alan Freed; the ghost of Jimmy Gilchrist, Fats Domino’s dead-from-overdose opening act; and Elvis Presley, who (so Hawkins says) pressed him for information about Haitian voodoo. There’s even a what-if reimagining of Presley’s 1957 movie, Jailhouse Rock, with Hawkins in the lead. None of which, in this novel’s loose and baggy form, would work without Binelli’s shrewd takes on pop culture, racial identity, and 20th-century American mores.
This dreamlike album of real and imagined scenes from a complex artist’s memory bank is as flamboyant a display of light and shadow as one of Hawkins’ stage shows.