Like a lot of people, I first heard Screamin' Jay Hawkins in a Jim Jarmusch movie, Stranger Than Paradise, his "Put A Spell on You" serving as an eerie punctuation to the equally offbeat events of the film. I bought a few of his albums and became a fan. Ten years ago, living in Los Angeles and fancying myself a television producer, I wrangled Jay's home phone number out of an elderly entertainment manager and called to see if I could pay him a visit. Although my excuse was to talk about getting him on television, it was the idea of paying him a visit that really enticed me. I asked if I could bring him anything--he suggested butter-pecan ice cream--and I invited my friend Bruce, a jingle writer, to tag along.
We drove up into the foothills northeast of Los Angeles into a nondescript sprawl of houses and found Jay standing outside his front door talking into a cordless phone. His living room, done up in chrome and glass furnishings popular in the 1970s, was utterly suburban, save for the coffin standing in the corner. It was his prop, of course. He would rise out of it to begin his voodoo hijinks on stage, but at the moment, it was serving as a kind of bookshelf. He had a marketing plan: that everyone would have their own casket-shelf unit, a liquor cabinet perhaps, which would serve as furniture until the owner's death, when he or she would be buried in it.
We kicked some ideas around, ate ice cream and left with a VHS demo tape of his appearance on a local cable TV show. My ideas didn't go much further than Hawkins' living room. I remember watching a network executive's eyes glaze over when I suggested having Jay sing "I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas" on an upcoming holiday special.
When Hawkins' death in Paris at age 70 was announced last weekend, my phone rang. It was Bruce, who still toils in Lala land. "Going to the funeral?" he inquired.
"Why?" I answered. "We've already seen the coffin."