Mercury Records signed me in 1969 thanks to Doug Sahm, who introduced me to studios during the years I worked and traveled with him.
Another act Mercury signed was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who was semi retired and owned a little club where he had lived in Hawaii for years.
Mercury assigned me to a sort of A&R assignment which consisted of picking up the artist at the San Francisco airport, deliver him to his lodgings as well as shop for and see to his comforts. Next I was instructed to put a performing back up group together for gigs he was booked to perform. After rehearsing and playing five or six gigs he was being sent to LA to record as he was assigned to a Los Angeles producer.
So on the appointed day and time my wife and I are waiting at the gate for his arrival. I had inquired as to how would I could identify him and was told not to worry about it; just go pick him up and get him settled. Droves of passengers wrapped in Hawaiian flowered accessories disembark from the plane but no one resembling a screaming, raving artist such as a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
After patiently watching the ground crew empty the baggage bins, here comes this…this…screaming, raving artist dressed in a dark green Chinese silk suit that displayed shiny reflections when the material moved. At least size fourteen white loafers, huge sunglasses, a large bu fount hair style and a mammoth bone around his neck. So I walk up to meet him and introduce myself as being from the label and asked, “Are you Scream?” He looked me over, pulled down those huge shades and said, “Yeah.” So he answered to my nickname and throughout my experience with him that was his name.
At baggage claim I had to get two carts to carry all his luggage not to mention that Mercury was flying in his coffin that was wired and used to bring him on stage at the beginning of every gig. More about that later.
As soon as we get on 101 to San Francisco, Scream tells me he needs to see the Creedences. He said he loved those white boys and he has to meet them. They recorded his famous “I Put A Spell On You.” He says he gets a check every six months. So here is my next assignment. Locate Creedence Clear Water’s management if they are in Berkeley and arrange for Scream to meet with them.
Next he needed to go to a Fun&Magic shop to buy some flash powder for the use of the 1950’s pyrotechnics in his act. The same powder used by magicians and slight of hand specialists. Now Scream required a special type of spinet piano that he would wire for each concert and run an AC cord out to a mult box that powered an igniter upon which he would carefully pour a pre prescribed amount of the flash powder. This apparatus was powered by a switch attached to the piano so that when he hit the switch to the igniter a sizable cloud of white smoke would mask his stage exit at the end of the concert. The hard part was the coffin. As I mentioned previously, Mercury paid to have his coffin shipped to and from the States and Hawaii.
When it arrived in San Francisco, a road crew was hired to cart the coffin to the gigs. The problem was that the coffin would be waiting at the gig but no one to carry it on stage. At the beginning of each concert Scream would climb into his coffin with his sculls and vodoo items and once the lid was closed he had to be carried out to center stage. It took seven to eight people to carry that loaded coffin out while we vamped an introduction at which time the coffin lid would pop up and Scream would slowly raise up into the lights and start the first song while climbing out of the coffin.
The very first concert was at Frenchies in Hayward. It was a very large club with booze, food and name artists albeit they were chosen from past hit successes. The club held around six hundred and had a large stage with velvet curtains, lights and a great sound system. We were booked there for Friday and Saturday and Scream was moved to the motel next to the club. He loved the group put together that included guitar, bass, drums and two horns with Scream on piano. The very first night our band was vamping the intro while Scream was being carried out in his coffin. He climbed out and finished the intro song and then stopped and just stared at the audience. Now Scream owned a little club in Hawaii where he would appear from time to time. He sometimes put short stand up routines into his act and considered himself to be a fair comic. So as he stands in the lights and quiet of the audience, he pops a little routine on the crowd which is comprised of young hippie types. His story was that he went to a party last night and the party was so hot that when he took a young lady home she took her panties off and threw them against the wall…..and they stuck….cricket, cricket, dead quiet. He turned away from the microphone and said, “What’s the matter with these MFs?” Still not a sound so he counts off the next song.
We played a number of gigs with him and the last night was a return to Frenchies and the following morning he was leaving to fly down to LA to record and then go back home to Hawaii. He said he hated the “mainland” and could not wait to get back to the islands. So he was quite chipper this last night and went about prepping his coffin and checking the piano wiring to the mult box. Next came the flash powder to be measured and poured over the igniter. But this time he kept pouring the powder until there was a mound of white powder completely covering the box with an electric wire running back to the switch on the piano. Satisfied that all was well he went to the dressing room to relax.
Showtime. Curtains open, lights up with the coffin being hauled into the spotlight and The lid opens with Scream in all his garb doing his Hawaiian voodoo routine. Tonight he wants to open with “Constipation Blues.” Strange dude…….He had a huge, strong voice of opera quality and used but a small part of it to be Screaming Jay Hawkins.
The last song of his show was his own “I Put A Spell On You.” On the ending he makes a final scream and hits the switch on the piano which sets off the igniter and Kaboom………the mound of white flash powder covering the mult box with a wire running out it erupted into huge flash and smoke that poured into the audience. The gigantic flash blew off one side of the velvet curtain, Jance Garfat (the base player for early Mother Earth and later I introduced him to Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show) had his hair and beard singed as well as two other members of the group. Scream was covered in a white
mist consisting of singed hair and white powder blotches. The audience was running out the side door into the parking lot and after a frantic police and fire unit rolled up having been told there was a fire call.
The joint was smokey and dead quiet. Scream leans up against the piano and looks at the emptiness, pulls down his shades and utters the one word that he first answered me with………Yeah……..