While Hawkins is known primarily as a vocalist, his range of expertise, musical and otherwise, was extensive. He played piano and saxophone; was an adept boxer, winning the Middleweight Champion of Alaska in 1949; and acted in several films, most notably as the hotel desk clerk in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989). Hawkins began his musical career as an accompanist to such jazz legends as Gene Ammons, Arnett Cobb, James Moody and Illinois Jacquet. His vocal aspirations were encouraged by the popular singer Wynonie Harris, and Hawkins recorded for several labels before signing with Columbia's reactivated subsidiary Okeh in 1956. That year he recorded "I Put A Spell On You," and his reputation as a flamboyant, taboo-breaking. one-of-a-kind virtuoso was made. The public brought over a million copies of the single despite undeserved criticism of its purportedly suggestive nature. A number of major performers released cover versions over the years, including Nina Simone and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Hawkins never had another hit of such magnitude, but he put his unmistakable stamp on numerous recordings and public appearances. He cut a macabre and mesmerizing figure, rising out of a coffin, carrying skills, shrunken heads and snakes, his nose on occasion holding a bone. Nothing about him or his repertoire was of the ordinary, and he masterfully held the audience's attention when he received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1998. Despite the fact that any number of flamboyant performers have followed in his path, the world will not enjoy his equal anytime soon.
Photo Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives