Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ Out-of-print 1990s Recordings Get a Reissue (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

Several of the songs feature a female voice in the mix, engaging in a sort of vocal sparring with Jay. What’s the story on that?

He would bring his wife into the studio. And It was hysterical when those two started communicating! She’s in the background. She would go out there and “help” Jay play piano, but she had no concept of the piano. I mean, absolutely nothing! But she would stand next to him and show him how to play, and he would take it seriously. He would thank her for the help. It was an interesting relationship in some ways, they were on the same level. Jay was a little off-center, and so was she. It was all quite entertaining for the band.

One of the songs on this set has a recording of her getting some balloons out of the trash. It’s hysterical; really funny. And that’s the kind of thing that went on the whole time.

This would have been Jay’s sixth marriage, right?

Right. Jay had told me, “You’re not gonna believe this: I got married.” And I asked, “How old is she?” because I knew he was into younger girls. He said, “Well, I think she’s 25.” She told me she was 17. She was a girl he had met in Japan, a groupie who knew every musician that ever came into Tokyo; I think her name was Nyoko. They stayed together until he died in 2000. I wasn’t there in France when all this went down, but from what I understand from different people, she definitely hung around until then. I don’t know what happened to her; she just was gone. He died, and she disappeared.

On original release in the ’90s, how many copies of each of those three albums were pressed?

Maybe 20,000, 25,000 … somewhere in there. It wasn’t much more than that.

In addition to their U.S. release on CD by Bizarre/Planet, the first two albums were released on vinyl in the UK, and on CD there as well as Australia and Japan. Were you involved in overseas licensing for those releases?

No. Evan Cohen [son of Bizarre founder and former Frank Zappa manager Herb Cohen] did that. He was the attorney for the whole thing.

Jay Hawkins must have had at least a cult following in those countries if they were able to get foreign licensing deals.

Yeah, he did. He had a bigger following in Europe than he did in the United States. When he would play in Europe, he still played good sized clubs. They were not the little 50-seater venues; he was playing in front of 500, 600 people a show.

During his time on Bizarre, Screamin’ Jay struck up a friendship with Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, didn’t he?

Yeah. He was really enamored with Larry. Fischer would call me every day, every single day. He’d ask me questions like, “Bob, do you think Frank’s mad at me?” And I would tell him, “Larry, Frank’s dead.” And he’d say, “I know, but is he mad at me because he’s dead and I’m alive?” And then he’d hang the phone up. Every day would be one question, and he was serious. But when he and Jay got together, the conversations were amazing. I wish we could’ve just recorded those things, put some music behind them and turned them into the spoken-word jazz thing. The two of them were on a whole other level, but they communicated.

Through the three albums that you did with Hawkins, did you get the sense that he took the making of those albums seriously?

He was very serious about it. He wanted his records to do something [commercially].

I’ve read that Jay sometimes expressed frustration that he developed the persona that he had, and he sometimes wished he could’ve been taken more seriously as an artist. Did you get a sense of that from him?

Yeah. He really wanted to be taken more seriously. But how do you do that when you’ve got a bone in your nose? When you’re up there doing songs about farting, it’s a little tough. But in Jay’s world, the songs he was doing were the equivalent to “Imagine.” He and the Beatles were on the same level as far as he was concerned.

I had long been under the impression that Bizarre Records ceased operations by the end of ‘72, shortly after the release of the Mothers’ The Grand Wazoo. Can you give me a little bit of a chronology of Bizarre’s activity from that point forward?

I don’t remember the exact dates, but I can tell you what happened. First there were the Bizarre Zappa days [1968-1972]. I had known Herb Cohen for years, and at some point, I left to go do photography and he kind of did his management thing. And then at some point, we got back together again and talked. We were talking about the old days, and we decided, “Let’s keep Bizarre going. Let’s sign a couple acts.” Jay was one of them. We found some acts who weren’t right for Bizarre, who really needed a major label. Tom Waits, for example: he needed a different kind of label; not Bizarre. More than anything else, we wanted to keep Bizarre going because it was fun. We had a great time doing this, and putting it together, and dealing with the different musicians. And we wanted to keep it going. We just changed the name to Bizarre/Planet.

In his liner notes for Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids? Chris Morris writes that Jay’s association with Bizarre ended when he moved to France. Before Hawkins left, had there been any talk about making another album?

Yeah, we were definitely talking to him about doing another album. I had talked to Jay on the phone at some point about putting material together, and he said he had boxes of material. So I said, “Okay. Well, let’s get together,” and I never heard from him after that.