With bones up his nose, a vampire cape, and a cigarette-smoking toy skull named "Henry," Screamin' Jay Hawkins put the cool in ghoul.
Now, the legendary blues man and womanizer is being celebrated posthumously in a way only he could have appreciated: His illegitimate children — and he claimed to have more than 50 of them — are getting together to throw him a party.
Call it the Screamin' Jay Hawkins Illegitimate Family Reunion. At least 12 of his offspring are coming to Los Angeles — making pilgrimages from as far away as Paris, Cleveland and Honolulu — to celebrate the bizarre showman Feb. 12 at L.A.'s House of Blues.
Love Children Galore
Hawkins, best known for the hit "I Put a Spell on You," died in Paris last February of multiple organ failure — a condition presumably not related to supporting his prodigious extended family. His was a storied life of stage antics and skirt chasing. One girlfriend even stabbed him in the back when she found he was cheating on her.
But that episode occurred some 40 years ago, and the Cleveland native lived to the ripe old age of 70, singing, dancing and dressing like a ghoul, right up to the very end.
"He led a fast life, a hard life — and he said without exaggerating that he had 57 children," said his friend Maral Nigolian, a banker and film producer who is working on the singer's life story.
"He wasn't boasting," she said. "He was just sad that he didn't get to know many of the people who should have been more present in his life."
Hawkins left behind a 31-year-old French widow — his sixth wife — and thousands of admirers, who packed European venues for his concerts up until his final years, when he was residing in Paris.
Nigolian recalls meeting Hawkins after hearing "I Put a Spell on You" in the Jim Jarmusch movie Stranger Than Paradise. For days, they sat in his living room as the old man chain-smoked, gazed at the TV and rued the fact that he was not close to his offspring.
He had three children with his first wife, and was certain that he had fathered more than 50 other children with girlfriends and groupies, some of whom he had met. At some point, he estimated that there might be 75 Hawkins love children out there.
An old man's boasting might not have a lot to do with reality. But in the weeks after Hawkins' death, Nigolian started the Jayskids.com Web site, and now believes she has identified 33 of the so-called Hawkins 57.
"It wasn't like an FBI investigation — no DNA tests," Nigolian says. "But I ask for documents. The locations, dates of births and stories check out. There is, also, a family resemblance."
Hawkins, who had a tradition of beginning shows by jumping out of a flaming coffin, might rightfully be dubbed the granddaddy of shock rock. Indeed, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss and Marilyn Manson have pulled rubber snakes and fake tarantulas out of Hawkins' bag of voodoo tricks.
With a dad like that, the kids might not be your typical suburbanites. But you never can tell.
"Two of the kids are in bands, one in Washington, the other in Calgary, and they have acts that would make their papa proud," says Nigolian.
But for many of the supposed children, the event at the Hard Rock Café is the closest they've come to a stage.
"It's a little scary meeting a whole new family for the first time. But I'm really excited about it. I can't wait," says Melissa Ahuna, a 31-year-old hula dancer, hotel store manager and nurse.
Hawkins had a high school yearbook photo of Ahuna in his Paris home at the time of his death. But father and daughter lost contact in 1993.
"He had been a presence in my life," Ahuna says. "He'd call every few weeks when I was in high school. And he was proud of me. We always got along well."
Ahuna is part Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese and black. "When this reunion comes off, it will be the first chance I've had to get in touch with my black roots," she says.
She had a younger brother, another Hawkins kid, who was put up for adoption, and she hopes this reunion will help them find each other.
Of his three legitimate children, Hawkins had the closest relationship with Irene, now a puppeteer in Cleveland. "He saw a lot of his work in hers," Nigolian says.
Biographers don't even bother counting Hawkins' string of lovers, the most notorious of whom, Pat Newborn, stabbed him in the back — literally — when she caught him two-timing her.
But apparently his suffering was in the name of true love. The other woman in that relationship — Virginia — became his wife in 1961, and the union lasted 20 years. In fact, it was in a Hawaiian hospital that Hawkins wrote one of his most outlandish tunes, "Constipation Blues," 4 1/2 minutes of bathroom hell set to music, compete with Hawkins moaning and groaning, albeit not much like Muddy Waters wailing for a lost love.
No More Coffins
Ironically, Hawkins — so famous for his coffin stage entrance that a society of morticians derided him — insisted on cremation.
"He figured he'd spent enough time in a coffin," Nigolian says. "He wanted his ashes cast upon the water."
Truth is, Hawkins never really liked coffins all that much. Famed New York DJ Alan Freed had to pay him $2,000 in 1956 to lure him into his first box. But it was an instant hit, not to mention a career-defining moment. … And it sure seemed to have gone over big with the chicks.
Buck Wolf is a producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is a weekly feature. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.