It was the only bar on the Bowery I had never had a drink in. It was called Frida’s Disco and it sat on lower 3rd ave in the spot that now stands a club called the Continental. It was a scary looking dive, and in the doorway there was always a drag queen who looked like a thuggish version of one of Wayans brothers (the one who played Homey The Clown on TV) with a head to toe five o’clock shadow and an askew blonde wig. If you got too close to the door the thing that sat in the doorway on a bar stool would call out– “Hey honey, come here and let me suck yo’ cock, it’s just $5”. I would cross the street just to avoid that doorway. Then one day Frida’s was gone, I don’t remember the year but it must have been in the early 80’s, and in it’s place appeared an oddly suburban looking restaurant, a sort of faux- Tony Roma’s type place called Jack The Ribber, all new and clean looking, with a sign in the window that advertised– “Every Wed. Night Live In Person: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins”. I stopped and stared for a few minutes, it was in fact Wed night, and as I pressed my nose to the glass I could see Jay’s greasy conk staring back at me from the other side of the window.
I had met Jay a few months earlier at the old Lone Star Cafe on 5th Ave, and had interviewed him for a rag I was working at called the East Village Eye
. Jay waved at me to come in (there wasn’t even a cover charge), and I was surprised he had remembered me. He told me he got the article that I had sent to his manager’s office, and soon he asked me to join him and his Hawaiian wife Ginnie at their table for a drink. So began a weekly ritual that lasted around six months.
Every Wed. night I’d go to Jack The Ribber and hang out with Jay and his wife, catch his set, shoot the shit. Jay could drink me and any five people I knew under the table, drinking large water glasses full of J&B, one after the other, they seemed to have no physical effect on him. Ten glasses later, he would set down at the piano and deliver his set without ever missing a note on the keyboard, or flubbing a line. He would always be remembered for his immortal hit– I Put A Spell On You
(then experiencing a bit of a revival since it was on the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise
which had just been released). He always sang it, along with the flip side, the rocker Little Demon
. The rest of his set drew from his later records like his incredible rendition of I Love Paris
, Bite It
— a goofy, x-rated take on the Mar-Keys’ Last Night, an over the top, stomach wrenching masterpiece called Constipation Blues
, his version of Fats Domino’s Please Don’t Leave (the arrangement the Fleshtones would soon adopt), my personal favorite– I Hear Voices
with it’s almost Shakespearean line– “I long so much to be/the way I was before I was me”, and sometimes tunes from his first Okeh LP– The Feast Of The Mau Mau
, Yellow Coat
, and Alligator Wine
. He’d shake Henry, the top hatted skull on a stick he’d carry with him onstage, pop and roll his eyes, wag his tongue, shake his shoulders, and you could hear his voice clear out to the middle of Third Ave. For the first few months attendance was sparse, and I got to spend a lot of time talking to Jay and his wife. Ginnie had originally eyed me with suspicion, but when I started bringing a joint or two for her she warmed to me and always seemed happy to see me. The autograph on the top of this page “To James– the man with the best” was a reference to the joints I always brought. When I requested he sing one of his pre- Spell sides– Baptize Me In Wine
, he dedicated it to me, I think it was the first time anyone had ever done that.
He told me stories about Alan Freed, and his manager Tommy “Corky” Vastola, known as “the Gahloot” (the Hesch character on the Sopranos is a composite of Vastola and Morris Levy, watered down into a harmless little Jewish guy, the real duo were terrors). He talked about Tiny Grimes the four string guitar player who gave him his first break, and about wildman Wynonie Harris, one of his heroes. He’d reminisce about playing in afterhour clubs in Cleveland in the 40’s, working for Moe Dalitz who became one of the most important men in Las Vegas, and of being a professional boxer in Alaska, where he was nearly killed in the ring. He had funny way with a story, and a very subtle, very sick sense of humor, often punctuating his stories by rolling his eyes all the way back in his head.
Around that same time Esquerita Milochi aka S.Q. Reeder Jr. (who began his career playing piano behind gospel singing sissy Brother Joe May “The Thunderbolt Of The Midwest”) had surfaced and was playing a regular Monday night gig seven blocks away at Tramps on 16th St, then a hangout for the Westies, a scary gang of west side Irish thug coke heads, who were also the muscle for some wise guys out in Bensohurst. Once I looked up from my drink to see a little runty lookin’, red eyed leprechaun in a dirty army jacket staring at me, it was Mickey Featherstone and his glazed eyes caused me to break out in a cold sweat. I returned my eyes to my drink. The same club would book Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Turner (who I saw play there the night he died, he sang Honey Hush twice in row and didn’t realize he’d just sung it), Johnny Shines & Robert Lockwood Jr., and other greats to play for crowds of a couple of dozen people at most. Upstairs in the office was the real action, I met my child hood hero Wayne Kramer of the MC5 there, both of us hovering over a mirror full of white powder.
Anyway, I had become friendly with Esquerita who took to buying dime bags in the old east village storefronts like the Blue Door, and the Rock, the later being right across the street from my apartment. One Wed. night I took Esquerita with me to see Jay play, SQ had told me they were old friends and he was anxious to catch up with Jay for old times sake, but when I walked into Jack The Ribber with him in tow, I knew something was wrong. Jay stared at me with a cross expression on his face, slightly shaking his head. He pulled me aside— “You know that guy”? Yeah, that’s Esquerita, man, he taught Little Richard how to play rock’n’roll! “I know who he is…..” Jay said, making a funny, grumbling noise that emanated from deep in his diaphragm.
“That man will steal the fillings out of your teeth”. Naw, Jay, he’s cool, I insisted. The night ended with the two of them out on the street in front of the club, Jay with a knife, Esquerita with a broken off bottle, blood was spilled, luckily not mine.
Soon the Wed. nights became less fun, Jay never quite trusted my judgment after that, and while he was never rude, I could tell he knew I was a fool (which I admit I am and will always be). The weird rib joint began filling up with trendoids with ironed hair and goofy clothes who thought they would become the next Cramps by osmosis if they could just get some of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ mojo in them. The scene just wasn’t fun anymore, although things began picking up for Jay which made me happy. He got a shot opening for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden, and he appeared there, emerging from a coffin, a bone in his nose and Henry on a staff in his hand. In 1989 Jarmusch cast him as a hotel clerk in Mystery Train
(which I think is his best movie). Jay stole the show in a scene where he swipes the bellboy’s peach and swallows it in one gulp. Jay was always an under rated comedian, the best poker face since Keaton, and Jarmusch was the only director smart enough to spot his natural acting talents.
Screamin Jay Hawkins would eventually leave New York, first for Hawaii, then to Paris where he lived in tax exile. Jay would tour with the Clash, appear in TV commercials in France, and in the year 2000 he died of an aneurysm, leaving at least 55 illegitimate children. Esquerita would die of pneumonia in a New York hospital in 1986, his immune system destroyed by aids. Mickey Featherstone (who once shot a guy in a 10th Ave bar in the head for not lending him $20) rolled over on his pals in the Westies and went into the Federal Witness Relocation Program. Wayne Kramer lives in Hollywood and still makes music (he’s currently doing the music for the HBO sitcom Eastbound and Down
). And I’m still here, the last fool standing.