Saturday, September 09, 2000

Siblings discover an off kinship

This is one family group that screams BIG

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Colette Howard had never seen her daddy, didn't know anything about the man, until she was 10 years old.

        She came home from school one day, and her mother insisted she watch a TV talk and variety show. Among the guests was a singer who began his act by popping out of a coffin, sporting a bone through his nose.

[photo] Colette Howard doesn't like the idea of having as many as 74 siblings, but she's still proud of her father, blues-rock singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        “This is your father,” her mother said.

        Mrs. Howard, who is now 47, remembers staring at the screen, amazed. “I was like, no, that's not my daddy. I couldn't believe this show he put on. He was really wild.”

        Then she peered closer at the performer. “Wow,” she said. “I guess this might be real.”

        The man on TV was Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a blues-rock singer who had made a name for himself in the '50s with bizarre stage antics that included serenading a skull on a stick. He recorded his signature hit, “I Put a Spell on You,” in 1956.

        Now Mr. Hawkins, who died in February at age 70, is in the news again. Not for his musical or onstage prowess, but because of his claim that he fathered dozens of children all over the globe. Estimates range from 57 to more than 100.

        Whatever the number, Maral Nigolian is trying to round up as many as possible for a get-together Nov. 3 at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. (Screamin' Jay, however, has not been inducted.)

        “I'm finding these kids everywhere,” she says. Including Price Hill, where Colette Howard lives.
[photo] Screamin' Jay Hawkins
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Meeting her father

        Ms. Nigolian's involvement began about four years ago, when she wrote to Mr. Hawkins, asking to write his biography. He said no. But they began exchanging phone calls, became friends, and he eventually invited her to his Paris home.

        Over the next few years, she made several trips to France, tape-recording Mr. Hawkins as he talked about his colorful career and personal life, which included six marriages.

        Jalacy Hawkins — Screamin' Jay's real name — was born on a bus passing through Cleveland, was left at an orphanage and then was adopted by a family of Blackfoot Indians. In his youth he took piano lessons and aspired to be an opera singer. He boxed his way to a Golden Gloves title and served in the military.

        In the early '50s, he toured with the likes of Fats Domino. Then he went solo, and began carving his niche as a flamboyant performer. He apparently did not expend all his energy onstage.

        “He said he knew he had kids all over the world,” Ms. Nigolian says by phone from her Seattle home.

        He met some of his children, and formed relationships with them. Others he knew about, but had never seen (including Colette Howard). When he tallied them for Ms. Nigolian, he arrived at a figure of 57.

        Mrs. Howard, for one, is skeptical. “I do believe there may be a large number,” she says, “but I don't think there's 57.”

        Screamin' Jay himself later upped his estimate, saying there could be 75 or more.

        “He was very proud of the kids,” Ms. Nigolian says. “He would never say, "Too bad I had that many kids,' or anything negative about the kids.”

        He did, however, regret not spending time with many of them, Ms. Nigolian says.

        “I think that's why he took the time to tell me all the things he told me. He wanted people to learn from his mistakes.”

        During one conversation, Ms. Nigolian says, “He said it would be great to have all these kids under one roof, to find out who they are, what they're doing, and what they're like. He looked up at me and said, "Why don't you do it, Maral?' ”

        When Mr. Hawkins died Feb. 12, shortly after surgery to treat an aneurysm, Ms. Nigolian attended his funeral in Paris.

        “None of his kids were there. Not a single one,” she says. “I felt really upset, very depressed. I came back and said, "That's it, we're gonna find the kids.' ”

She found a family

        On March 4, she launched a Web site, It asks: Are you one of Jay's kids?

        Colette Howard has known the answer since age 10.

        She's now married, has five children and 11 grandchildren, and is a technician for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Her husband, Harold, jokingly calls her Little Screamin' Demon, a reference to her father's nickname.

        Her mother, Mildred Walker, was a dancer in Cleveland who met Mr. Hawkins when they performed in the same show. They had an affair in Canada. By the time she learned she was pregnant three months later, Mr. Hawkins was on the road again, and she was unable to contact him.

        Such was Screamin' Jay's modus operandi.

        Often, however, he would make contact with an old flame on his next swing through a town. Indeed, Mildred Walker saw him again when Colette was 2 months old. Mr. Hawkins wanted them to come with him. By then, though, Mildred was engaged to another man, so she turned the singer down.

        Mrs. Howard wonders if “I Put a Spell on You,” which Mr. Hawkins wrote to win back a former love, is about her mother. Mildred Walker, who died in 1984, seemed to harbor anger toward Mr. Hawkins for a long time, Mrs. Howard says.

        Mrs. Howard has felt anger, too, but it has mostly subsided.

        “He contributed to the music industry, and I'm truly proud of him. His other habits, what can I say? It's something I have to accept. No matter what he did, he was still my daddy.”

        She has lived in Cincinnati since she was 4. Her best chance of meeting her father was in 1991, when he was here for a cameo role in the movie A Rage in Harlem. She went to see him, but he'd departed a day earlier.

        She won't miss the chance to meet her half-sisters and half-brothers at the upcoming Cleveland gathering.

        Through the Web site, Ms. Nigolian believes she's found 33 of Screamin's Jay's children in such far-ranging places as Hawaii, Japan, England and New York.

DNA will be telling

        In some cases, including Mrs. Howard's, hard proof of a Screamin' Jay connection — such as a birth certificate — is lacking, but anecdotal evidence is strong.

        Ms. Nigolian says she'll give the names to the attorney handling Mr. Hawkin's estate. At some point, DNA testing likely will be used to confirm Mr. Hawkin's children.

        That's fine with Mrs. Howard, who says she welcomes that kind of closure. Meanwhile, she's already met a few of her half-sisters.

        In March, she traveled to Cleveland to see Irene Hawkins. In early August, she and Irene were in Chicago with Deborah Roe of Atlantic City and LeeAnn Hawkins of Cleveland.

        The women talked about their families and shared photos. They went to a music store and bought their father's CDs. They watched a video of Screamin' Jay concert footage.

        “It's the weirdest feeling,” Mrs. Howard says. “You're angry that there are so many (siblings), but you're glad to be with them. You're glad they are a part of you.

        “Meeting these other sisters has given me a part of him, a part I really never had.”

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