I Put a Spell On You

TRACK: #184

I Put a Spell On You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Here’s a Halloween staple the blog has managed to avoid for, oh I don’t know, 5 years or so. Which is odd, considering it’s an original member of the very first Shindig CD from 2002.

Perhaps Rock ‘N Roll’s first Shock Rocker, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins used to be just plain, old fashioned Blues singer Jay Hawkins. In fact, I Put a Spell On You was originally written and recorded as a love song. It was producer Arnold Maxin at Colombia Records who can take the initial credit for creeping things up, deciding the song needed a darker tone. He proceeded to get everyone shit hammered drunk during the session and Hawkins has stated he has no memory of even recording that 1956 version. Man, that’s a little bizarre. Is some more music industry warlocking afoot?

Famous Cleveland DJ Alan Freed can probably be blamed for the rest, offering Jay $300 dollars to emerge from a coffin on stage. Jay didn’t like the idea, reportedly saying “No black dude gets in a coffin alive…they don’t expect to get out!” But alive he went, and out he came just fine, with all the voodoo accoutre ma that came to define his on-stage persona. Jay Hawkins was now officially Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the rest was history.

Or was it?

Despite being edited by Colombia Records, many stations banned I Put a Spell On You for what was perceived at the time as overt sexuality. This was 1956 after all. And despite ultimately selling over a million copies, the record failed to break onto the billboard charts. The song itself would be a bigger hit for just about every other singer that covered it than it was for Hawkins himself, with white artists making the charts on it’s back only 10 years later. This was 1956 after all.

When coupled with friction Jay found with the NAACP regarding his “racially stereotypical” appearance,  one can understand and appreciate Hawkins satirical album “Black Music for White People,” which should probably be in the running for one of the greatest album titles of all time. Though many found it to be the opposite, it could be argued that Jay’s reticence to conform to an acceptably “white” appearance was itself in fact transgressive and confrontational to the white audiences that reveled in his performances. Stereotyping and the NAACP be damned, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wasn’t gonna whitewash his act for anyone.

Still, Jay harbored bitterness toward the fact that these schlocky gimmicks were what ultimately brought him notoriety, and often blamed them for why people wouldn’t take him seriously as a vocalist. He would re-record this track on several occasions over his long career, each time shifting the tempo and either dialing back or amping up his vocals. But, it is the 1956 version (honestly, not even the most outrageous and oft-heard version) that we include here on the playlist.

However Hawkins felt about his fame, or whether or not he received it for the right reasons, he remains a massive influence on not only Shock Rock, but on hundreds of artists, not the least of which being Shindiggers like Alice Cooper, The Cramps, Nick Cave, The Misfits and Screaming Lord Sutch. And not simply for his outlandish stage persona or appearance, but for his unique talent and that wholly original and genre-defining (and defying) style.

Jay Hawkins died following an aneurysm on Feb. 12th, 2000, exactly 44 years,…to the day…that he recorded this version of I Put a Spell On You. Ya know, that strange drunken session he couldn’t remember…

A spell indeed.