A Little Bit About The “Spell”

Mister D: I just thought this article was rather interesting. The song “I Put A Spell On You” has been around a long time with many different versions recorded with varied interpretations. And it’s Halloween time, so it’s appropriate.

From: The Sunday Telegraph London Date: October 28, 2007 Author: PAUL MORLEY

YOU COULD CONJURE UP A FINE, disquieting Halloween soundtrack using various uncanny and unlikely versions of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s sleazy, psycho-hypnotic I Put a Spell on You. You would naturally feature Nina Simone’s blessed 1965 take, which turned an apparent near-novelty tune into a supreme, cathartic expression of soul and sexuality. The song became such a part of her repertoire that it formed the title of her 1992 autobiography.

Singers such as Van Morrison, Ray Charles, Bryan Ferry, Joe Cocker and Nick Cave all felt the song’s menacing voodoo vamp suited their particular masculine philosophies. Belgian fusion singer Natacha Atlas made it an exotic hymn to the ecstatic. The Animals and the Eels fed on it. Grisly, blood-curdling versions by Tim Curry, Bonnie Tyler, Bette Midler and Marilyn Manson paid rocky homage to the song’s weird combination of the wanton and the wacky. Southern swamp-rock masters Creedence Clearwater Revival opened their 1968 debut album with the song, and their fiendish guitar-hot version is a candidate with Simone’s for the second-best of all time.

But the greatest version of all remains Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s diabolically lascivious original 1957 recording, the freakishly conceived, fly-by-night combination of something spiritual, something

silly and something strange. To God-fearing white Americans, the song, written and sung by an exuberant wild-eyed black man from the nightmare edge of reason, was the very seething sound of hell.

Born Jalacy Hawkins in 1929, Screamin’ liked to claim he had been raised as an orphan by Blackfoot Indians to be a witch doctor. He could play the piano by ear at age three, was a tough competitive boxer and was nearly killed by a grenade in Korea. By 1950, as a roguish, hipster entertainer inspired by the big baritone of Paul Robeson, the blues shouting of Big Joe Turner and the ripe light opera of Lanza and Caruso, he had his Screamin’ Jay Hawkins nickname – a large, inebriated female fan had shouted at him, during a show in West Virginia, to ‘Scream, baby! Scream, Jay!’

An extravagantly snappy dresser, he was fired from a Fats Domino tour in the early 1950s for upstaging Fats by wearing a leopardskin suit. In 1957 he re-recorded for Okeh, a subsidiary of Columbia, a tame jazzy ballad he had already done for Grand. The A & R man thought that a track called I Put a Spell on You shouldn’t sound as mild as his original version – it should sound spooky and deranged. He asked Screamin’ and his band how they would do such a song live. ‘We’d be dead drunk,’ said Jay. So everyone – Hawkins, the band, the sound engineer, even the A & R man – got juiced, and out of a riotous party emerged a riotous recording, one that turned a bloodless ballad into an untamed, ominous incantation, a demented aria. Hawkins blacked out and couldn’t remember the session, and didn’t even recognise his own desperately groaning, shrieking performance when he heard it a few days later.

Disc jockeys who played the track got into trouble for promoting such suggestively sexual, possibly cannibalistic, shenanigans. But the DJ who gave rock ‘n’ roll its name, Alan Freed, was powerful enough to support it without recriminations. It became an underground teenage hit and, at a Christmas show in 1958, Freed paid a reluctant Hawkins $300 to leap out of a flaming coffin at the beginning of the song. This was the start of something that would end up influencing not only the British vaudeville pop of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Screaming Lord Sutch, but

also the horror rock of Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson.

Arriving at shows in a zebra-striped hearse, Hawkins took to performing in black satin capes, Technicolor turbans and with a bone through his nose. He would throw rubber snakes and fake tarantulas into the audience. A smoking skull on a stick sceptre was named Henry. Wearing a top hat, white tuxedo and tails, he once got locked in his stage coffin by The Drifters: he kicked his way out in the nick of time. One of the less legendary follow-ups to I Put a Spell on You was a blues song about constipation. Simone and Ferry did not cover this.

As a mischievous surrealist Hawkins influenced Hendrix, Dr John, James Brown, George Clinton, Keith Richards and The Clash. He appeared as an enigmatic hotel clerk in director Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 off-beat beat masterpiece Mystery Train, but the success and then endless repetition of the coffin stunt condemned him to decades of being someone he called ‘the black Vincent Price’.

‘I wanted to do goddam opera. I ended up some kind of monster.’ The Spell snaked its way into Levi’s ads, Natural Born Killers, The Simpsons and The X-Files; the Notorious B.I.G. and L. L. Cool J sampled it, but poor Screamin’ had sold the rights long ago.

He died in 2000, after six marriages and fathering 57 children. ‘When I go,’ he had said, ‘I don’t want to be buried. I’ve been in too many coffins already.’

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One thought on “A Little Bit About The “Spell”

  1. I don’t suppose anyone would know where to acquire a karaoke version of the Bette Midler rendition? I scarily enough found her version on iTunes being sung by a group of terrible kids for a Kid’s Halloween album -so I figure one must exist somewhere!

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