SONG: I Put a Spell On You
ARTIST: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Listen to it here:
I Put a Spell on You was written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in 1956, and according to Hawkins, the original vision was for the song to be a refined ballad. However, the producer, Arnold Maxin, brought ribs, chicken, and booze to the recording session, and got the whole band plastered before the recording started. Screamin’ Jay didn’t even remember recording the album. Of course, because of his guttural sounds, screams, grunts, etc, the song was considered too overtly sexual at the time, and was banned from radio play for years. Hawkins had to re-learn the song from his first black-out recording, and then the record company released a version with less grunting a few months later. Even with the restrictions placed on it, the recording would go on to sell well over a million copies. Oddly, Screamin’ Jay had been just Jay Hawkins before recording this album and was considered just a regular blues performer, and not the wild man that this record portrays him. After this point though, Screamin’ Jay leaned into the gimmick and started wearing capes, and appearing onstage rising out of a coffin with smoke and fog, wearing tusks in his nose, having snakes on stage, and bringing a cigarette-smoking skull named Henry on stage.
Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins was born in Cleveland, Ohio. At the age of 18 months, Hawkins was put up for adoption and was adopted and raised by Blackfoot Indigenous people. In his household, an emphasis was put on music and Hawkins studied classical piano. In his 20s, he picked up the guitar. Initially, Hawkins’ goal was to become an opera singer, citing Paul Robeson as his musical idol. This did not happen for him, and he switched his focus to conventional blues singing and piano playing.
In 1942, Hawkins joined the US army with a forged birth certificate (he was only 13!) and allegedly saw active combat. He also entertained the troops as part of his service. He also became an avid, and apparently formidable boxer. At this time, he also joined bands, and started performing.
Once he became a solo artist, Hawkins had his biggest hit with I Put a Spell On You. Ironically, he remembered nothing from the recording session as he was blackout drunk at the time. The controversy swirling around the “overt sexual nature” of this track only helped to propel sales of his album. It also helped Hawkins to start cultivating his outlandish stage persona. He was paid $300 to emerge from a coffin onstage, and began wearing gold and leopard-skin costumes. Later in his career, Hawkins would begin to resent all the gimmicks he felt he was nudged into using to propel his fame. Hawkins died of an aneurysm in 2000 near Paris.
- Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is credited as being the first “shock rocker” and marketed himself as the “Black Vincent Price”.
- In 1949, Hawkins was the heavyweight boxing champion of Alaska!
- Hawkins was married 6 times and claimed to have between 57 and 75 children. 33 of these children have been verified and got together for a reunion in the early 2000s.
Holly, is that a baritone sax? I’ve probably heard this song my whole life, but I remember the first time I actually saw a video of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and he was singing this very song – he had a bone through his nose and some sort of shaman staff and was making all the wild faces – just the level of spooky camp that I’m into! In that same video I also learned that he had about a billion children. I really hope he liked the version of this song that Bette Mider absolutely slayed in another camp classic, the movie Hocus Pocus. Anyway, I didn’t really realize how dirty and raunchy those instruments sound – like covered in the dirt that Screamin’ Jay is rising out of. Those saxes make it sound like a New Orleans dark and creepy dirge. Screamin’ Jay’s voice is pretty good, strong, and I love all the ODB-esque grunts and noises he makes. I think novelty songs from the 1950s teeter a little too much into cheesy or stereotype territory, but I dig this one.
There are a lot of things I like about this song in their individual elements – the tenor sax playing is really raw, as is the singing. And this captures a really short moment in time where people would hire baritone saxophone or tuba players to “fill out” their bass lines since it was difficult to pick bass sounds in recordings. I like how playful and raw Hawkins’ voice is, and I think the yelling, grunting, and laughing adds to the intensity of this song. Unfortunately, there’s something about the slow triplets in the piano and the saxophone line that make this song sound too novelty-like to my ears to take it particularly seriously. It was an enjoyable listen, but that’s about it.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Listen to Nina Simone dig into this song:
CCR also dig right in:
Annie Lennox shows us how it’s done:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: