It wouldn’t be Halloween without a little Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the mix. His 1956 hit “I Put a Spell on You” is a holiday staple, covered numerous times and still being played by lovers of spooky music to this day. And there’s good reason for that. It’s a powerful, frenzied, maniacal performance of a type not many professional musicians are willing (or capable) of giving. Here’s the thing, though: it wasn’t supposed to sound like that.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, you see, never wanted to be rock & roll’s cartoon voodoo man. A talented vocalist who studied classical piano as a child, Hawkins had aspirations of performing opera. It was only when that didn’t work out that he learned guitar and turned his attentions to the blues.
(An aside: he was also a talented boxer, apparently, once reigning as the middleweight champion of Alaska sometime in the 1940s. Or at least, that’s what I hear. Screamin’ Jay was rather talented at self-mythology too, however, so lord only knows.)
At any rate. Hawkins didn’t develop his wild man reputation, even after settling in as a blues singer. When he wrote “I Put a Spell on You,” he envisioned it as a ballad. But when they were working on it in the recording studio, Hawkins and his band started drinking, and things got a little out of control. So drunk that he didn’t remember the performance the next day, Hawkins turned his ballad of obsessive desire into the screaming, grunting, positively Mephistophelian classic we all know and love today.
It was controversial, of course. Critics at the time were shocked by the overtly sexual noises Hawkins makes on the record. It was banned on most radio stations, and never listed on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in spite of selling over a million copies. But DJ Alan Freed, never one to pass up an opportunity to make a buck, immediately added Hawkins to his rock and roll revue, capitalizing on the song’s wild reputation by paying the singer $300 to rise up out of a coffin at the beginning of his set. Thus was born Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and his connection to spookiness in the pop culture gestalt was set in stone.
But what about that original ballad version? Well, it did get recorded, but remained unreleased for decades. But, in our efforts to strip-mine every conceivable aspect of rock history, it did eventually see the light of day. And that, dear readers, is the version I’ll be sharing with you tonight.
I think the thing that shocks me the most about this version is how little it differs in its basics from the more famous version. It’s the same song, just not delivered with such ferocity. It’s sadder this way, though, I think, and maybe even a little bit scarier. Without all that frenzy, the creepy stalker obsession of the thing comes out more, the overpowering desire to force someone to love you against their will. That’s what “I Put a Spell On You” has always been about, of course, but its familiarity sometimes makes me forget. And it’s always nice to be reminded of why a thing has power.