With the coming of Halloween on Tuesday, it may be an opportune moment for a diversion. If you listen to the right radio stations at this time of the year, you will hear a few songs associated with the holiday. Probably foremost among them is “I Put a Spell on You” by the artist known as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I’d like to take the liberty of revisiting the song this year just for the pleasure of it.
Here is the improbable backstory offered by Bill Diehl at AllMusic: “Hawkins originally envisioned the tune as a refined ballad. After he and his New York session aces (notably guitarist Mickey Baker and saxist Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor) had imbibed to the point of no return, Hawkins screamed, grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon.”
Screamin’ Jay recalled: “[T]he producer brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version … I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”
The song was first recorded during a session in late 1955. However, that version was kept in the vaults for a long time. In 1956 Hawkins took another stab at the song and produced the hit version. You can hear Screamin’ Jay screaming on what I assume is that version in the video below. To me it sounds like a novelty song.
Who first heard the possibilities in the song? I’m not sure, but I think it must have been Nina Simone. Simone turned it into a tortured love song (the sax solo is by Jerome Richardson, I think) in 1965. She titled her album of that year after the song. Her version is a keeper.
In 1968, the British rocker Arthur Brown harked back to the theatricality of Screamin’ Jay on The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. “I Put a Spell on You” fit right in.
That same year Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded the song for their debut album. Playing lead guitar and shredding his voice on the vocal, John Fogerty takes possession of the song. It’s no joke. I love this version.
Even if it doesn’t get any better than Simone’s or CCR’s version, it’s not right to stop time in 1968. The song has been covered by many artists over the years. Joe Cocker recorded a fine version in 2004 with a little help from Eric Clapton on guitar (though in a way it leaves us stuck in the sixties). With a little encouragement I could easily keep going. Nevertheless, not wanting to beat it into the ground, I’m going to wind it up here this morning and encourage you to pursue it further on your own if you are so inclined (and I hope you are).