With the coming of Halloween on Thursday it may be an opportune moment for a diversion. I certainly need one.
If you listen to the right radio stations at this time of the year, you will hear a few songs associated with the holiday. On WUMB’s Highway 61 Revisited show yesterday morning, host Albert O devoted the entire four hours to songs fitting the holiday. Probably foremost 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 relegated to the vault. 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? It may 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. Now we were getting somewhere. 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 took possession of the song. It’s no joke. This is epic. I love this version.
The video above places CCR’s album track over the band’s live performance of the song at Woodstock in 1969. Fogerty could pull it off live as well. Below is the Woodstock track. CCR kept the live Woodstock recording in the can at the time so that it would not compete with their own studio work at the time. Now it can be heard.
It doesn’t get much better than Simone’s or CCR’s version, but we can’t stop time in 1969. The song has been covered by many artists over the years. Joe Cocker recorded a good version in 2004 with a little help from Eric Clapton on guitar (though in a way it still leaves us stuck in the sixties). Lest there be any doubt that the song lives, listen up to Samantha Fish and her band give it a workout, blues style, in the 2014 performance below.
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).