Sunday morning coming down

If you listen to the right radio stations at this time of the year, you will hear a few songs associated with Halloween. On WUMB’s Highway 61 Revisited show yesterday, host Albert O devoted the entire four hours to songs fitting the day. He played oldies ranging from the traditional “Long Black Veil” (Johnny Cash’s cover) to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” (covers by Vanilla Fudge as well as Al Kooper/Stephen Stills on Super Session) and the traditional “Tam Lin” (covered by Fairport Convention). He never fails to include “I Scare Myself” by Dan Hicks. The show has become an annual event and is a complete blast.

By my lights, “I Put a Spell on You” by the artist known as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is foremost among the songs that have made their way into Albert’s lineup. 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. It’s a novelty song.

Who first heard the possibilities in the song? 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. 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 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.

Jeff Beck turned in a surprisingly restrained cover featuring Joss Stone on the vocal for Emotion and Commotion in 2010. This gets down to the basics.

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. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Samantha Fish.

I don’t want 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).

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