Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Story Behind The Song: "I Put A Spell On You" (Screamin' Jay Hawkins)

When a young Jay Hawkins entered the OKeh record studio with his band in 1956, he intended to record a blues ballad. Putting his aspirations to be an opera singer aside, he thought that a refined blues recording might gain him the notoriety that would define him as a mainstream musician. He had already recorded the song "I Put A Spell On You," a year earlier with Grand Records. (The producer at Grand never released it and it wasn't until 2006 that the first recording became available to the public when it was released in the UK on the Rev-Ola CD, The Whamee 1953-55.) 

"I Put a Spell On You" Single 45 RPM (OKeh)
At 27 years of age, Hawkins knew that the song he had written had potential as a major hit and he looked forward to getting to work in the OKeh studio. Producer Arnold Maxin was equally excited, and he welcomed his studio guests with food and a table full of liquor.

Maxin "brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk and we came out with this weird version," said Jay years later about the song. "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 fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death."

Maxin hadn't counted on the musicians drinking themselves into oblivion. That factored into the song completely changing, with Jay using grunts and howls throughout the recording. OKeh released it and it became an immediate success. Deemed as being inappropriate by some, many radio stations banned it from their playlists and some record store owners refused to stock it. That didn't prevent it from becoming a minor hit however. Despite being a good seller, "I Put A Spell On You" was blocked from the record charts.

Sctreaming Jay Hawkins with Henry, his cigarette smoking skull on a stick. 
The song did gather the attention of syndicated disc jockey Alan Freed, who established it as a mainstay in his rotation. Impressed with this new "demented" style, Freed arranged a meeting with Hawkins and suggested a gimmick to capitalize on the primitive sound of "I Put A Spell On You." After that meeting, Hawkins became Screamin' Jay and began to appear on stage wearing a long cape. He'd rise out of a coffin in the midst of smoke and fog, and glare at the audience with his wide-open eyes. Later, he began to use voodoo props such as a skull on a stick (that smoked a cigarette) and he wore bone tusks through his nose. He also incorporated guttural chants, live snakes and fireworks into his act. He became a sensation, and essentially became one of the world's first shock rock performers.


"I Put A Spell On You" went on to rank No. 313 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. It's been covered by several top artists including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone, The Eels, David Gilmour, Iggy Pop, Jeff Beck, Bryan Ferry, and many more. Most of the covers were recorded on a serious note, with only a few attempting to imitate Hawkins' primitive style. 

As a blues ballad, "I Put A Spell On You" might have faded into obscurity. But because of a few drinks, it planted itself as a stepping stone in the evolution of American music. 


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