Today is the birthday of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who was one of most memorable performers in the blues. As one might assume, the story of an opera singer-turned-bluesman who donned wild voodoo-inspired stage garb, became a major influence in shock rock and rap, and raised from coffins as part of his set is something out of the ordinary. But Hawkins wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he originally wanted to become an opera singer; a plan he ambitiously pursued but where he found little success, (though interestingly, he was a boxing Golden Gloves winner in 1947). After learning guitar, he began playing the blues professionally. For several years, he performed as a bluesman until one drunken night changed his world forever, and produced what would become one of the most influential songs in all of music.
“I put a spell on you…” Hawkins demanded back in 1956. His searing undertone demanded attention and was paired with a catchy beat of a percussive brass section and drum, creating, all at once, a crazed drunken tirade, swirling three-ring circus, and a mysterious voodoo ritual. “Because you’re mine”. Released on OKeh Records that same year, “I Put A Spell on You” almost instantly became a hit for Hawkins. Then he had to listen to the song and relearn it, because he was blacked out drunk when he recorded it.
“Arnold Makson was the head of Columbia at the time, and he felt we had to do something different in regards to the song,” Hawkins said in The Nick Tosches Reader. “So he brought in a case of Italian Swiss Colony Muscatel and we all got our heads bent… We all got blind drunk. Ten days later, the record came out on the Okeh label. I listened to it and I heard all those drunken screams and groans and yells. And that’s how I became Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”
His raw, guttural screams and grunts on the record caused it to be banned from a number of radio stations and album shelves — and inevitably end up on more than a million record players. Through murky reasons that are seemingly lost to time, the song didn’t chart, despite reported huge widespread sales. At the prompting of famed DJ Alan Freed soon after hearing “Spell”, Hawkins completed his look by rising from a coffin with wild stage garb, a severed hand that moved on it’s own, and a skull on a stick that occasionally smoked. He embraced his newly popular persona, creating a theatrical performance on stage, using his opera background to wail wickedly powerful notes next to his now-trademark nonsensical sounds. The performance he created would singlehandedly come to define Shock Rock, according to Edward Komara’s Encyclopedia of the Blues, with acts like Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and even Tom Waits drawing performance influences from the singer and piano player.
Hawkins enjoyed a successful live performance career for years, even playing in influential movies such as 1984’s Stranger than Paradise and 1989’s Mystery Train. While he never again found the enormous success of “Spell”, he continued to release music and played with a wide cast, including The Clash, Fats Domino, and even Zep cover band Dread Zeppelin. Hawkins suffered an aneurysm in early 2000 and passed away shortly afterwards, reportedly leaving more than 70 children! “Spell” was ranked one of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, as well as one of the 500 songs that shaped Rock n Roll from the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
It’s timeless and easily customizable feeling has given it a wide life, from Thrash Metal to Jazz, and has been covered by everyone from Tab Benoit to Nina Simone, Marilyn Manson, Jeff Beck, Iggy Pop, Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Gilmour, Buddy Guy, The Animals, and many more. The song has also been sampled by a number of rappers, most notably Notorious B.I.G. and LL Cool J. In fact, while the original mysteriously didn’t show up on the Billboard charts, covers of the song have charted more than seven times in three different decades!
Listen around 3:40 to hear his operatic influence in “Spell”.