by Jay Gabler
October 28, 2021
Steve Bergsman subtitled I Put a Spell On You, his 2019 biography, The Bizarre Life of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In fact, though, the late R&B singer-songwriter’s life was all too typical of artists of his generation.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins made an indelible impression in the 1950s, and was then eclipsed as music leapt forward in the next decade. He had an enduring hit, but sold his publishing rights and was forced to support himself through live performance until the end of his life. He married for love; it didn’t last. His next-best-known song was a novelty number. “Constipation Blues” is about precisely what you’d think; among the truly bizarre events in Hawkins’s live was a drunken televised duet on that number with - wait for it - Serge Gainsbourg in 1983.
Born in Cleveland in 1929, Hawkins died in 2000 a cult figure forever associated with his signature song. “I Put a Spell On You” made Hawkins “Screamin’,” inspired his spooky stage schtick, and was covered hundreds of times; the best-known versions were by Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bette Midler (in the movie Hocus Pocus). Hawkins himself re-recorded the song several times, so that whatever else you were getting on a new Screamin’ Jay Hawkins album, you were likely also getting a new version of “I Put a Spell On You.”
The original, though, recorded and released in 1956, made Hawkins immortal. Even that version, for OKeh Records, wasn’t technically the original; the previous year he’d recorded a take for Grand Records, which didn’t put it out at the time. (It later surfaced on a rarities compilation.) The first version of the song, though, was relatively refined: forceful, but with the lid still firmly in place. OKeh producer Arnold Maxim, though, knew what Hawkins could do when he really let loose, and he thought “I Put a Spell On You” could be a vehicle for the full force of the singer’s unhinged delivery.
In a reversal of the producer’s typical role, Maxim was the one to supply a raft of booze and encourage the entire band to get good and loose before they rolled tape. The musicians’ memories of the session ended up being a little blurry; recollections including Hawkins singing prone on the floor and a saxman who kept missing the mouthpiece when he lifted it to his lips.
The result, though, was something truly distinctive. “I Put a Spell On You” was utterly transfixing, but the recording was so weird and visceral that radio stations were reluctant to play it. The song became, essentially, the kind of viral hit that TikTok produces - but without the benefit of the internet. People would hear the song at their friends’ houses, and go out and buy a copy for themselves. As a result, the song became remarkably well-known for a track that DJs wouldn’t touch.
Then, there was the stage show. It was Alan Freed, the DJ and impresario who popularized the term “rock and roll,” who had the idea for Hawkins to climb out of an onstage coffin. Hawkins strongly demurred, saying he planned to get in a coffin only once and that would be for good. Freed made Hawkins an offer he couldn’t refuse, though, offering $300 (the equivalent of over $3,000 today) to give it a shot. The audience went wild for the bit, and the rest is history.
Hawkins was always a colorful performer (and, at 27, already a seasoned one), but after “I Put a Spell On You,” his act became truly theatrical. It didn’t always involve a coffin, but it often involved pyrotechnics (when his fuse box blew up in a young woman singer’s face, it became a Screamin’-style meet cute and they became a romantic item for years), stunts (he warned one audience that the aging venue’s ceiling was full of worms, then had confederates drop greased rubber bands down from the balcony), and outlandish costumes.
As Freed knew, it was the first great teen scream era. Schlocky horror flicks lit drive-in movie screens, novelty Halloween hits found a receptive audience (“Monster Mash” was released in 1962), and Disneyland announced the impending opening of its Haunted Mansion (after years of Imagineering, it finally opened in 1969). Hawkins, completely committed to the bit, was downright scary, and his audiences absolutely loved it.
The “spell-casting” aspect of his show involved ersatz shaman costuming, including a cigarette-smoking skull on a staff and later a bone through the nose. Via emissary Sammy Davis Jr., the NAACP expressed its displeasure with the tribal stereotype. “I’m trying to make a living,” Hawkins shot back (among other less printable comments), and a spooky spell-caster became Hawkins’s default persona.
Although he wasn’t a virtuoso musician, his talent was undeniable; over the course of his career his sets would include a mix of originals and convincing covers. OKeh made a game effort to grow Hawkins’s appeal beyond his initial base; the 1958 LP At Home with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins included “I Put a Spell On You” but also “I Love Paris,” “Give Me My Boots and Saddle,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Nothing else quite stuck, though. Hawkins ultimately built his career on being the guy who goes there: in addition to “Constipation Blues,” his oeuvre included “Armpit #6,” about the odor of his adored. On tour, he was billed as “the world’s wildest man,” and bridled whenever told he wouldn’t be the closing act. Hawkins did agree to open for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1980 after Keith Richards played on yet another “I Put a Spell” remake, but he left when the headliners went on.
Richards wasn’t Hawkins’s only high-profile fan. His fame was such that he spawned a British imitator who went by Screaming Lord Sutch, who took his tribute so far as to get accidentally trapped in his own coffin onstage, as Hawkins once did at the Apollo. (Hawkins blamed the Drifters for messing with the latch.) He received a rare invitation, as a non-Capitol artist, to record at Abbey Road; he played the Mudd Club alongside Talking Heads; he garnered indie film fame courtesy of Jim Jarmusch, who used “I Put a Spell On You” in Stranger Than Paradise and later cast Hawkins in Mystery Train.
As a biographer, Bergsman had his work cut out for him. Hawkins told a lot of tall tales: was he really held in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, later blowing his captor’s head off with a grenade Rambo-style? (Truth: he was in the Army’s Special Services Division during the Korean War, performing music on American soil.) Was he raised by a Blackfoot tribe of Indigenous Americans? (Truth: he was raised in a Cleveland boarding house run by a woman who may or may not have been Native.) Did he really win the Golden Gloves middleweight title in 1947? (Truth: none whatsoever.)
What the book could use more of is testimony to Hawkins’s influence. The lineage of shock rock runs straight back from Gwar to Alice Cooper to Screamin’ Jay: artists who combine extreme music with gothic stage theatrics. Thanks to Hawkins, that kind of spectacle was part of rock and roll’s DNA from the very beginning.
Still, I Put a Spell On You is welcome documentation of a great American story. We may never know exactly what that story was, but who cares? 65 years later, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins still puts a spell on us.
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