Wednesday, October 19, 2011

36. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put a Spell on You" (1956)


This early rock 'n' roll novelty—recorded in a drunken session Hawkins claims he didn't remember even the next day, banned from radio in some places for its "cannibalistic" noises, and generally so weird that it never cracked the charts—has managed to transcend its strange pedigree to become a classic in its own right. I know I was aware of it before Jim Jarmusch's 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise but that's certainly where it really caught my attention, bawling out of a cassette tape player that the female lead carried with her wherever she went (Hawkins himself later made a memorable appearance in another Jarmusch film worth seeing, Mystery Train). Knowing the backstory to the song, the elements of the drunkenness and even the "cannibalistic" noises, may (or may not) clarify what you're hearing, but I think the truth is that they work only to the extent they complement and sharpen the tension with the careful and plodding attack by the sax and rhythm section—and what's that, a banjo?—setting up something that is equal parts clownish and supernaturally powerful, and altogether startlingly original, which Jarmusch played to perfectly. I'm not entirely convinced Hawkins ever had a firm handle on what he had wrought, but he was anyway able to take it and parlay it into an over-the-top shtick involving props such as coffins, capes, skulls, and the like, all of that rather remarkable of course for the '50s. Now it bears the label generally of "shock rock," and it laid the ground for the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, arguably even Alice Cooper and everything that followed in his wake. But this is ground zero for all of that, and it's pretty special in its own right.


  1. It lacks Hawkins' inspired lunacy, but Alan Price's version, released soon after he left the Animals, is terrific in its own way.

  2. That's the biggest surprise of all: It's a great song!

    Nina Simone did it and Creedence.

    Jay wanted to be Herb Jeffries, big black classic baritone, but he had become Screaming Jay before this song.