Sunday, August 26, 2012

August 26: Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put A Spell On You"

Artist: Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Song: "I Put A Spell On You"
Year: 1956

All across the history of recorded music, there are a handful of performers and songs that are so amazingly unique that they defy description in every sense of the word.  These performances are so devastatingly original that not only do they open completely new avenues of musical exploration, but they quickly but all other musicians into perspective.  Furthermore, many of these same performances help to understand how society was at the time of recording, as what was considered "dangerous" or "controversial" in one era may be rather bland or "normal" in another time period.  Yet one cannot deny the overall importance of such recordings and performers, and this is much the reason that Screamin' Jay Hawkins remains such an absolutely unique icon to this day.  Though he was certainly an integral part of the early years of rock and roll, he is rarely given all the accolades he deserves, and one can see countless later artists that borrowed heavily from the moods of his songs, as well as his legendary stage presence and antics.  Over the course of his career, Hawkins recorded many seminal songs that have been covered across the genres since his time, and yet there may be no single more important to his career, as well as the development of rock music than Screamin' Jay Hawkins' classic 1956 song, "I Put A Spell On You."

From the moment that "I Put A Spell On You" begins, it is instantly unique, as the swing and mood are unlike anything else that had been recorded to that point.  The bounce that is instantly set into place by the bass and horns has as eerie and dark a feeling as one can find, and it is almost as if the instrumentation is sneaking around the track.  It is the menacing, unnerving tone that the song presents which has made it such a classic all these years later, and one can find this progression being used as the core sample to a number of hip-hop songs.  As these sounds interact with the quickly bobbing piano, the overall feel of the song becomes even more unstable, and there is no question that "I Put A Spell On You" fits perfectly in any area of popular culture where one wants to create a mood of mystery, or perhaps a steamy cajun evening.  It is the latter of these ideas that lends even more to the overall feeling of the song, as the title becomes quite fitting when the music begins to suggest images of "witch doctors" and other similar elements.  The impact of the music is also a result of the fact that it never really changes in terms of tempo, allowing the mood and tension to build and build, finding its only release through the vocals Screamin' Jay Hawkins himself.

Yet the reality remains that while the almost sinister tones of the instrumentation is vital to the overall impact of the song, it is the work of the writer, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, that truly vaults "I Put A Spell On You" to such heights.  The instant that he begins to sing, it is clear that there has never been anyone who can sing in this manner; as from his pitch to the level of emotion, Hawkins was lightyears away from any of his contemporaries.  There are moments on "I Put A Spell On You" where Hawkins sounds almost deranged or wild, and legend has it that he could barely believe it was his performance after hearing the song the day after the initial takes.  Yet it is this every element of extreme emotion and spirit that define Hawkins, and "I Put A Spell On You" marks the first time that his stage persona was accurately captured within a studio setting.  The way that he shrieks and screams, along with his mischievous vocals are everything that makes for a great song, and one can directly connect these elements to more modern performers like Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, and countless others.  But at the same time, the sound of Screamin' Jay Hawkins stands as completely unique, and it is the way that his amazing voice furthers the darkness of the song that serves as the ideal touch to "I Put A Spell On You."

Strangely enough, most are unaware that the well-known version of "I Put A Spell On You" is actually the second that Screamin' Jay Hawkins did of this song.  Almost seven years previous, Hawkins recorded the same track for a different label, and yet this original take was more a ballad-style song, losing the overall impact and intent behind the 1956 version.  But the fact remains that the latter version stands as perhaps the most obvious sign that at its core, music is a very primal act of creation, and there is a stunning purity found throughout "I Put A Spell On You."  Yet at the same time, it is almost unfathomable to see the range in artists that have covered the song over the years, with everyone from The Animals to Queen Latifah to Joe Cocker to The Birthday Party all putting their own spin on Hawkins' masterpiece.  This in itself is proof enough of what a vital recording Hawkins had made, as the feel of the song would pave the way for both the "horror rock" genre as well as giving a rebirth to the rock sounds from the deep South.  But at the end of the day, none of the covers even come close to the overall mood of the original; and there is simply no other song in history quite like Screamin' Jay Hawkins 1956 classic, "I Put A Spell On You."

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