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Chapter One

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hit

The origin story typically goes something like this: On September 12, 1956, a rhythm-and-blues aspirant named Jalacy Hawkins, twenty-seven years old, native of Cleveland, entered a New York recording studio to cut a handful of sides for Okeh Records, a subsidiary of the Columbia label. One of the songs Hawkins brought to the session, an original he’d penned himself, followed a heartbroken protagonist who, in a fit of desperation, turns to black magic to beguile the strayed object of his affection.

He’d actually recorded another version of “I Put a Spell on You” months earlier. It’s difficult to imagine, considering the sturdiness of Hawkins’ baritone, but at that time, he crooned the number entirely straight. His model was Johnny Ace, the Memphis preacher’s son with the impossibly tender voice—specifically, the hit single “Pledging My Love,” a favorite of Hawkins’, with its syrupy arrangement, heavy on the tinkling vibes, Johnny purring the lyrics like a lullaby.

Forrrrever my darrrrling . . .

That one.

“I Put a Spell on You” was a sweet ballad when I wrote it.

Arnold Maxin, the Columbia A&R man meant to supervise the session, wasn’t interested in ballads, though. Rock and roll, that mongrel genre, with its raw appeals to youth, had become the sound of the moment. Hawkins and the session musicians, to Maxin, sounded hopelessly stiff by comparison. In frustration, he ordered up a case of cheap wine: Swiss Colony, an Italian muscatel.

We all got blind drunk.

The singer awoke the following afternoon, worked over by a brute of a hangover, the rest of the night lost in the fog of war. Nearly two weeks later, when Maxin presented him with a newly pressed 78 recording of “I Put a Spell on You,” Hawkins hardly recognized his song. Its melody had been sliced apart and overtaken by a shuffling somnambulist’s rhythm, the vocal track similarly debased by a series of “drunken screams and groans and yells” (Hawkins’ words). His sweet ballad, ensorcelled, now walked like a zombie, the arms of his lovelorn hero, thus embodied, no longer outthrust to embrace, but to strangle.

And that is how I became Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Ten days later, he had to learn the song.

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It’s a great story, one that Hawkins told again and again. His masterpiece, born in the missing hours of a bacchanal! The tale has an archetypal purity: magic elixirs granting dark wishes to the imbiber, the bitter taste only hinting at the hidden price to come; a hidden Hyde, coaxed to the surface by chemistry and hubris.

The anecdote has been dutifully reprinted in liner notes, profiles, and capsule biographies. The only problem is, it’s almost certainly untrue. Like many of the plot strands Hawkins affixed to the narrative of his own life—that he’d been adopted and raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he’d studied opera at a Cleveland conservatory, that he had lied about his age at fourteen in order to join the army during the Second World War, that he’d been a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska, that he had fathered seventy-five illegitimate children—the notion of a liquid muse wildly conjuring “I Put a Spell on You” is most useful as evidence of the singer’s penchant for self-mythologizing.

The reality, on the other hand, was likely far more quotidian. It turns out Hawkins loved, and unabashedly modeled his persona after, blues shouters like Wynonie Harris and and the mad swing vocalist Slim Gaillard. On his very first recorded song, a Tiny Grimes number called “Why Did You Waste My Time?” cut four years before “I Put a Spell on You,” Hawkins begins to openly sob around the two-minute mark. The incipient screaming on “No Hug No Kiss,” recorded at the same session, is more of a humid, viscera-soaked wail, here triggered when a voice, possibly Grimes’, pleads, “Take it easy, man. You don’t want her to be back. Everything gonna be alright!”

Listen to either of these tracks and there’s no denying “I Put a Spell on You” rests comfortably along the same hysterical continuum. Which is not to argue against the song’s eccentric, sui generis brilliance. A perfect mitteleisenhower artifact from rock and roll’s unruly pubescence, “Spell” has dated atypically well. One attempts to reverse engineer the alchemy at work and comes up short. At heart, of course, the song is a joke, the bawdiness of a waltz as channeled by a piano player in a saloon, a horn section frothing itself to a frenzy, Hawkins’ loopy and parodic baritone, his winking delivery at once ironizing the material and including himself in the gag. But somehow, after all these years, “Spell” still retains a lingeringly sinister air.

Consider the lyrics, often overlooked—in particular, the excellent twist that comes about when Hawkins reveals the final three words of the title phrase: Because you’re mine. Isolated like so, it’s a Cole Porter fragment, just about. But in context, you have to wonder, why bother with all of this hoodoo jive if she already belongs to you, man? I’ve placed you under a spell because I possess you: granted, there’s a perverse, near-tautological elegance to the claim. Though it also sounds like a threat. Later in the number, Hawkins menacingly flips the question of ownership, because you’re mine metamorphosing into

I don’t care if you want me
I’m yours right now

Emphasis the singer’s. Doesn’t sound like a gift.

Aside from “I Put a Spell on You,” Hawkins’ legacy rests primarily upon his outrageous live show. Pallbearers hauled him onstage in a coffin. (Alan Freed’s idea. Hawkins always hated climbing into that box. His heavy drinking began, he said, as a means of coping with his nightly entombments.) He wore a cape, clamped a bone to his nose, and carried a staff topped with a human skull. The skull’s name was Henry.

It’s difficult to overstate the sheer perversity of the choice, especially considering the historical tendency among music fans (i.e., white music fans) to exoticize African American artists, Robert Johnson’s devil-hocked soul only the most prominent example of a racialized infatuation with black masculinity, carnality, appetite, transgression—in a word, authenticity—that’s permanently distorted the ways in which we all think about, and listen to, music, and which demands a requisite level of “realness” from so many of our performers, who, never mind the songs, must also be junkies, killers, outlaws, colorfully touched, fiending on something, primitives whose compositions aren’t written so much as discharged, ideally from a suppurating wound. This is not the history of black music in America, but of its commodification, from which Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, this most deliberately inauthentic of performers, stands apart.

The early notoriety of “I Put a Spell on You” would mold his stage persona forever, prompting him to embrace, for the remainder of his career, cartoonish witch doctor imagery straight out of Hollywood B-pictures. Surely in part for that reason, he never achieved anything like that success again. Today’s average music listener has more likely heard one of the famous cover versions of “I Put a Spell on You” (Nina Simone’s overproduced, melodramatic dirge, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s bar-band atrocity) than Hawkins’ original. The song did periodically resurface on enough occasions (most notably, in the 1984 Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise) to grant the singer a certain cult status in the final years of his life. To Hawkins, most likely, the embrace felt little and belated. Back in the early sixties, his career had foundered so spectacularly he’d been forced to take a gig as the musical act at a Honolulu strip club.

If there’s something unsettling about a black American so gleefully embodying such crude racial caricature—the NAACP would call Hawkins out, denouncing his act alongside square parents and skittish radio programmers—there’s also a postmodern tweaking of (white) audience expectation going on. Ditto the “Screamin’ ” part of the act, for Hawkins surely understood, as Albert Murray writes in the brilliant Stomping the Blues, the ways in which “references to singing the blues have come to suggest crying over misfortune . . . a species of direct emotional expression in the raw, the natural outpouring of personal anxiety and anguish,” when in fact artists announcing themselves as blues musicians “do not mean they are about to display their own raw emotion. They are not really going to be crying, grieving, groaning, moaning, or shouting and screaming.”

Such a reading “ignores what a blues performance so obviously is,” Murray continues. “It is precisely an artful contrivance.”

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Copyright © 2016 by Mark Binelli