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Flashback Friday: The Haunting Wails Of “I Put A Spell On You”

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A 1950’s African American shock rocker creates a classic spooky love song that gets perfected by Nina Simone.

In honor of Halloween next week, I bring you a spooky American classic from the wonderfully weird blues artist Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put A Spell On You”.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might be one of the most interesting African-Americans in early rock and roll I have ever had the pleasure to read about. A Guardian obituary describes him as “one of the wildest rock and roll men” and a music journalist once staged an “illegitimate family reunion” for his 70+ progeny. Jay was known for his over the top live performances where he mixed African elements with horror movie tropes. Some of the articles about him refer to his work as “shock rock”. Move over Marilyn Manson!

In the video below, which I am unable to source but I’m guessing its from the 1950’s, you can see his stage antics include shaking a skeleton staff like a witch doctor while wearing a bone through his nose.

He would perform this song multiple times on television, and even into the 90’s he never toned it down. Here’s another incredible performance for the Arsenio Hall show to promote his appearance in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train where he rises up out of a coffin and then lights up a cigarette for the skull on his staff. The post-performance interview with Arsenio is also pretty good.

So who dared to follow all that up?

Nina Simone (1965)

Miss Simone perfected it. Its slowed down and filled with bitterness, heartache, and resolve like only she could do. It sounds like something that would appear in a Bond film, but better. NPR named this eponymous Simone album as number three in its list of 150 greatest albums produced by women. You can probably stop reading right about here.

Credence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Shifting from jazz into classic rock and blues, Credence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 Woodstock performance is a great addition to the catalogue for this song. One for all of you guitar fans out there.

Bryan Ferry (1993)

“But Christa, I need an early 90’s English pop version,” I hear you say.

Is it good? No. But it happened and I feel like we need to acknowledge that.

Bette Midler (1993)

I would get kicked out of the Millenial Club if I did not include the Disney Halloween classic version from the film Hocus Pocus. Watch Bette Midler re-work the song into a girl group ballad about witches coming back from the dead. The movie version became so beloved Bette included it in her 2015 Divine Intervention tour. Definitely a performance worth checking out if you’re a Hocus Pocus fan.

American Gods (2017)

And finally a more current vision from the TV show American Gods. An interesting shift from the 60’s versions that are more raw and soulful, the modern covers all sound like something from a burlesque show. Not a bad thing!

Other versions include Annie Lennox and Duffy, who are both trying to channel Nina Simone, but meh.

What’s your favorite American Halloween classic?

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