Usually when I do a cover roundup it’s because I actually like one of them better than the original. But today I’m deviating from that because the original is the best. I love the covers below, but they cannot come close to the power of the original and the subsequent chills I get with every listen.
When I think of the music of the 1950s, the last sound I expect is the sound in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” In fact, I didn’t realize until writing this that it came out then, and not sometime in the 60s like I had imagined.
I’m going to pull some lore from Wikipedia:
Hawkins had originally intended to record “I Put a Spell on You” as a refined love song, a blues ballad. He reported, however, that the producer “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version… I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”
Up to this time, Hawkins had been a blues performer; emotional, but not wild. Freed suggested a gimmick to capitalize on the “demented” sound of “I Put a Spell on You”: Hawkins wore a long cape, and appeared onstage by rising out of a coffin in the midst of smoke and fog.
The act was a sensation, later bolstered by tusks worn in Hawkins’ nose, on-stage snakes and fireworks, and a cigarette-smoking skull named “Henry”. The theatrical act was one of the first shock rock performances.
It’s always hard to say just how much of the story behind the music is true, but I have to guess a dubious amount of alcohol had to loosen them all up to get the mood and pain and creepiness in the 1956 version. Watching him gimmick it up in old performances is so fun.
My first introduction to this song was actually the version by Creedence Clearwater Revival because my dad always had CCR playing in our house.
I still love it, but compared to the original, it just seems like they just straight emulated Hawkins’ performance with guitar rather than horns. However, those guitars are incredible.
Then, sometime in my teen years I found Nina Simone’s cover.
CCR’s version is a rerecording. Nina’s is a cover. It’s a completely different song with her smooth delivery and scatting. The jazz underneath transforms it from dirty blues to a heartbreaking ballad (much like Hawkins probably imagined it originally) but still powered up by her unmatched vocals. And look, I admit around here a lot how much I cry, so here I go again. Nina’s version makes my eyes well up. She loves him anyhow. She doesn’t care if he doesn’t want her. She’s his right now. Oh, where are the Kleenex? Jay and CCR are aggressive, and of course, masculine in their delivery. Nina’s no wilting flower. But she’s his. Lordy.
On the spectrum between bluesy rock and jazz versions of this song, Van Morrison’s cover falls somewhere in the middle. I dig it. But then again, I find he can do very little wrong.
Jeff Beck and Joss Stone’s collaboration on the song is conflicting for me. I’m not in love with Joss’s vocal delivery because she tramples over into screaming territory too often, but she does okay. But I love the choir and Beck. I wonder what a different vocalist with more control and subtlety could have done with those huge sounds coming from the choir and Beck’s guitar. Oh, like what would have Adele done with that?
Now, what would happen if the vocals stay strong and moody, but the music goes soft and haunting. Like, what if someone from The Netherlands covered it? Karin Kent, take it away.
I guess it also makes sense if Screamin’ Jay Hawkins embraced the creepy gimmick in his performances, that a shock rocker would reach back and cover the song that started it all. But you can click on over to YouTube for Mariln Manson’s version because I hate it.
If this whetted your appetite for more, there are plenty still to be heard. Or, you can just listen to the original over and over like I have much of this morning.