Jalacy Hawkins, better known by the stage name Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, was an American rhythm and blues musician, singer, songwriter and actor. Famed chiefly for his powerful, operatic vocal delivery, and wildly theatrical performances of songs such as “I Put a Spell on You”, he sometimes used macabre props onstage, making him an early pioneer of shock rock.
Hawkins’ most successful recording, “I Put a Spell on You” (1956), was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. According to the AllMusic Guide to the Blues, “Hawkins originally envisioned the tune as a refined ballad.” The entire band was intoxicated during a recording session where “Hawkins screamed, grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon.” The resulting performance was no ballad but instead a “raw, guttural track” that became his greatest commercial success and reportedly surpassed a million copies in sales, although it failed to make the Billboard pop or R&B charts.
The performance was mesmerizing, although Hawkins himself blacked out and was unable to remember the session. Afterward he had to relearn the song from the recorded version. Meanwhile the record label released a second version of the single, removing most of the grunts that had embellished the original performance; this was in response to complaints about the recording’s overt sexuality. Nonetheless it was banned from radio in some areas.
Soon after the release of “I Put a Spell on You”, radio disc jockey Alan Freed offered Hawkins $300 to emerge from a coffin onstage. Hawkins accepted and soon created an outlandish stage persona in which performances began with the coffin and included “gold and leopardskin costumes and notable voodoo stage props, such as his smoking skull on a stick – named Henry – and rubber snakes.” These props were suggestive of voodoo, but also presented with comic overtones that invited comparison to “a black Vincent Price.”
Screaming Jay Hawkins made his I Put a Spell On You a classic cult song covered by many such as Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1968. Nina Simone, Alan Price, The Animals, the Them with Van Morrison, Arthur Brown, Bryan Ferry, Buddy Guy with Carlos Santana, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Nick Cave in a concert only version, Marilyn Manson, Mica Paris with David Gilmore, Jeff Beck and Joss Stone, and Annie Lennox in 2014 for her Grammy nominated album Nostalgia.