Originally intended as a tender love ballad, legend has it that Hawkins was blackout drunk when he went into the studio and bellowed out that immortal first take of“I Put a Spell on You”. As a result, the song was transformed into a searing testimony to unrequited love gone wrong, loaded with bad intentions, and dripping with testosterone-fueled swamp magic. Jay later admitted that he had to re-learn the song from that original recording in order to perform it in concert because he literally had no recollection of doing it..
If the parents of teens in the 1950’s were concerned that rock and roll was the devil’s music, Screamin’ Jay certainly seemed to support their case. By cavorting on stage with a bone through his nose and displaying his lust through a series of animalistic grunts and groans, he subverted white America’s black stereotypes by embracing them. And in doing so, he brought their worst nightmares to life.
Although subsequent cover versions were hits, Screamin' Jay’s own version of “I Put a Spell on You” never actually made the charts. But his impact on the history of rock and roll is undeniable. His influence can be seen in the generations of countless “shock” rockers who followed in his footsteps and who valued macabre theatrics just as much (if not more) than the music they performed.
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, Screamin’ Jay continued to tour and record new music but he never came close to matching the success of his debut single. By the time the 80’s rolled around, he was an all-but-forgotten relic of a bygone era and “I Put a Spell On You” had been relegated to the status of Halloween novelty song.
Then, in 1984, he experienced a brief renaissance after a young, indie filmmaker named Jim Jarmusch featured “I Put A Spell On You” prominently in the soundtrack of his first major work, Stranger Than Paradise. The film briefly revived a cult interest in Hawkins which led to a string of live performances that included a stint as the opening act for Nick Cave in 1986. You can read NME’s interview with Screamin’ Jay from that tour here. It’s clear from the article that Hawkins was not afraid to speak his mind and was just as much of a character off stage as he was on.
But, the highlight of this short-lived revival was a 4-song set sitting in with New York’s garage/psych torchbearers, The Fuzztones, on December 19th, 1984 at Irving Plaza, NYC. The following year Midnight Records released a 12” EP documenting the show titled, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Fuzztones: Live. Long out of print, it can be found online if you’re willing to do some digging.
The Fuzztones are firing on all cylinders here as well, obviously excited to be backing one of their heroes. They were a band eager to shake off their critics assertions that they were nothing more than a top notch bar band playing music that no longer mattered, just as Hawkins was eager to prove that he could still be relevant in this cynical, modern era. The magic combination of an underdog retro rock band, and an aging bluesman, desperate to escape obscurity, brought out the best in everyone involved. A similar pairing would prove to be just as fruitful for R.L. Burnside and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion twelve years later.
The album starts with one of the Fuzztones introducing Screamin' Jay as an "old friend" he ran into "down in the swamp last night" who was '"gnawin' on a human leg bone". The audience welcomes him politely, but it seems that many of them are unaware of the spectacle they are about to witness. After Hawkins takes the stage they lurch into a searing version of his 1958 single, "Alligator Wine", a plodding, shout-along, blues number in the vein of Muddy Waters’ "Mannish Boy". The song recounts the recipe, and nefarious uses, for the eponymous beverage whose ingredients include alligator blood, fish eyes and swamp water. Hawkins also manages to slip in a reference to AIDS towards the end of the song that shows his instinct to shock was still fully intact and in touch with current events.
Hilariously, he follows this sexually charged rap with a surprisingly earnest performance of an original Christmas song, “It’s That Time Again” which he describes in the intro as “kinda a rockin', funky little thing”.
That night, the unlikely union of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Fuzztones tapped into that primal essence of rhythm and blues music that has the ability to stir the soul in dark and mysterious ways. And even if it was only for a few fleeting moments, they used that mojo to break through the surface of the synthesized, robotic sheen of popular music to reveal the blood and guts of rock and roll beneath .