I put a Spell on You

Screamin' Jay Hawkins' classic 1955 song 'I Put a Spell on You' has bewitched musicians and film-makers alike for six decades

Screamin' Jay Hawkins


I was first recorded in 1955. I've been banned, covered by metal bands, sampled by Notorious B.I.G., and used in Disney and Tarantino movies alike. More recently, I've starred in Fifty Shades of Grey, and now Belstaff's haunting new film, The Outlaws. What song am I?

The answer - of course - is 'I Put a Spell on You', one of modern music's most evocative tunes. And also one of its most controversial. Ever since its remarkable conception, this brief track has retained an association with the avant-garde, and an affinity for all things dark and divisive.

That legendary first recording started it all. Having intended to lay down 'a refined love song', the then-unheralded blues singer Jay Hawkins - the 'Screamin'' appendage hailed from this unique performance - instead got fabulously drunk, recited this raggedy ripsnorter and then blacked out. The following day, he needed to relearn the song.

Nina Simone


The deranged persona that had emerged during this session quickly became Hawkins' gimmick. He began performances in a coffin, entertained snakes on stage, and was likened to a black Vincent Price. With primitive animal noises and a cigarette-smoking skull also becoming part of the routine, 'shock rock' was born, a genre whose many subsequent adherents have included Eric Burdon, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson.

With its provocative grunts and lusty snorts, the original track, meanwhile, was soon banned by record stores and radio stations. Nevertheless, with the help of a re-recorded version the following year, 'I Put a Spell on You' is reckoned to have sold a million copies. It's easy to see why: as well as being so memorable, with its beguilingly simple lyrics, sudden peaks of passion and easy rhythmic construction, Hawkins' track demonstrates a kind of perfection.

And if the existence of numerous cover versions are the true measure of a song's fame, then 'I Put a Spell on You' is undoubtedly an A-lister. The list of appropriators runs from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Bryan Ferry, Manfred Mann and Queen Latifah. The most famous version remains Nina Simone's soaring, saxophone-backed incarnation of 1965, while Annie Lennox's contemporary take accompanies the silver-screen affair between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

The song's appearance in Fifty Shades of Grey is typical of its eclectic filmography. The track also plays in Natural Born Killers as Mallory Knox, played by Juliette Lewis, slays a gas-station attendant. The Marilyn Manson rendition swirls around David Lynch's trippy Lost Highway. A grotesquely disguised Bette Midler sings it in the 1993 witch comedy Hocus Pocus. Simone's cover recurs in the 2005 hippie-edged family drama The Ballad of Jack & Rose. And Jim Jarmusch uses it in Stranger than Paradise, perhaps the ultimate art-house flick. They are all edgy films, and all are in keeping with the song's counter-cultural spirit.

The Outlaws Surrealist Mariachi Band


The Outlaws embodies that same spirit, its surrealist air inspired by the works of Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini and 1940s noir. A natural soundtrack choice, then, 'I Put a Spell On You', warbled by a bearded chanteuse fronting a bizarre circus band, makes a typically bold impact. Sixty years after it was first recorded, Hawkins' classic remains the oddball's tune of choice.


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