Musical Comedy: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

sjhThis post is intended as supplemental material for the course “Sounds of Laughter: Musical Comedy in the United States”

Every Halloween season, I start hearing “I Put a Spell On You” (1956) by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in stores and on the radio. What was once a song that genuinely scared White Americans has now become a child-oriented novelty. Ellis (2008, 58) [see Quote Library] describes the initial recording process. Intended as a blues ballad, “on the playback it appeared that someone had put a spell on the recording session.

“What had meant to be a song about sad longing unintentionally turned into a menacing one about a mentally unhinged protagonist. Hawkins capitalized on the “hype and furor” surrounding this recording, playing “on white fears of the black man.” (ibid, 59) His cultivated a stage act based on this persona – included Henry (the skull on a pole seen in the photo above), a coffin, and other macabre accessories.  His blend of horror/comedy served as an inspiration for many subsequent musical acts, such as Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson. The song “I Put a Spell on You” has been covered and sampled by many artists. Of these, one of the most famous is Nina Simone’s version (1965). She conveys more of the intended pathos of the song.

See Also:

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on YouTube

Week 7 (Sounds of Laughter)

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist and Instructor

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