Along with old school tv variety shows and children’s television, one of the main links between the vaudeville era and our own was the rock and roll novelty hit, combining extravagant showmanship and comedy with the prevailing electric sounds of the day. The kings of this approach (so much so that they transcended the limitations of mere novelty) were songwriters Lieber & Stoller, whom I’m bound to write about here on some later date. But today happens to be the birthday of the late great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and so we celebrate him today.
Screamin’ Jay’s signature 1956 hit “I Put a Spell on You” lives in the same universe as Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” and the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. By all rights, it shouldn’t. If you listen to the words and music, it’s just a blues song. Jay’s outlandish vocal performance made people perk up and listen and the record was successful. In the wake of that success, he made his theatrical presentation match the record’s over-the-top quality, assuming a witch doctor persona.
Here is the best clip I could find of Hawkins unfettered:
This probably didn’t help the cause of civil rights much. He’s kind of a sad example of a certain show biz pitfall, one that certainly was common in the vaudeville days as well. The business is a struggle to find your niche. When you find out what works you do more of it, and that can equal success. The trick is (if you’re any kind of a worthwhile artist) is to find ways to build on the initial impression and expand the audience’s expectations. If you can’t, you wind up a one trick pony. As far as the public is concerned Screamin’ Jay Hawkins IS “I Put a Spell on You.” In reality, he was a very talented guy, and I’m just as happy to hear his other tunes, like “Alligator Wine” and “Feast of the Mau Mau”. Jay passed away in 2000.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.