The Curious History of “I Put a Spell On You”

The Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack was released earlier this week, and surprisingly, it’s composed of more than sounds of hundreds of “holy cows” a-mooing and “holy craps” a-squelching. No, to bring some semblance of chemistry to the stars’ seemingly steely relationship, the soundtrack enlists the sex-therapeutic presences of talents like Beyoncé, Sia, Frank Sinatra, Ellie Goulding, the Rolling Stones and Annie Lennox. The Lennox track is especially noteworthy, as it’s a cover of the oft-covered Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.”

Lennox, as she proved at the Grammys, still can belt an amazing performance, but the nature of her music has shifted towards the wholly uninspiring (“I Put a Spell On You” first appeared on her standards album Nostalgia — which followed an album called A Christmas Cornucopia — before the Fifty Shades soundtrack). This isn’t atypical for a contemporary performer who chooses to cover “I Put a Spell on You.” The original song’s brevity and lyrical simplicity, coupled with its suggestive rhythm and alternately feline and forceful instrumentation, can render any aspiring cover-artist an invincible love-sorcerer of sorts, regardless of how plain the rest of that artist’s back catalog might be. Even the most forgettable of American Idol singers can, and will, choose to sing it, and it’ll still be compelling because of the masterful, near-foolproof framework set up in the original track.

It’s one of those rare songs that sonically matches its lyrical content, but here the heavy-handedness is so deft that it bewitches rather than repels. This perfection has become something of a vice for films — it’s turned up in Crazy Love, Lost Highway, Hocus Pocus, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Stranger than Paradise, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and Kinky Boots (as well being covered by the aforementioned vocalists, and also appearing in commercials for McDonalds, Burger King, and Pringle’s Potato Chips). It’s invoked whenever someone needs a quick way to put a spell on audiences.

The entire appeal of The Ballad of Jack and Rose, for example, lay in the repeated usage of Nina Simone’s cover. Because of its very brilliance, the song has become somewhat over-covered — it’s a welcome listen, because it’s impeccable, but no matter how punchily a vocalist delivers it, it loses some of its punch each time.

Of all the things the song has metamorphosed into, and all of the meanings and anti-meanings it’s taken on, the original — which never made the charts — remains the most potent, perhaps because it’s a historically spectacular vocal performance, perhaps because an extemporaneously weird recording of the song defined Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ entire career, or perhaps because of the uncomfortable murkiness of its identity politics seen in Hawkins’ performances. Probably all of the above.

It’s a known-ish fact that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wouldn’t have been Screamin’ Jay Hawkins if it weren’t for the drunken shenanigans — foreshadowing a life replete with shenanigans — that overtook his performance of what was originally intended to be a love ballad. After getting blackout drunk on a night of recording “I Put a Spell On You,” he realized he “could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death” than attempting more traditional blues stylings. He told the LA Times that he “called on [his] opera training” and his ability to “scream soprano.”

At the time of recording, in 1955, The Beatles didn’t even exist, and thus hadn’t yet “sexually revolutionized” music with their perverse, licentious claims of “want[ing] to hold your hand.” So you can imagine how listeners responded to Hawkins’ song of demonic attraction, which he ended in a series of noises that sounded halfway between your typical, orgasming man and a pig who’d just completed a marathon (different Hawkins recordings culminate in various other animal noises). It was, of course, banned on many radio stations and in stores.

Hawkins realized, with the help of DJ Alan Freed, that the possessed, voracious hyper-sexuality that surfaced in that first recording could make for a larger artistic persona, and he soon undertook a sartorial transformation to match the vocal performance. His ghoulish spell-caster look — which often involved emerging from coffins, sporting witch-doctor-y nose appendages, capes and leopard print and toting a smoking skull on a stick — stayed with him throughout his career. It did plunge itself into the questionable territory of racial stereotyping, consumed with glee by white audiences (see this 1966 performance on the Merv Griffin show, for instance.) Hawkins said, again in the LA Times, that he did it “to be different — putting on a cape and putting a bone in my nose and acting like a lunatic.” His performances were met with scorn by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

But was Hawkins’ performative identity — especially through this particular song — just as much a confrontation of white audiences’ perceptions? Was it not in some ways both an indictment of those who wanted to consume the music of black artists, or more egregiously, music appropriated from black artists (Elvis was, after all, just releasing his first recordings at the time), without acknowledging America’s backwards relationship to its black population? If racism and oppression were fueled by fear of the black man, then was it not an immensely bold statement to confront white audiences with their own preposterous fears, as opposed to trying to appease them by performing whatever they deemed to be acceptable for black people in the public eye — i.e. passivity and whiteness?

The fact that the song was a chart-topping single in 1968 for white singer Alan Price, but not for Hawkins a decade earlier, speaks to this level of “acceptability,” and to Hawkins’ boldness in setting himself outside of it. At a time when civil rights were questioned because white people wanted to keep the black population in check, was it not a huge statement to make public the unprecedented sound that was Hawkins’ vocal rage and lust? (The ambiguous statement of Hawkins’ aesthetic was surely later once again brought into question by his satiric album title, Black Music for White People.)

As was previously mentioned, the song was thereafter covered ad infinitum, a phenomenon likely sparked more by Nina Simone’s cover (the song became such a known part of her repertoire, and so quintessential to her own artistic image, that she named her autobiography after it) than Hawkins’ original. Simone’s performance, apart from the sheer awesomeness of its mordant seductiveness, is powerful in its affiliation with the singer’s known activism, as it was a potent assertion of black, female power. Though it in no way attempted to imitate Hawkins’ unhinged belch-operatics, Simone’s version began as matter-of-fact — pronouncing the first lines “I put a spell on you” with spoken certainty, before waxing melodic, then escalating in a sexy battle with an invigorated sax, which ultimately surrenders to Simone’s climactic scat.

Usage of the song later became humorously (and self-awarely) literal with witchy goth-comedies like Elvira and Hocus Pocus, where Bette Midler’s un-seductive, buck-toothed witch hypnotizes listeners with a spell — none other than the song “I Put a Spell on You” — which she hopes will lead them to “dance until [they] die!!” Marilyn Manson and Black Sabbath likewise reapplied the song’s dark-fantasy lyrics to their own dark, fantastical images, in ways that were at once fitting and utterly bizarre. While these were intentionally literal, dumbly smart extensions of the song’s transforming cultural path, other covers were less inspiring. Most tended to recast the song merely as a saucy standard, a vessel for powerful, if not particularly unique, vocal performances aided by generic instrumentals (She and Him did it! Queen Latifah did it! Joss Stone did it! Even Van Morrison did it! Now Annie Lennox did it!). It seemed to suddenly provide artists who might lack edge with an instant dash of fire.

Now, its inclusion on the Fifty Shades of Grey Soundtrack — as part of a white story whose diluted BDSM sexuality “relies on a patriarchal asymmetry” — brings the song oh-so-much further from its origins. This is, of course, inevitable with a famous old song, which is as vulnerable to the passage of time as anything else. It shouldn’t be lamented too heavily, because what’s the point?

However, we can remind ourselves of the song’s more powerful, less hackneyed origins, of its raw and astonishing boldness, and of its having belonged to a series of loaded statements before having evolved into something of a meaning-devoid, innocuously “naughty” standard. As we saw at the Grammys, it’s undeniable that Annie Lennox’s vocal performance is towering, but the song’s meaning is stripped. The “patriarchal asymmetry” in which Fifty Shades of Grey exists (and in which a great deal of our lives exist) will surely continue to pluck and brand art (as we’ve seen in this song’s use in commercials and Shades) to adorn its products and increase its capital. There’s no avoiding it, and hey, it even sounds pretty catchy. But sometimes it’s worth remembering the more fraught and even ethically murky histories of these works before allowing them to convince us to buy a hamburger or an official “Fifty Shades of Grey Twitchy Palm Paddle.”