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I Put a Spell on You
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“Screamin' Jay's the shit,” proclaims Eszter Balint as she lugs a boom box blaring Screamin' Jay Hawkins' 1956 recording of “I Put a Spell on You” down a New Jersey street in a key sequence from Jim Jarmusch's 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise. Balint plays a poker-faced, newly emigrated Hungarian for whom the delirium of Screamin' Jay represents the wildness of an America she seeks but never finds. (Hawkins occupies a special place in Jarmusch's personal pantheon – the director cast him as the impassive night clerk at a seedy Memphis hotel in his 1989 feature Mystery Train; glowering, clad in a bright-red suit from Lansky's Men's Wear, Hawkins looks like a human volcano on the verge of eruption.) As an emblem of our native music's untamed heart, the great R&B wild man is in a class by himself.
“I Put a Spell on You” defined both Hawkins' recording career and his manic persona for all time. Cut for OKeh Records under the influence of several gallons of cheap muscatel, the song featured Screamin' Jay ranting, shrieking and groaning, basso profundo, through a sodden chunk of incantatory delirium (which made its unlikely debut as a ballad in its original 1952 version). The bloodcurdling “Spell” quickly became the object of a de facto ban by radio stations, but it attained a life of its own and later spawned covers ranging stylistically from the voluptuous (Nina Simone, 1965) to the utterly unhinged The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, 1968).
Longing for a career in opera (!) but knowing a good thing when he saw it, Hawkins transformed himself into one of rock & roll's great monstres sacres; in concert, he would leap out of a casket to prowl the stage in flowing robes, rattling a juju stick capped by a human skull. His post-“Spell” studio work was characterized by an unpredictable madness; even his renditions of standards like “I Love Paris” and “Temptation” were excursions into galloping lunacy.
Hawkins recorded most prolifically through the mid-'70s, but has kept busy since. He often performed in L.A. when he lived here during the '80s. I recall an encounter with him one night when he was hanging out at Raji's; he was clad in a pair of bib overalls, the pockets of which were mystifyingly filled with dozens of different-colored ballpoint pens. In recent years he has lived in Europe. Earlier this year the French label Last Call released At Last, which has been picked up domestically by Valley Entertainment. Not surprisingly, it's a frequently strange record that exhibits the nutty hallmarks of past Screamin' Jay opuses.
Last Call needed a producer capable of getting good work from a left-field talent without running off the rails, so they called Jim Dickinson. The Memphis-bred producer-musician guided Alex Chilton through Big Star's Third and Chilton's own Like Flies on Sherbert, so it may be said that he has some experience dealing with extremes. Dickinson (who plays keyboards on Hawkins' album under the handle “East Memphis Slim”) cut the record in Memphis with a crack crew of sidemen, including Muscle Shoals rhythm-section pros Roger Hawkins (drums) and David Hood (bass), local sax ace Jim Spake, and singer Kelley Hurt, a veteran of the bands D.D.T. and the North Mississippi All Stars, which both featured Dickinson's young sons. Playing it tight and clean, the combo ably backs Hawkins on his more subdued R&B sorties, and is equally supportive when the star is in full-on wacko mode.
When he's not falling off his rocker, Screamin' Jay sports a robust velveteen croon, which he exercises effectively on a straightforward cha-cha ballad, “I'll Be There.” He also keeps things in check on the duet “Coulda', Woulda', Shoulda',” an elegy for a love affair on which Hurt holds her own with the old ogre. However, excess is at the heart of Hawkins' game, and the album's most memorable tracks quickly sail over the top.
A couple of numbers make effective use of double-tracked vocals: On “Listen,” a sequel of sorts to Hawkins' 1969 ode to intestinal distress, “Constipation Blues,” Hawkins conducts a dialogue with his incomprehensibly gibbering woman, to whom he prescribes various laxatives to quell her romantic ills, while on “Life Goes On” his comforting lyrics are met with the inconsolable howls of his deranged alter ego. “Potluck” revisits the fantastically unappetizing menus of such '50s songs as “Alligator Wine” and “There's Something Wrong With You”; after proffering servings of “baked barbecue gorilla ribs,” “French-fried baboon lips” and “smothered orangutang toes,” Screamin' Jay yelps to his guests, “Bone appo-TEET!” For closers, he dismembers Bob Marley's “I Shot the Sheriff,” tossing in a few international frissons: “Here comes Yeltsin, the KGB . . . Yasser Arafat's got a baseball bat . . . Watch out for the Northwest Mounted Police . . . Korea's got its problems, too.” Next stop, the U.N.
At Last is a strong starter set for Hawkins newcomers, who are directed to the terrific Epic CD Cow Fingers and Mosquito Pie (which contains his maniacal 1958 album, At Home With Screamin' Jay Hawkins) for further sustenance. Yes indeed – now, as then, Screamin' Jay's still the shit, and weird shit it is.