This is the 44th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Might be best remembered for his 1956 song, “I Put a Spell on You.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included it in a list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and Rolling Stone magazine included it on a list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In the song, Hawkins sang to an object of his affection, though whether it was a partner or an unrequited love is not clear:
I put a spell on you because you’re mine
You better stop the things that you do
I ain’t lyin’, no, I ain’t lyin’
I just can’t stand it babe
The way you’re always runnin’ ’round
I just can’t stand it, the way you always put me down
I put a spell on you because you’re mine
The lyrics, when combined with Hawkins’ visceral delivery, indicate that it was Hawkins who was under the spell. According to Hawkins, he wanted to record “I Put a Spell on You” as a love song or a blues ballad, but the recording session took a turn:
[The producer] brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version … I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.
At least one critic has questioned the detailsAt least one critic has questioned the details of the story, given that Hawkins had been billed as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins since at least 1949. Regardless, it’s a good story, even if it’s not 100 percent true.
Some radio stations banned playing the single, so his label’s parent company edited out what it perceived to be the most objectionable content. Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” didn’t chart, but a loyal base of fans kept the single popular into the early ’60s.
In 1965, Nina Simone released a version of “I Put a Spell on You” that reached Number 23 on the Billboard R&B chart and Number 49 on the UK singles chart. Whereas Hawkins sang and cackled over a horn section, Simone sang in smoother jazz style over piano, strings, and more restrained horns. But the pain was just as apparent in her version, even if she wasn’t demonically laughing like Hawkins.
The Animals recorded “I Put a Spell on You” for its 1966 US album “Animalization” and its British album “Animalisms” released the same year. Eric Burdon’s vocals built up slowly over the keyboards and gritty guitar, which stood out in the absence of horns. By the end, Burdon sounded as if he were possessed himself, repeating “I love you, I love you” over and over again.
When Creedence Clearwater Revival covered the song two years later, it retained the unpolished vibe of The Animals’ version, but the rasp of John Fogerty’s voice, with a hint of twang, tapped into the bluesier parts at the heart of the song.
Under the stage name Dee Dee, Dutch singer Anna Dekkers released a disco version of “I Put a Spell on You” in in 1978. Whereas other singers emphasized the phrase “I put a spell on you,” Dekkers treated that as secondary to the following line: “Because you’re miiiiine.”
Actor Tim Curry released three studio albums, the final of which was “Simplicity” in 1981, a mix of covers and original songs. In Curry’s “I Put a Spell of You,” he sounded under a spell himself, singing subdued vocals over a minimal backing track. About a minute in, drums kicked in, but Curry never sounded as emotionally tormented as Simone or Hawkins did in their versions.
Nick Cave and the Cavemen recorded a version of “I Put a Spell on You” that appeared on the 1984 compilation album, “Department of Enjoyment.” Not only did Cave sound as if he were partaking in an exorcism, so did all the instruments.
In 1985, Hawkins released a live album with psychedelic garage rock band The Fuzztones. The live version of “I Put a Spell on You” felt even rawer and more visceral than the already gritty 1956 version, a feat that’s hard to believe given Hawkins’ angst-ridden performance in that studio version.
Pete Townshend’s 1986 live album “Deep End Live!” included a few cover songs, including The English Beat’s “Save It For Later.” In his live cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” The dialed-back, bluesy guitar matched Townshend’s somber vocals, which slowly built up over the song’s four minutes.
In the 1993 movie, “Hocus Pocus,” Bette Midler performed a modified version of “I Put a Spell on You” with Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as her backup singers. It was sped up, with added lyrics to serve the plot, but it was cute because they were witches. Get it? Witches? Singing “I Put a Spell on You”?
Bryan Ferry’s “I Put a Spell on You” appeared on his 1993 album, “Taxi.” Though it wasn’t a dance song, per se, it was funky enough to at least a head-bobber.
Marilyn Manson’s 1995 EP “Smells Like Children” featured many covers, including the cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” that introduced the band to a more mainstream audience. The band’s take on “I Put a Spell on You” was just as unsettling as anything else on the EP, and that’s saying a lot for an EP that had a track called “May Cause Discoloration of the Urine or Feces.”
In 1998, British DJ and pop singer Sonique recast “I Put a Spell on You” as a synth-heavy dance track, much like she would do a little more than a decade later with “I Say A Little Prayer.” The thumping bass line changed the dynamics of the song, but without removing what made previous versions of “I Put a Spell on You” so spooky.
“Philharmania” was a 1998 album produced, arranged and conducted by Mike Batt, in which guest singers performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the guest singers were Roger Daltrey, Marc Almond, Bonnie Tyler, Huey Lewis, and Kim Wilde. Tyler’s track on the album was a cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” and a rather majestic one, in which her signature raspy vocals were paired with soaring strings. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s involvement gave it an grandiose feel, sounding like it had been recorded as the theme for an epic film.
Joe Cocker’s “I Put a Spell on You,” on his 2004 album “Heart & Soul,” began with a capella vocals, in which he sounded like Bobcat Goldthwait impersonating Cookie Monster impersonating Hawkins. About 30 seconds in, a backing piano appeared, and Cocker’s voice became calm and intelligible. He then spent the next few minutes working up to the climactic end, where he once again channeled in his inner Bobcat Cookie Monster.
That same year, Queen Latifah covered the song for her fifth studio album, a jazz-inspired covers album called “The Dana Owens Album.” Her role in “Chicago” showed she had a range beyond R&B and hip-hop, and with this album, she further demonstrated her diverse talents. Her smooth version of “I Put a Spell on You” invoked the jazz version by Simone, but it was not a copycat version by any means.
Released in 2009, “Sweetheart: Our Favorite Artists Sing Their Favorite Love Songs” was the third installment of Starbucks Valentine’s Day cover compilation series. She & Him, the pop duo comprising Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, contributed a spooky, minimalist version of “I Put a Spell on You.”
In 2010, Shane McGowan, formerly of The Pogues, assembled a group of celebrities to record a version of “I Put a Spell on You” to raise money for Concern Worldwide, a Dublin-based organization that had worked in Haiti for more than a decade. Recording under the name Shane McGowan & Friends, the group included Johnny Depp, Chrissie Hynde, Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, the Clash’s Mick Jones, Glen Matlock, Paloma Faith, and Eliza Doolittle. Despite sounding faithful to Hawkins’ instrumentation, it was hard not to think of this version as Shane McGowan having a party in a studio. Because it basically was, and it was not just any party in the studio, but one to benefit the people of Haiti.
That same year, Jeff Beck included a version of “I Put a Spell on You” with Joss Stone on vocals on his 10th studio album, “Emotion & Commotion.” Beck’s bluesy guitar paired with Stone’s voice so well that you almost wish two of them could record all of your favorite songs. OK, not almost wish. Definitely wish.
Jazz and soul singer Morgan James recorded a live Nina Simone tribute album called, “Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone.” James’ version of “I Put a Spell on You” was slower than Simone’s version, building up from soft instrumentation to a spirited sax solo at the end.
Annie Lennox’s “Nostalgia” was her sixth studio album and her third covers album. In her version of “I Put a Spell on You,” she stretched out the word “spell,” whereas Hawkins and Simone had sung the word tersely and quickly.
Ska band The Holophonics, who we mentioned in the “Seven Nation Army” post and on the “Thriller” episode of the radio show, included a version of “I Put a Spell on You” on “MaSKArades Vol. 7: SKAlloween.” The track sounded more reggae than ska, as The Holophonics did not drastically increase the tempo or inundate the song with horns.
“I Put a Spell on You” has been covered by so many artists, in so many different styles, in so many time periods. We’ve discussed many songs that have been covered multiple times, but very few of the songs we’ve discussed have this breadth. “Kids In America” had dozens of covers, too, but many of them were emo pop-punk bands with cult status recognition. But “I Put a Spell on You” has been done by an array of instantly recognizable and insanely talented artists. That Nina Simone and Annie Lennox each recorded versions of this song puts it head and shoulders above most of the songs reviewed here (sorry, “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.”)
Perhaps the reason “I Put a Spell on You” is so ripe for covers is that it’s so easy for artists to make it their own. There’s no signature riff or instantly recognizable bass line. What makes the song recognizable are the lyrics, but there’s not a whole lot of depth to the lyrics. They’re good at capturing a feeling, to be sure, but they’re straight-forward. But with a talented singer, those words can take on a new meaning each time, which is why you could randomly pick five of the versions above and still get more get more diversity than we found in 90 percent of the “Kids In America” covers we reviewed.