American Idol, Johnny Depp, Bette Midler, Nina Simone and Diamanda Galas Put a Spell on You

One of the high points of American Idol‘s first post Simon Cowell season has been Casey Abrams. On the last week before the Top 13 were selected, he performed “I Put a Spell on You” (video ) by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The spell must not have worked, because Abrams suffered the indignity of being voted off twice, but for his swan song, he returned to “I Put a Spell on You.”

Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame places this often-covered song on its list of “The Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll,” it seems that both the song and its creator, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, are not as well known as they should be. Here are four great but very different performances of “I Put a Spell on You” that are sure to do just that.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and a skull named Henry

Oh, go ahead. Once you see and hear Screamin’ Jay, with his buddy Henry (the one who is smoking), perform “I Put a Spell on You,” (video) you probably will want to read the story behind it.

Jalacy Hawkins (1929-2000) – no wonder he preferred Jay Hawkins, and eventually Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – performed in the days when there was music and then there was “race music.” Today, it is hard to imagine that the entertainment industry was as segregated as the buses, but it was. Although he wanted to study opera, he performed rhythm and blues, but as you can hear in that performance, his voice had an operatic quality.

In a 1963 interview (transcript), he summarized his career and told the story behind his best-known song, “I Put a Spell on You,” a song which he had originally intended to be a romantic ballad. What the heck happened?

As Hawkins said in the interview, a producer asked him about conditions when he performed in night clubs, and he responded that they were “so drunk we don’t know what we’re doing.” So, the producer produced “boxes and boxes of booze, and boxes and boxes of chicken,” and told them to have fun. When they were sufficiently relaxed, a recording was made. When Hawkins later heard the recording of his “ballad,” he did not recognize himself. That original recording, praise the chickens, is here.

Somewhere, Henry the skull and those martyred chickens (dying for art, although they could not live for it) join Screamin’ Jay on the chorus of his spell-binding hit. If so, they are in good company.

Johnny Depp, Shane MacGowan & Friends

By the way, those friends include such folks as Nick Cave and Chrissie Hynde (With friends like these…), and you can enjoy their performance here. Shane MacGowan and company released their take on the song as a fund-raiser for Concern Worldwide (website), after the earthquake in Haiti.

Much as I respect artists who donate their time and talents, and much as I enjoy hearing this strong rock version of “I Put a Spell on You,” I wonder if there was any problem with this selection of songs, considering all the talk there was about Voodoo and curses and such in the wake of the earthquake. I still stick with Mary J. Blige’s performance of a 150 year old song as the best of the songs for Haiti, and you can learn what that song is and hear her performance here.

Better Midler

Bette Midler first became recognized playing and singing the role of Tzeitel. one of Tevye’s daughters, in Fiddler on the Roof. But, it was in the early seventies that she gained fame and notoriety as the trash-talking diva of pre-AIDS New York. I cannot find a recording of “I Put a Spell on You” from those days, when her greatest hit was “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (here)

It was not until she improbably metamorphosed into a family-friendly Walt Disney star, complete with chipmunk dentures, that she got around to singing “I Put a Spell on You” as a warm and cuddly witch in Hocus Pocus. Judging from this clip, it seems she used those dentures to chew the life out of Screamin’ Jay’s gritty masterpiece.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone is one of the most elegant singers of all time. Unlike Hawkins, who got loosened up with booze and greased up with friend chicken, Nina Simone keeps the emotion under control. Although many of her performances are almost hieratic, she lets the energy drive the song as if on its own momentum. Sometimes, it seems to burst out into the scat which you can hear in her performance of “I Put a Spell on You” (here).

Just one more: in this live recording in which you can watch her perform (here), it is clear that she must be the only singer on earth who can make “Ain’t Got No” (from Hair) sound like an art song.

Diamanda Galas

Diamanda Galas, of Greek and American origins, has one of the most amazing voices ever recorded, apparently with a range of a gazillion octaves, and she is not afraid to use to the point of abusing every note in that range. She is best-known for her performances in which she shared her sense of horror and rage about the AIDS epidemic and the response to it. “This Is The Law Of The Plague” (here) can still scare me, twenty years after I first heard it.

More intriguing to me are her covers of popular songs and folk songs. When Diana Ross sings “My World Is Empty without You” (here), it seems like an excuse for one (perhaps) last dance. When Diamanda Galas sings it (here), however, she is singing from a truly empty, downright post-apocalyptic world. (Hey, isn’t that Mad Max charging over the horizon?)

She deconstructs these songs and makes us hear what is actually there. So, what can she do with “I Put a Spell on You”? Well, listen (here). She almost literally puts a spell on us, and I am left feeling we may never be the same.

Did I put a spell on you?

If you have hung on to this not-so-bitter end, I must have. I’m feeling a little groggy myself (bravely giving Diamanda Galas’s “Spell” another listen). I have to give an appreciative nod to Casey Abrams, whose great song choices could have inspired a whole anthology like this.