I ain't lyin', Yeah, I can't stand, no runnin' 'round
I can't stand, no put me down
I put a spell on you, because you're mine
‘Screaming’ Jay Hawkins had one big hit song: ‘I Put A Spell On You’. It is elegant and spare, consisting of 23 individual words, delivered in blistering cries, overlaid on a 12/8 blues backdrop, camouflaged as a 3/4 Cabaret song a la Kurt Weill, on a spine of standard and perfect minor blues cadences. This pared down blues song with a twist became an ever-green classic successfully feeding the performances of many thousands of singers (including me) all over the English-singing world for 60 years, and counting...
The success of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ supports my own experience that audiences love singers to lay it all on the line. They love to be told off. They love to be begged and pleaded with and even abused. Of course, they love to be loved, but the pleasure of being dominated, when there’s no real consequences, is a very real thing. And they love poetic suffering. 'I Put A Spell on You' allows for a big range of emotional interpretations. Nina Simone's lush, slow piano ballad arrives at a sorrow-drenched reading that is probably the most beloved of all the many recordings of the song. It seems most likely that representations of all kinds of extreme states provide safe thrills, a strong motivation for people to come out and pay for performance. And these effects seem to be timeless. Extreme emotional states are also at the heart of most of the traditional British folk songs I love. We adore the singer who lifts us out of the ordinary, who brings us to our feet, who evokes heady passion and emotion. This is what we seek out in performers. Entire genres of literature and research have been built on the recognition of what this powerful exchange can signify in the life of the listener.
But what was Hawkins feeling when he recorded this song? Unfortunately, we will never know, not because he died in 2000, but because he claimed he was so inebriated he couldn’t remember the recording session, incidentally supporting my intuition that the best performance doesn’t require conscious cognitive abilities. But Hawkins subsequently went on to sing his ‘horror rock’ hit for nearly 40 years. Did he grow tired of the song? He kept recording it over and again, even as a dance arrangement in 1991. This song was his one reliable asset. Did he resent the success of other artists who recorded it in the decades that followed? Did he feel the need to be drunk for every performance? We demand that popular singers go on playing the magical songs we came to love in the ‘nostalgia bump’ period of our formative listening years for the rest of their lives, as though chained to our adoration. We reject singers if we feel they have betrayed the identity we embraced when we first developed our crushes on them. We know instinctively when they are singing ‘the wrong song’. It seems to me that we have paid a lot of attention to the role of singers in evoking emotion and shaping identity for listeners and audiences, but without a corresponding curiosity for the experience of the singers themselves.
Singers are undoubtedly privileged to have the means of creating communication, but by no means does that empower them to determine how that communication is received and responded to. ‘Screaming’ Jay sought to manage this transaction in classic show business fashion. Egged on by the producer DJ Alan Freed he mixed humour with outrage, dressing in outlandish costumes (mocking the unconscious racism of his culture and time), and carrying fetish objects (a walking cane with a knob in the shape of a skull, a toilet as a stage prop) to shock audiences into wakeful and responsive states. He made his life story one of outlawry and dominant male posturing, claiming to have fathered over 100 children, and handing out tongue lashings to up and coming performers (taking pot shots at Nick Cave while touring Australia in the 1980s). These externals, the dress and behaviour, became part of the frame by which his singing was understood and enjoyed. Singing was his language, songs were his vehicles, but communication was his art form, an art form that can only be practiced with the consent and contributions of the audience. This may be an extreme example of the principle, but it offers some clarity as I seek to set out my own beliefs, experiences and insights.