Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In 1956, Jalacy Hawkins entered the studio, planning to record a blues ballad he had been performing live with some success. Producer Arnold Maxon had other ideas, and to fulfill them, he brought plenty of alcohol and food and alcohol (not to mention alcohol) into the studio. Hours later, Hawkins staggered up to the microphone and unleashed one of the rawest, bloodiest, most gut-churning vocal performances ever delivered, one that he couldn’t even remember giving the following day. The ballad-turned-reverse-exorcism was banned in radio stations nationwide (they claimed the blast of demented gibberish at the end simulated cannibalism), and the song never charted. Didn’t matter. Jalacy Hawkins would forever after be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and “I Put a Spell On You” would be his raucous calling card.
“Spell” has been covered many, many times since, but nobody’s really tried to approach the levels Hawkins reached – this is one song that requires the artists to make it their own. Among those who have done so are Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Them (one of Van Morrison’s great early performances), Pete Townshend, and Roxy Music. Here are five more.
Alan Price Set – I Put A Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover)
In 1966, the Animals released a decent (if pedestrian by their standards) cover of “Spell.” The same year, Alan Price, the organist who’d left the Animals the year before, brought out his own version, and a public who had once figured he’d committed career suicide put it into the UK top ten. Price’s solo career was hit and miss, but this was one hit that showed him matching Eric Burdon in drama and leaving him far behind on the keys.
Audience – I Put A Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover)
Audience were one of the early art-rock bands, less prog than prog-folk. Their 1971 album The House on the Hill features a cover of “Spell” whose origins are based less in voodoo than Arthurian myth, where the weaving of spells takes more precedence than their casting. A lost treasure.
Elisabeth Kontomanou – I Put A Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover)
Siren Song: Live at Arsenal closes with jazz vocalist Elisabeth Kontomanou, backed by the Orchestre National de Lorraine, confessing to the audience that she’s put a spell on them; judging by the spirited call and response toward the end, they’re not unhappy about it at all. The orchestra is clearly reigning in its powers, but that control gives the song an intimacy that they know not to drive away. As for Knotomanou, when she sings “you’re mine,” there’s no question she knows it’s true.
Isabel – I Put A Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover)
Isabel Santiago’s debut EP, They Made Me a Killer, features a version of “Spell” that rocks, and rocks hard. Over this tough backing, Isabel sounds seductive, angry, and defiantly on top of the world. In short, not a performance that owes anything to anybody.
Natacha Atlas – I Put A Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover)
Of these five versions of “Spell,” Natacha Atlas’s is far and away the most unusual – and it’s all the more thrilling for it. She dresses the song in worldbeat finery, marrying Middle-Eastern roots to western techno rhythms, then sliding her alluring voice throughout, bewitching listeners and truly making them hers for more than a thousand and one nights.
The original “I Put a Spell On You” can be found on iTunes and Amazon.