When you think about Rock ‘n’ Roll — from its roots in the rhythm and blues music of the ’40s and ’50s to the countless styles of modern rock — there are a few notable influencers that immediately come to mind. Fats Domino was an early pioneer in rock music, as was Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Louis; Elvis helped usher in the Rockabilly genre, while acts like The Beatles spurred the British Invasion and our country’s love of British rock. One name that doesn’t get enough credit, in my humble opinion, is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Hawkins is probably best known for his 1956 smash hit “I Put a Spell on You,” a song that’s been covered by the likes of Nina Simone and Creedence Clearwater Revival and was selected as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. As you’ll see in the following clip, Hawkins had an eccentric performing style. He’s credited as one of the pioneers of Shock Rock, often appearing on stage in a cape. His shows featured fireworks, coffins, and macabre props including a cigarette-smoking skull named “Henry.”
In Michael L. LaBlanc’s 1992 book “Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music, Volume 8,” Hawkins described the song: “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.” Check out the following clip to see one of Hawkins’ earliest known performances of “I Put a Spell on You,” from a 1966 episode of The Merv Griffin T.V. Show that’s been phenomenally restored by Reelin’ In The Years Productions. You’ll notice how Hawkins almost breaks character a few times and busts into laughter. He sure was quite the performer!