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Hawkins wrote this as a ballad lamenting the loss of a girlfriend he wanted back. The original version was a lot slower and much more tame. Hawkins was recording for Grand Records at the time, and had a hard time convincing them to release this. A year later, Hawkins recorded the version that became famous for another label, and transformed the song into a spooky tale about putting a curse on the girl so he can have her.
Hawkins performed the ghoulish version for the first time at a Christmas concert staged by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed in 1956. He got a huge reaction from the song, and Freed invited him to perform it on his TV special. Hawkins developed a bizarre stage show around this. He would come out in a flaming coffin and wield a skull on a stick that he named "Henry."
The producers wanted a "weird" sounding record, so they gave the musicians lots of food and liquor and created a party atmosphere at the session.
The version with various grunts and groans was banned by most radio stations. An edited version became a hit with teenagers who liked the forbidden sound.
Around Halloween, this becomes very popular every year.
Before taking on his spooky stage persona, Hawkins (real name: Jalacy Hawkins) was a boxer and professional piano player. He died in February, 2000 and was rumored to have at least 50 children. There was even a website set up after his death to help locate all his kids.
Creedence Clearwater revival covered this in 1968 and performed it at Woodstock in 1969. It was their second single, but did not chart.
Another popular version was by The Animals, who released it on their 1966 album Animalization. Eric Burdon performed the song with a reunited Animals at a 2006 concert in Lugano, Italy.
This was also covered by Arthur Brown, from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, who also liked to use fire as part of his stage act. Arthur Brown's only hit was "Fire." (thanks, David - Lubbock, TX)
Another popular cover was by Nina Simone, an influential singer who performed a variety of standards and jazz songs before her death in 2003. Her 1991 autobiography is titled I Put A Spell On You.
Marilyn Manson recorded this for his album Smells Like Children. His growling, often snarled lyrics were a rather odd contrast to the music, although it was significantly darker and more "metal" than it had been originally. (thanks, Brett - Edmonton, Canada)
Joe Cocker covered this on his 2004 album Heart And Soul. Eric Clapton added to the track with a typical "slowhand" guitar solo. (thanks, Howard - Figtree, Australia)
The Notorious B.I.G. sampled the bass line of this song and speeded it up for his song "Kick In The Door."
On The Simpsons, this song was used at the end of an episode in which Krusty the Klown invents a new sandwich for his fast food chain which has both addictive and psychedelic properties. (thanks, Will - Boston, MA, for above 2)
This was used as a recurring theme in Jim Jarmusch's first film, Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Eva (Ezster Balint) comes to America from Hungary, carrying a tape recorder on which she plays the song at top volume as she walks down the street. She proclaims "It's Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and he's a wild man, so bug off." She plays the tape on a roadtrip in her cousin's car; he is unimpressed, but his friend cheerily proclaims it "Driving Music." (thanks, Ekristheh - Halath)
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