“So Goth, I Was BORN Black”

How Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Spearheaded the Goth Music Movement

In the recording studios of OKeh, a man, simply named Jay, walked in with a team of musicians, with the intention to record a heart-wrenching love ballad, filled with mourning. What resulted however, would shake up the music industry forever. Just after Halloween, the chill of one drunken, November evening in 1956 brought us one of the most iconic, perplexing, and somewhat horrifying pieces of music ever recorded. This was how “I Put A Spell On You” was born.

Prior to the inception of the 50s classic, Hollywood was already being re-infected by the Horror bug. The invention of Vampira, the popularity of American actor Vincent Price, and the rise of B-movie Horror flicks cemented a public love for the macabre, as established in the 30s, with Universal Studios’ Dracula, and Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were monster legends on the silver screen. Vampira, the queen of the television screen. But no one was making waves in the music scene to inject this beloved aesthetic into sound. How Jay Hawkins’ “Spell” was born was a complete accident, but those around him knew they had something special on their hands, from the moment they heard Hawkins’ vocal delivery.

The rare, original recording of “I Put a Spell on You” (now available on YouTube), was a simple, sad blues tune, that may or may not have entered the public’s consciousness had it been released as is. This version was recorded for Grand Records, in late 1955. Nearly a year passes, and Jay chooses to re-record it for OKeh Records, this time with producer Arnold Maxin on board. The story goes, Maxin brought in food and drink (plenty of drink) for Jay and his musicians, turning the session into an evening of inebriated music making.

“[The producer] brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version … I don’t even remember making the record. 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.” -Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Thus, the “Spell” was complete, and in November of 1956, OKeh Records released “I Put a Spell on You”, under his new artist name, “Screamin’” Jay Hawkins. No records prior bear the moniker “Screamin’” in front of his name (see: Discogs).

Alan Freed, a Cleveland disc jockey, approached Hawkins about playing up his image, to draw the most out of this newfound success, including the wild idea of rising up out of a coffin for one of his performances. The rest, as they say, was history. Combining the aesthetic of Vincent Price (and coincidently his mustache), and an aura of Haitian voodooism, his act was born. He became the subject of mass media attention in the 50s, side by side with the best of the Horror scene. He was one of them; taking the derogatory “spook”, and turning it on its head—reclaimed, and turned into profit.

What Screamin’ Jay Hawkins created is what we now associate today with Shock Rock. The main features being his vocal delivery, his wardrobe, and props used on the stage to give macabre effects. With the 1960s came the first wave of Shock Rockers, directly influenced by the path Hawkins had carved out for them. Screaming Lord Sutch, of out London, used British Horror imagery, such as the legend of Jack the Ripper, to form his artist identity. Arthur Brown, who has covered Hawkins’ hit, wore corpse paint, and wore a flaming helmet upon his head in live performances. The Spiders, Alice Cooper’s original band name (1964-1967), performed with a huge, black spider’s web as their first ever stage prop. In the 70s, The Cramps, notable Gothabilly band, also claimed influence by Hawkins. And with these acts introduce a long line of Goth Rock history, that may not sound alike at times, but all descend from the same tree.