An R&B "ballad" that's just as raw and primal as the voodoo implied in the title, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" is one of the seminal songs from the rock & roll era. It's not only one of the great vocal performances of the period, it's also a prime piece of proof that -- Pat Boone notwithstanding -- the roots of rock & roll were just as primal as the Bible Belt figured. Hawkins first wrote and recorded the song in 1949 for the tiny Grand label, and in its first incarnation, the song actually was a ballad. By the time he re-recorded it for OKeh, in 1956, session producer Arnold Maxon suggested Hawkins make his performance just as spooky as the title. Reportedly, he turned the session into a picnic with plenty of food and alcohol for everyone involved. According to legend, when Screamin' Jay heard the results a week later, he refused to believe the assortment of screams, groans, and grunts was his performance -- and until he downed some scotch, he was unable to reproduce it. (Considering he was billed Screamin' Jay Hawkins even on the early 1949 date, the story seems apocryphal.) After radio stations across the country banned the single, Columbia (OKeh's parent) removed some of the choicer bits, but it still never even made the more risqué R&B charts. Nevertheless, hundreds of novelty fans kept the fire burning during the late '50s and early '60s, and Hawkins is celebrated as one of the early rock & roll era's most endearing performers.
In early 1965, Nina Simone made "I Put a Spell on You" just one of an inspired series of covers she performed during the era, expanding the vocal jazz repertoire to include music from R&B to French cabaret to traditional folk. Over mournful strings and her own saloon-tinged piano, Simone cries out her lyrics, warning a lover of the consequences of stepping out and staking her claim to him. As Simone spits out her final lines, "And I don't care, if you don't want me/I'm yours right now," the listener begins to wonder just who's put the spell on who. The track also became a popular cover during the late '60s for artists including Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Animals, Manfred Mann, Them, Arthur Brown, and Leon Russell.