Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Spellbound

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Ex-boxer Screamin' Jay Hawkins' live show, full of on-stage coffins, skulls, and toilets, prefigured the extravagant concert productions of later artists like Alice Cooper and George Clinton. Hawkins' full awareness of the visual aspect of rock music extended even to his lyrics, which were purposefully graphic and surreal. In essence, Hawkins was a one- or two-trick pony, but boy, those ponies could run. His masterpiece was "I Put a Spell on You," which he originally recorded for OKeh Records (supposedly while extremely drunk) in 1956, and while Hawkins' version was never even close to being a commercial hit, the song has been covered so many times (most notably by Nina Simone) that it has deservedly been certified as a rock and R&B classic. There are two versions of "Spell" on this collection, Spellbound, which were tracked in Nashville in 1973, and the song is practically indestructible no matter how many goofy vocal spins Hawkins puts on it. Also here are redone versions of 1969's utterly stupid "Constipation Blues" -- a song about exactly what the title says it's about -- and 1957's surreal "Alligator Wine," along with its even weirder mirror-flip, "Feast of the Mau-Mau," which loops in enough off-balance and eerie vocal effects to be genuinely creepy. Hawkins emerges as a kind of cartoon figure on all of his recordings, and this one is no exception, and while the playing here is clean and professional, that isn't exactly what you look for on a Hawkins' recording. This is a man who sang about constipation, after all, and appeared on-stage with a toilet seat of his own design, so professional refinement is hardly going to bring out his best. Nashville had no chance of really understanding this guy.

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