If you own a television, or a radio, or seen a movie within the last 50 years or so, you’ve heard this song. More than likely, you have listened to the original version. Or this one. Or maybe this one. Gen-X knows this one. I Put A Spell on You is one of those tunes that’s etched a permanent place into the bedrock of American culture. And as unique as this cut is, the singer/creator of the song is just as singular as a notable figure.

The artist in question is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Hawkins was a flamboyant and spookily campy performer for the majority of his career. So much so, he was once described as “a black Vincent Price”. Hawkins was also born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, reportedly by Blackfoot Indians. What’s really interesting about I Put A Spell on You is that this song not only became a hit, it’s actually also the origin for Hawkins’ career. He got drunk one night in a studio, and he intended to sing “…Spell” in its original incarnation, a typical ballad. However, because he was smashed, he grunted and growled on the track. And, he inadvertently ended up making a classic hit, while finding his identity as an artist and performer. Soon after the song’s success, Hawkins (with help and prodding from the legendary Alan Freed, also from Cleveland) added the ‘Screamin’” to his name, as well as creepy props and stagecraft to his live shows.

Interestingly enough, I Put A Spell on You was a very controversial single. Because of the audible grunts and moans on the song, many people, radio stations, and organizations saw it as sexually inappropriate. Surprisingly, the NAACP was angry at Hawkins about the song. Hawkins would have the last laugh, as even though the song never charted on any of Billboard’s charts due to many radio stations banning it, I Put A Spell on You sold over a million copies in the ‘50’s (when it was released). The sales were largely attributed to the controversy surrounding the song. This would not be the end of notorious singles becoming massive hits because of notoriety.

Cleveland native Screamin’ Jay Hawkins put a spell on all of us decades ago, and it hasn’t been lifted. And, that’s cool. Nothin’ wrong with a little bit of mojo. Especially when it comes out of our state.

Miami Valley Music Focus explores the places and people behind the music of Southwest, Ohio. This series is made possible by support from Ohio Arts Council.