June 13, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mark Binelli magically blends the fact and mythology of an unforgettable musician's life in Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Unexpectedly strange, haunting, funny and magical . . . A spectacular exploration into the ways one black musician negotiated racial and gender expectations onstage."
"Why Screamin' Jay Hawkins?" tends to be the first question I'm asked about my new novel. The tone of the question is basically its own answer — I loved the perversity of the choice. Jay would not rank high on the average fan's list of iconic musical figures worthy of novelistic treatment. He had a single hit (see below), a problematic stage persona, a tendency towards fabulism when interviewed. But all of these qualities appealed to me as a fiction writer. If I'd been profiling Hawkins for Rolling Stone, where I've written about music for years, I would have had to check all of his wildest claims — that he'd been raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he'd lied about his age (at fourteen!) in order to enlist in World War II, that he'd been a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska. But here, my mantra became, "What if it were all true?"
"I Put a Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins
This is the one, obviously. I think my first exposure must've been Stranger Than Paradise, the great Jarmusch film. (Eszter Balint, to John Lurie, after he asks what she's listening to: "It's Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and he's a wild man, so bug off!") For a recording that's now a half-century old, "Spell" still sounds so timeless and weird. It certainly hasn't dated like other, more famous hits of the era, and its humor and genuine hauntedness manage to coexist in a way that shouldn't work, but does. A perfect song.
"I Put a Spell On You" by Alice Smith
For some reason, Nina Simone's version of "Spell," much better known than Hawkins' original at this point, has never quite worked for me. But I do love Alice Smith's cover of the cover, which appeared on a Simone tribute album a few ago: her voice, the way she rearranges the lyrics of the chorus, and especially that reverse-tape effect.
"I Put a Spell On You" by Them
The second-most-famous cover of "Spell" is probably Creedence Clearwater Revival's. As with Nina Simone, I'm a huge fan the band, but not when it comes to their reinterpretation of Hawkins. A far superior classic rock take, for my money, is this cover by Them. Van Morrison kills the vocals, and the sax is also quite nice.
"I Put a Spell On You" by Bryan Ferry
Ferry's voice and interpretation carry the day, here. And somehow the cheesy production sounds exactly right.
"Kick In the Door" by the Notorious B.I.G.
A brilliant "Spell" sample on this classic Biggie track from Life After Death — an album which, in another, most likely unintentional nod to Jay, features a hearse on the cover.
"Why Did You Waste My Time?" by Tiny Grimes & His Rocking Highlanders
Tiny Grimes was a jazz guitarist who played with Billie Holiday and Art Tatum; one of Charlie Parker's first times in the studio was actually a Grimes session. Hawkins' big break in the music business also came via Tiny, working for him as a valet and chauffeur. By this point, Grimes had a swing group called Tiny Grimes and his Rockin' Highlanders. Their shtick — and this is another of Jay's biographical details that seems 100% made up, but isn't — was dressing like Scotsmen: kilts, tam o'shanters, knee-length highlander socks, the whole deal. Tiny eventually let Jay sing on a couple of tracks, including "Why Did You Waste My Time?"
"The Fat Man" by Fats Domino
Hawkins' next break as a performer, before he recorded "Spell" or came up with his stage persona, would be opening for Fats Domino and the Drifters. Jay never got along with Fats and spoke poorly of him in later interviews. A section of my novel dramatizes the tour; in my version, Hawkins is visited by the ghost of Jimmy Gilchrist, Fats' previous opening act, a blues shouter who died of an overdose after a gig in Philly. "The Fat Man" is a reworking of an older drug tune that Fats used to cover called "Junker's Blues."
"Baptize Me In Wine" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Hawkins doing more of a classic, Louis Jordan-style jump blues. Terrific lyrics and performance.
"Well I Tried" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins
See above. Love his vocals on this one.
"It's Only Make Believe" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Really nice Conway Twitter cover, performed fairly straight. It's one of the only Jay songs aside from "Spell" that I reference in the book, in a scene involving a "family reunion" of his reputed 75 children.
"Portrait of a Man" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins
I'm not sure why this one hasn't been covered more. Hawkins can't stop himself from camping it up, but I'd love to hear a stark, Johnny Cash-on-his-deathbed version.
"I've Got You Under My Skin" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Hawkins goes disco! This song is totally insane, Cole Porter meets Jay's baritone meets the theme from The Love Boat.
"Song of the Shrimp" by Frank Black
In the sixties, Hawkins' career was on the rocks and he spent a few years in Hawaii, working as an emcee and performer at a strip club called Forbidden City. In the book, I imagine a run-in between Jay and Elvis, who would have been filming his Hawaiian pictures at around the same time. Here's a terrible Elvis song from one of those movies, as wonderfully covered by Frank Black.
"Monkberry Moon Delight" by Paul McCartney
Supposedly inspired by Hawkins, who later covered the tune himself.
"Super Stupid" by Funkadelic
Last year, I profiled George Clinton for Rolling Stone. We hung out at his home and studio in Tallahassee and then drove overnight to a gig in Dallas, where George stayed up for most of the trip and (I swear) recognized every song on the Sirius classic soul station within a couple of notes (and sang along, knowing most of the lyrics.) Earlier this year, I returned to Tallahassee to participate in a literature and music festival called Word of South, where I did an event with Clinton. During the Q&A, I learned that he'd seen Jay at the Apollo a few times and that, on the Maggot Brain tour, he actually jumped out of a coffin, directly inspired by Hawkins' own act. (He also, in the middle of my reading, suddenly started singing "I Put a Spell On You," which was probably the greatest moment of heckling I'll ever be subjected to.)
Mark Binelli and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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