HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: “SPELL ON YOU”, “FIRE”, & “MONSTER MASH”
by Alan L. Chrisman
This is a special look at some classic Halloween-type songs and their creators:
SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS is most known for his chilling, “I PUT A SPELL ON YOU”. Hawkins wanted to be an opera singer and that voice would come in handy for his classic song. The song was originally to be a ballad, but (like the legend about another classic song I wrote about, “Louie Louie”), it was recorded while the band and Hawkins were drunk and he added blood-curdling screams to his deep R&B voice. An even-toned down version was released and it became a hit in 1956, despite being banned on some radio stations because of its James Brown-like guttural vocals and sensuality.
Alan Freed, legendary rock ’n’ roll DJ in Cleveland, Ohio, where Hawkins was also from, suggested that, when he sang it live, he come out of a coffin. That soon became part of his stage show as well as his wearing outlandish costumes, with leopard skins and voodoo-like props. In the excellent film about Alan Freed, American Hot Wax, in 1976, where several original 50’s rockers played themselves, Hawkins appears doing his signature tune. Hawkins would continue releasing R&B-influenced albums and In 1991, he recorded, Black Music For White People (a great title), including covers of Tom Waits. Hawkins was a particular favorite of punk bands for his raw sound and theatrical appearances. He would later open for the bands, The Clash, The Cramps, The Fuzztones, Nick Cave, and even The Rolling Stones. He would also have a big influence on Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Black Sabbath. Hawkins never had as big a hit again, but it became such as classic that many later artists covered it, including Nina Simone and a stirring version by CCR on their album, Proud Mary. Hawkins died in 2000, leaving behind several women, fighting over his estate, and reportedly between 50 and 75 offspring.
Another classic, screaming song was “Fire” by British singer Arthur Brown. Brown had originally been part of the group, The Foundations, who had the hits in the late 60’s & early ‘70’s, “Build Me up Buttercup” and “Baby, Now that I’ve Found You”. They were the first mixed-race group in England to have a #1 hit.
But Brown released his own album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, in 1968. It was produced by The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, and was on the Who’s label, Track Records. Similar to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in his R&B influenced vocals and sound (he actually had a cover version of “I Put a Spell on You” on it that album), and like Hawkins, he was also known for his theatrical shows and crazy costumes and antics. He would sometimes set his head in a helmet on fire. Brown played the priest in The Who’s “Tommy” and sang on Alan Parson’s Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Brown released three albums with his band, Kingdom Come in the 70’s and later was associated with Hawkwind and early electronic musician, Klaus Shultz. But it’s his Crazy World album with its haunting song, “Fire” that he’s most known.
Another Halloween perennial song with an interesting story is Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s, “Monster Mash”. The way the story goes is-one night, while recording, aspiring actor/ singer, Picket, started imitating the voices of horror film’s Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The song was written by Gary Paxton, who had penned the earlier novelty hit, “Alley Oop”. And It was also following a popular dance craze at the time,”the Mashed Potato”, and thus the lines, ” “Whatever happened to the Transylvania Twist?”. On the session for the B-side instrumental, “Monster Mash Party”, was pianist, Leon Russell. It was first released around Halloween in 1962, and became a big hit and has been popular every Halloween since. The band was called the Crypt-Kickers (a later Crypt-Kicker in the touring band of the 70’s would be Paul McCartney’s later guitarist, Brian Ray). It’s been covered by groups from The Beach Boys to the Misfits. It’s a novelty song, but has some funny Halloween lines. I remember seeing the American Hot Wax film right before Saturday Night Fever and at intermission, I heard kids asking who was this Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, duck-walking across the stage and jumping on the piano. So long before videos, rock had a theatrical side and these singers just carried it a bit further and foretold of others to come.
These three classic songs and their theatrical performers should send chills up your spine, but in a fun way, so Happy Halloween!
THE MONSTER MASH, Bobby “Boris” Pickett,from the Original Monster Mash LP, 1962:
I was working in the lab late one night
When my eyes beheld an eerie sight
For my monster from his slab began to rise
And suddenly to my surprise
He did the mash
He did the monster mash
The monster mash
It was a graveyard smash
He did the mash
It caught on in a flash
He did the mash
He did the monster mash
From my laboratory in the castle east
To the master bedroom where the vampires feast
The ghouls all came from their humble abodes
To get a jolt from my electrodes
REPEAT CHORUS HERE
The zombies were having fun
The party had just begun
The guests included Wolf Man
Dracula and his son
The scene was rockin', all were digging the sounds
Igor on chains, backed by his baying hounds
The coffin-bangers were about to arrive
With their vocal group, "The Crypt-Kicker Five"
Out from his coffin, Drac's voice did ring
Seems he was troubled by just one thing
He opened the lid and shook his fist
And said, "Whatever happened to my Transylvania twist?"
Now everything's cool, Drac's a part of the band
And my Monster Mash is the hit of the land
For you, the living, this mash was meant too
When you get to my door, tell them Boris sent you
See below Screamin’ Jay Hawkins doing his “I Put A Spell on You”:
& Below “Fire” from the Crazy World of Arthur Brown,1968: