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How Jim Jarmusch revived Screamin' Jay Hawkins' career

During the 1970s, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ career was wandering into the abyss, and while he was still working, he wasn’t particularly doing anything of note. However, Jim Jarmusch was there to help him and bring Hawkins back into the general public’s consciousness.

In 1956, Hawkins released ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and was at the forefront of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Over the years, the track has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone, Jeff Beck, and Bryan Ferry. Understandably, it will always be the first thing that people mention while talking about Hawkins, and Jarmusch was instrumental in the song enjoying a second wind.

Remarkably, the iconic song wasn’t a hit when it was initially released, and it didn’t chart until almost six decades later when it was included on the soundtrack for 50 Shades Of Grey. Unfortunately, Hawkins passed away in 2000 and didn’t live to see it finally become commercially successful.

The inclusion of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ in 50 Shades wasn’t the first time it appeared on a soundtrack. Instead, that was when Jarmusch included it in a pivotal moment of his 1983 release Stranger Than Paradise. It also marked the beginning of a beautiful relationship between the director and the singer.

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Following the track appearing in Stranger Than Paradise, Hawkins contributed to Jarmusch’s 1989 film, Mystery Train. Bizarrely, he played a hotel clerk rather than working on the soundtrack. It led to more acting work, such as appearances in Álex de la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango and Bill Duke’s adaptation of Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem.

Speaking in an interview in the late ’80s, which was published in Louder Than War after his death, Hawkins said: “I love the people, God bless’um, they still love me, they still want to see me and I think that’s because of people like Jim Jarmusch and the motion pictures I’ve been making.”

He had just finished shooting Mystery Train and excitedly added: “I do an acting role; no singing, no piano, no band. I wear a blood red suit, blood red shoes, blood red tie, black shirt and I sit behind a desk and check rooms out. We have three different stories, which cover a span of 24 hours. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong in this hotel and I have to straighten it out. I even get shot, I don’t get killed, I get shot in the shoulder. They say that the picture may win an award.”

Hawkins then discussed the impact that Jarmusch single-handedly had on his career. He continued: “There have been two white people who have helped me, three all told, with my manager of 36 years, Alan Freed who started out first and now Jim Jarmusch. I judge a man by what he does, not by his colour. I want to be judged by what I do. 

Judge me by my stage performance. I either work like hell or I’m no good and I don’t know how to be no good. All I know how to do is get up there and work. WORK! And that’s what I’m all about.”

Although they came from different worlds, Jarmusch and Hawkins both approached creativity with a similar ferocity which made them perfect partners. If it wasn’t for their friendship, Hawkins would never have enjoyed an Indian summer as an actor, therefore he was eternally grateful to the director for taking a chance on him.