‘I Put a Spell On You’: “Standards” as a product of recorded music culture

Andrew J. Pleffer

Department of Contemporary Music Studies, Macquarie University
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A “standard” is a musical number that has achieved immense popularity over an extended period of time.  This occurs when a song, or some portion of it, has been repeatedly subjected to the versioning process (or “covered”).  The “standard” is most commonly associated with African-American musical innovations (i.e. jazz and blues). However, “standards” are applicable to all genres and may even become synonymous with a particular genre, performer or both.  Some may even “crossover” into different genres and take on a life of their own—as in the case of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put a Spell On You’.


This paper examines the role of recorded “standards” as a modern score by discussing the varied functions that they serve, such as a tribute or as a framework for improvisation. While some artists record “standards” by mimicking or copying a previous recording—especially one that was successful—others use these familiar musical numbers as a starting point from which they can differentiate themselves as performers.  For the latter, “standards” are often performed with an understanding of their history and come to represent benchmarks against which the artists’ skills and imagination are measured.




It is a term that is often heard and used in and around the music industry, but under the assumption that its meaning need not be explained.  Though commonly associated with jazz and blues, the notion of the “standard” is applicable to all manner of genres in cases where a piece of music is considered to be timeless in some respect.  Throughout this paper, the track ‘I Put a Spell On You’ is used as a case study in order to define today’s concept of standards as a product of recorded music culture and to demonstrate the effectiveness of audio recordings as a modern score.  This particular song is an especially valid example of a standard as it has been employed and reiterated on numerous occasions, through multiple avenues, to meet various ends.  These include re-recordings from a wide range of artists, some of which are also utilised in films and television shows.


2I Put a Spell On You


Written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a rhythm and blues love ballad, the track ‘I Put a Spell On You’ was eventually turned into something of a Halloween anthem.  Having impressed Columbia’s Arnold Matson with a live rendition of the song, the track was largely responsible for getting Hawkins signed to the OKeh record label.  Once in the recording studio, Matson initially found it difficult to get Hawkins to reproduce the intensity he remembered from the live performance—the reason being that Hawkins was inebriated at the time.  The problem was then rectified by getting Hawkins “blind drunk” again (Shannon & Javna 1986. p.185), the only downside being that Hawkins forever after had difficulty recalling anything about that recording session.  Furthermore, the disturbing vocal noises featured at the end of the original recorded single convinced many US radio stations not to give the track airplay.  Even after an edited version was circulated, the song failed to leave its mark on the charts.  Despite this, the track continued to sell and gain notoriety for its spookiness and reckless abandon (Sculatti 1991; Schneider 2001).


From these humble beginnings, the song developed a life of its own as it was recorded by myriad artists.  Throughout this process, much of its popularity has been gained through the dark themes regularly associated with the word “spell” as many of the track’s reiterations tend to draw of themes of horror, mystery and suspense.[2]  As such, it is regularly utilised in Halloween compilations and films that make some reference to evil or the occult either through witches (e.g. Hocus Pocus), ghosts (e.g. Just Like Heaven) or murder (e.g. Lost Highway).  There are also numerous examples that draw on the song’s association with jazz.  This relationship was initiated by Nina Simone when she became the first artist to follow Hawkins’ recording with her own reinterpretation of the track (1965)—almost a decade after Hawkins’ release (1956).  As was the case with her recording of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, Simone’s take on ‘I Put a Spell On You’ also preceded a wave of re-recordings that followed from British beat bands.  This spawned an additional lineage of influence in that while some of the song’s re-recordings are clearly inspired by and derivative of Hawkins’ “spooky” release (e.g. Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, etc.), others owe an obvious debt to Simone’s recording instead (e.g. Bill Wyman, Jools Holland, Queen Latifah, Natalie Douglas, Kim Nalley, etc.) (Rypens 2001;[3]  Having said this, there are also several re-recordings in which the performer is submitting to neither influence in an obvious manner, if at all—choosing instead to reinvent the track in a different light.  Some re-recordings even cross over into other genres such as shock rock (Marilyn Manson 1995), dance (Sonique 2000), and Latin rock fusion (Buddy Guy 2005).


So how do terms like “cover” and “standard” apply to these situations that frequently occur in recorded music culture?  Better yet, what do these terms mean, where do they come from, and are there differences between the two?


3Covers and Standards


At a conference in 1977, Roger Reynolds (1980) remarked that the contemporary recorded music culture was predominantly directed towards releasing and conveying only a singular representation of any recorded piece.  Indeed, in the past some songwriters and/or performers would only release one recorded version of any given song and that would be “the” version, but Reynolds’ comment overlooks many long-established practices of recorded music culture.  Songs are continually introduced and re-introduced to the wider public via numerous channels.  Once this happens, a song enters into an ongoing cycle where it can be recorded (legally or illegally), replayed, remembered (or partially-remembered), reproduced and reinterpreted.  As evidenced by Hawkins (among others), a performer will sometimes reinterpret their own songs.  The aforementioned account of how Hawkins recording came into being refers to no less than three interpretations alone—a live performance through which he got noticed; a set of studio recordings (both the final recording that was released as a single and the takes that were discarded); and, a “remix” in which the ending from the single was removed so as to create a more radio-friendly recording (or “radio edit”).  Popular music is therefore not static, but communicative in that it functions as a process of articulation and response.  Popular music exists at a cultural level; not in individuals but between individuals.  So once music is made, it goes out to be interpreted and can never be taken back (George Lipsitz, as cited in Zak 2005).


An inevitable part of this process is that any given person will fall under the spell of an enjoyable song at some point in time.  Such a song might trigger memories of a specific person, place or life experience; it might instil an emotional connection with the lyrics; or it may simply possess one to sing along with reckless abandon.  Additionally, listeners are also regularly captivated by a particular genre or performer that for some reason strikes a chord with one’s musical tastes.  In a recent interview regarding her aptly-titled debut album Scarlett Johansson Sings Tom Waits, the famous actress spoke of her fondness for “the gravel-voiced singer-songwriter” and her opportunity to make this album in a curious manner:


“Originally I thought that I would do an album of standards and I wanted to include a Tom Waits song.  I see Tom Waits as being kind of a composer of modern standards and so it seemed appropriate that I could interpret his songs… they’re so cinematic and kind of open-ended so I felt like it would be something that I could be inspired by.” (as cited in Ryzik 2007: S10-11)


Tellingly, Johansson’s use of the word “standards” is coupled with an overwhelming compulsion to interpret several tracks from the back catalogue of an individual artist as a consequence of admiration and inspiration.  This relationship between standards, enjoyment and influence is confirmed in my own research on blues music.  Here contemporary musicians are frequently compelled to recognise and commemorate canonised African-American blues musicians through their re-recording of existing material, which thereby demonstrates the song’s value in the present and reinforces the canon once more (Pleffer, Unpublished dissertation).


Though theoretically standards do not necessarily entail myriad subsequent reinterpretations, a song typically becomes a standard by way of first becoming a reinterpretation.  This is because these entities tend to achieve their canonic status primarily through acts of revivalism, reframing and reinterpretation. As the numbers of reinterpretations accumulate, the recontextualisation of a song (or some portion of it) is repeated by various performers in various ways.  Along the way, many re-interpreters will use a particular recorded manifestation as a standard against which to measure their creative skills—hence the name.  Through this reiterative process, standards amass an increasing amount of popularity and cultural capital to a point where knowledge and enjoyment of their existence is widespread (Gold 1964; Bohlman 1992; Crawford & Magee 1992; Morgan 1992; Brubeck 2002; Garofalo 2002).


Using this definition, it is clear how the term “standard” may be applied to all manner of song, artists and/or musical genres.  Though George Plasketes (2005) identifies the traditional meaning of “standards” as a canon from the pre-rock era that was largely defined by the show tunes of Cole Porter and the like, he too concedes that such strict usage of the term “standard” has slackened—much in the same way that the “cover” was severed from its initial coinage.  Unlike the “cover” though, which still has negative connotations, the term “standard” is still appropriate despite its evolved meaning.


3.1Revising the Terminology


During the 1950s, “covers” originated as an exploitative practice in which major record labels would “hijack a hit” by releasing more “palatable” recordings of songs originally performed by African-American artists on smaller, independent labels (Coyle 2002. pp.134 – 136).  This often occurred within the expected chart life of the original and, in doing so, increased the likelihood that white recordings of these tracks would outsell and thereby cover any chance of success the earlier black recordings may have otherwise had.  Therefore, the problem with using the term “cover” today is that the practice from which it is derived is a significantly outdated form of reinterpretation, both in terms of musical creativity and motivation.  Additionally, writers now associate the term with a wide range of re-interpretive practices including paying tribute to an important influence, using a proven hit, adapting to an acoustic arrangement, and even interaction with ironic or non-influential material.  Despite the term’s negative connotations, writers tend to refer to “covers” as an opportunity to signify difference and make a familiar song contemporary.  Consequently, it is important that the terminology employed in these situations be revised (Ennis 1992; Plasketes 1992, 2005; Brackett 1994; Davis 1995; Millard 1995; Brubeck 2002; Griffiths 2002; Bailey 2003; Cusic 2005; Giuffre 2005).


In her own dissection of “covers”, Elizabeth Giuffre identifies the act of covering as one of three “versioning” practices in which existing material is recontextualised in recorded music culture—the other two being remixing and sampling.  Here a “remix” can be understood as the alteration of an existing recording via the application of a range of mixing techniques in the post-production process (e.g. manipulation of tempo, editing structure, changing the rhythm, etc.).  Both Hawkins and Sonique have released remixes of ‘I Put a Spell On You’—while Hawkins’ remix had more to do with cutting the song short, Sonique released multiple remixes of her own reinterpretation.[4]  Sampling is best described as another studio production technique, but it differs from remixing in that it typically utilises and repeats a small portion (or “sample”) of an existing recording in order to create a new recording.  One such reworking of Hawkins’ recording occurs in LL Cool J’s self-titled track in which the brass section bass line from the original is syncopated and reiterated (Straw 1997; Théberge 1999; Giuffre 2005).


Definitions of “covers” on the other hand often present significant gaps in recorded music practices. For example, Giuffre (2005. pp.14, 23) articulates them as a form of versioning “in which the defining melody, lyrics and chords of a song are re-recorded by an artist not responsible for the original”.  Additionally, Reebee Garofalo (2002. p.128) describes “covers” as “a copy of an original recording performed by another artist in a style thought to be more appropriate for the mainstream market”.  These definitions, however, neglect to account for instances where the performer who initially recorded a particular song delivers subsequent renditions, recordings directed at non-mainstream markets and instances where one element of a track is reproduced (e.g. lyrics) while others are altered (e.g. melody).


Therefore I propose a similar (but reworked) three-category model to that of Giuffre in which the term “cover” is replaced with “replay” and “versioning” is re-branded as “reinterpretation”.[5]  Here the use of replay will eliminate direct ties to reinterpretive practices of the 1950s.  Furthermore, it is also better equipped to describe the wider variety of approaches through which performers seek to re-play a previous piece of music.  Using some degree of a song’s recognisable core elements (e.g. lyrics, melody, rhythm, etc.), a replay is delivered in a manner that may range anywhere between outright imitation and liberal modification.  Likewise, reinterpretation provides a more flexible and coherent model for discussing the varying degrees of change between different manifestations of a given piece in that it may be used to account for practices that writers neglect to acknowledge—as in the cases of Garofalo and Giuffre.  It is also a more reasonable parent term for the recontextualising practices of recorded music culture as one can safely say that a piece of music incorporating either one or many small samples from other tracks is indeed a reinterpretation of those earlier materials, but not necessarily a version of them.  Thus, musical works that utilise samples, remix existing songs, or replay previously-recorded pieces—as well as those that incorporate some combination of these three approaches—are all reinterpretive acts.  Using this new terminology, recordings that employ these creative techniques are said to be reinterpretations of either one or more preceding musical works that may or may not be performed by the person or group who initially authored said material.


Though some may argue that it is just as necessary to re-brand “standards” as it is “covers”, contemporary usage of the term “standards” continues to imply both the use of recordings as a standard to measure one’s creative skills against as well as the reiteration of a particular track as standard practice in recorded music culture.  In the last decade alone, ‘I Put a Spell On You’ has been reinterpreted by a variety of performers including those in the early stages of their recording career (e.g. Katie Melua), those in the latter stages of their recording career (e.g. Bonnie Tyler, Jimmy Barnes, Joe Cocker) and those for whom music is just one of many public commitments (e.g. Queen Latifah).[6]  So when someone like Scarlett Johansson begins her recording career with an album consisting entirely of Tom Waits standards—whether as a tribute or as an opportunity to boost one’s career with a familiar song—the audience’s expectations of both the performer and their engagement with standards in such a circumstance are equally met.  In this manner, standards can thus be seen not only as a recognisable product of recorded music culture but also as a pre-existing blueprint or modern score that is ready and willing to be reinterpreted.




Prior to the advent of recording, transmission of standards would have occurred primarily via oral tradition or sheet music.  However, music today is aurally preserved and geographically dispersed at a much faster rate thanks to the recorded medium.  These records of musical culture may continue to influence the future of musical culture time and again through listening practices and/or the reinterpretation process. It could be assumed that recording promotes the idea that a track becomes a sustained static entity—and like a snapshot from a camera, it could appear that recordings become frozen moments in time.  However, as demonstrated by ‘I Put a Spell On You’, recordings are in fact versatile and interpretive and these “moments” can be repeated and reinterpreted ad infinitum.  As a result, recordings tend to function less as a frozen moment and more as a type of audible score from which analysis and reinterpretation is achieved.  Furthermore, just as a photograph can be viewed from different angles or positions, a recording will be heard and interpreted from different perspectives


Evidently, while recorded audio behaves as the modern score from which music is heard and learned, fidelity to that score is typically neither desired nor required.  Like a traditional classical musical score, the role of the modern score is to present a collection of musical material that may be interpreted as instructions.  However, as Michael Krausz (1993. p.75) argues, both are characteristically incomplete in that neither can fully articulate all pertinent aspects of an interpretation: a traditional score has visual but no audio; a record, audio but no visual.  Consequently, most interpreters are compelled to fill in the gaps of the equation by internalising their understanding of a piece’s core musical ideas and recasting this vision—including any alternative developments—into a performance.  When this occurs time and again with the one piece, a standard is the inevitable outcome (Urmson 1993; Millard 1995; Young & Matheson 2000; Hollerbach 2004).


As demonstrated by ‘I Put a Spell On You’, the concept of the standard is a product of recorded music culture—one that is both highly mobile and highly flexible.  The preservation and survival of these canonic pieces are vastly assisted by recordings and the creative acts involved when reinterpreting such recordings.  This is by and large an enduring feature of standards, for no matter which interpretation of a given piece casts its spell on you, its performer will always be responsible for some level of engagement with the modern musical score.




To my wife Nicola for her patience, support and editing expertise.


[1] All copyrights remain with the author.


[2] One exception to this pattern is when the television show The Simpsons punned the song title ‘I Put a Spell On You’ by featuring Hawkins’ recording in a 2003 episode about a spelling bee (


[3] See Appendix for a detailed timeline of ‘I Put a Spell On You’ recordings.


[4] The four different mixes provided on Sonique’s ‘I Put a Spell On You’ CD single are titled ‘Radio Edit’, ‘Full Vocal SSerious Mix’, ‘Judge Jules Club Dub’ and ‘Sonique Club Mix’.


[5] I choose to employ these two “re” words over other potential terms partly for their lack of established usage in musicological discourse and partly for the absence of any negative connotations implied by their usage in comparison with similar words like recycle, regurgitate, repeat, replicate and revise.


[6] See Appendix for a detailed timeline of ‘I Put a Spell On You’ recordings.





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Downloaded November 27, 2007.



I Put a Spell On You: A timeline of recordings




Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1956)


Nina Simone (1965)


Manfred Mann (1965)


Them [featuring Van Morrison] (1965)


Animals (1966)


Alan Price Set [ex-Animals keyboardist] (1966)


Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968)


The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (1968)


Audience (1971)





Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (1985)


Joanna St. Claire [in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark] (1988)


Nat King Cole (1990)


Pete Townsend [live] (1990)


Tab Benoit (1992)


Diamond Galás [live] (1992)


Bryan Ferry (1993)


Bette Midler [in Hocus Pocus] (1993)


MC5 (1994)


Marilyn Manson (1995)


Robben Ford (1996)





John Fogerty [live] (1998)


Vince Jones (1998)


Bonnie Tyler (1998)


The Angels (1999)


Nicoletta [in French] (1999)


Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings [live, featuring Beverley Skeet] (2000)


Sonique (2000)


Jimmy Barnes (2000)


Matt Walker [as an answer song titled You Put A Spell On Me] (2000)


LL Cool J [sampled in “LL Cool J”] (2000)


Jools Holland [featuring Mica Paris and David Gilmour] (2001)





Joe Cocker [featuring Eric Clapton] (2004)


Queen Latifah (2004)


Natalie Douglas [live] (2005)


Buddy Guy [featuring Carlos Santana] (2005)


Natacha Atlas (2005)


Katie Melua [live] (2005)


Notorious B.I.G. [sampled in “Kick in the Door”] (2005)


Kim Nalley [live] (2006)


The Ghoul Kats (2006)


The Tune Robbers (2007)


[1] All copyrights remain with the author.

[2] One exception to this pattern is when the television show The Simpsons punned the song title ‘I Put a Spell On You’ by featuring Hawkins’ recording in a 2003 episode about a spelling bee (

[3] See Appendix for a detailed timeline of ‘I Put a Spell On You’ recordings.

[4] The four different mixes provided on Sonique’s ‘I Put a Spell On You’ CD single are titled ‘Radio Edit’, ‘Full Vocal SSerious Mix’, ‘Judge Jules Club Dub’ and ‘Sonique Club Mix’.

[5] I choose to employ these two “re” words over other potential terms partly for their lack of established usage in musicological discourse and partly for the absence of any negative connotations implied by their usage in comparison with similar words like recycle, regurgitate, repeat, replicate and revise.

[6] See Appendix for a detailed timeline of ‘I Put a Spell On You’ recordings.