Rhythm and blues composer and singer James “Sugar Boy” Crawford died in New Orleans early today, following a brief illness. He a few weeks away from turning 78.
Crawford grew up in New Orleans around LaSalle Street and played trombone for the Booker T. Washington High School Band. He formed a singing group while still in high school and one of their demo discs caught the ear of Leonard Chess of Chess Records as he passed through. He made a demo recording and gave Crawford five dollars, which Crawford recalls he spent on “some wine and red beans.”
Crawford gained some notice for several r&b tunes during the fifties before he drifted off into obscurity in the early 1960s. He record such tunes as “I Bowed on My Knees,” “Morning Glory” and “She’s Gotta Wobble (When She Walks),” but it was one recording early on that cemented his importance in New Orleans music and culture.
In 1953, when Crawford was 19, he pieced together a couple of Mardi Gras Indian chants into a tune he sang as “Chock-a-mo.” He recorded the tune at Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Rampart Street, but the record was distributed by Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records. Back in Chicago, Chess listened to the recording and christened it “Jock-a’mo,” the name under which it was released. It became a minor hit during the 1954 carnival season, but it would become more famous in the hands of others.
Fast forward to 1965. The Dixie Cups, a female vocal group which grew out of New Orleans’ Calliope housing projects, were recording for Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller at Red Bird Records in New York. During a break, they started singing a version of Crawford’s “Jock-a-mo,” which they remembered others singing during their childhood. For rhythm, they played ashtrays using drum sticks. Lieber and Stoller still had the tape running and caught the group’s “clowning around.” The producers listed to the tape, added bass and percussion and under the name “Iko-Iko,” the Dixie Cups had another national hit. The Dixie Cups successfully sued for exclusive rights to the song, although Crawford got a 25% for public performance in the United States.
Since 1965, “Iko-Iko” has been performed and/or recorded by the likes of Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the Radiators, Cyndi Lauper, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Crawford’s grandson, Davell Crawford. And not by accident, Louisiana’s Abita Brewing Company has named one of its beers Jockamo IPA.
Crawford resurfaced to record with his grandson in 1995 and most recently sang gospel in church and at JazzFest with Jo “Cool” Davis. Crawford will be missed, but clearly, his signature tune will be with us as long as Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans.