Blues singer’s sweet nature scored him a catchy hit with many
James ‘‘Sugar Boy’’ Crawford was a New Orleans rhythm and blues singer who in 1953 wrote Jock-A-Mo, a song that became a catchy hit in the 1960s as Iko Iko.
With lyrics borrowed from old Mardi Gras Indian chants, Jock-AMo was successfully recorded as Iko Iko by the Dixie Cups in 1965. Other artists, including Dr John, the Grateful Dead and Cyndi Lauper, also recorded versions.
In 1963, while on tour in the then segregated American South, Crawford was stopped by the local police, dragged from his car and beaten so badly that he decided to give up a professional career in music. Only in recent years did he occasionally return to the stage.
James Crawford, always known as ‘‘Sugar Boy’’ on account of his sweet nature as a child, was born on October 12, 1934, in New Orleans. His neighbourhood was known as ‘‘The Bucket of Blood’’ because local bars were notorious for Saturday night shootings.
Having learned to play the piano, at high school he took up the trombone, forming a rhythm and blues band, the Chapaka Shawee, which performed in local clubs.
When Leonard Chess, cofounder of Chess Records, heard the band rehearsing at a radio station in New Orleans, he made an audition tape of the group. The result was a 78rpm record of I Don’t Know What I’ll Do, credited on the label to Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters.
After Crawford’s hit with JockA-Mo, more singles followed, including You Gave Me Love, Morning Star and She’s Gotta Wobble ( When She Walks).
But in 1963, en route to a show in north Louisiana, Crawford was stopped by police and pistol-whipped. His only crime appears to have been that of being a black man at the wheel of a flashy new car. ‘‘The sheriff in Columbia called ahead, and they had a roadblock set up for me,’’ he recalled. ‘‘The police jumped on me and cracked my skull.’’
Crawford was left in a coma. A metal plate was inserted in his skull and he lost much of his memory. Two years in recovery, he had to learn again how to walk, talk, and play the piano.
Although he attempted a comeback, Crawford felt his talent had diminished. He abandoned rhythm and blues and confined singing to the church.
He became a building engineer, and later ran a locksmith business. In 1984 he met Benny Goodman’s brother, Gene Goodman, who ran a music publishing company, and who offered to help him recover royalties for Jock-A-Mo. ‘‘I figured 50 per cent of something was better than 100 per cent of nothing,’’ Crawford said.
He earned royalties whenever Jock-A-Mo or one of its derivatives turned up in films or commercials, such as when the Belle Stars’ recording of Iko Iko appeared on the soundtrack of the film Rain Man (1988).
Eventually his grandson, the singer Davell Crawford, coaxed Crawford out of retirement. Earlier this year he made a guest appearance with the gospel singer Jo ‘‘Cool’’ Davis at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz Festival.
As for the phrase ‘‘Jock-A-Mo’’, some music scholars believe it translates in Mardi Gras Indian slang as ‘‘You can kiss my ass’’.