James 'Sugar Boy' Crawford, New Orleans rhythm & blues singer of 'Jock-A-Mo,' dies at 77
James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, the New Orleans rhythm & blues singer who wrote and recorded the enduring Mardi Gras standard “Jock-A-Mo,” died early Saturday while under hospice care following a brief illness. He was 77.
“Jock-A-Mo” borrowed its lyrics from age-old Mardi Gras Indian chants. It was later remade by the Dixie Cups as “Iko Iko.” Artists as diverse as Dr. John, the Grateful Dead and Cyndi Lauper also rendered variations.
Mr. Crawford’s own career came to a premature end following a police beating in 1963. Only in recent years did he return to the stage, and then only occasionally.
Dubbed “Sugar Boy” as a child, Mr. Crawford grew up around LaSalle Street. He played trombone while attending Booker T. Washington High School. He also formed a rhythm & blues band that deejay Dr. Daddy-O dubbed the Chapaka Shawee, after one of the band's instrumentals. The group performed in local clubs and released a single on Aladdin Records.
Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, happened to hear the Chapaka Shawee at radio station WMRY while in New Orleans. He made what was purportedly an audition tape of the group.
“The man paid me $5, and I went and bought some wine and red beans,” Mr. Crawford recalled for The Times-Picayune’s Sheila Stroup this spring.
Weeks later, a disc jockey at the station presented Crawford with a 78 rpm record of “I Don't Know What I’ll Do.” It was manufactured from the audition tape and credited to Sugar Boy & His Cane Cutters.
In November 1953, at age 19, Mr. Crawford recorded his composition “Jock-A-Mo” at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio on North Rampart Street, with a band that included Snooks Eaglin on guitar. He did not know what the lyrics meant.
“It was just a couple of Indian chants I put together and made a song out of them,” he said.
In a 2002 interview with OffBeat magazine, Mr. Crawford said he actually sang "Chock-a-Mo." But Leonard Chess, listening to the recording in Chicago, heard "Jock-A-Mo" and designated that as the title.
Released on the Chess subsidiary Checker Records, "Jock-A-Mo" was a hit during the 1954 Carnival season and a boon to Mr. Crawford’s career. He became popular on the fraternity circuit at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and toured around the country, even though he was too young to perform in venues where alcohol was served.
“I was so young, they had to send my money home to my people,” he said. "They had to stop serving liquor when I performed."
Over the next decade, he recorded for various labels, including Imperial Records, releasing such singles as "I Bowed on My Knees,” “You Gave Me Love,” "Morning Star" and "She's Gotta Wobble (When She Walks)."
But in 1963, his career, and life, took a tragic turn. En route to a show in Monroe with his band, he was stopped by police and badly pistol-whipped.
"The sheriff in Columbia called ahead, and they had a roadblock set up for me,” he recalled. "It was the time of the Freedom Riders, and the police jumped on me and cracked my skull."
The beating left Mr. Crawford in a coma. A metal plate replaced part of his badly damaged skull. When he awoke, he had lost much of his memory. “I had a brain injury, and it took me two years to come back,” he said. “I had to learn how to walk, talk, play the piano, everything.
“I don't have to hear people talk about those times. I lived them.”
He briefly attempted a comeback, but was discouraged by what he perceived as his diminished talent. He subsequently retired from rhythm & blues. For decades, he confined his singing to the church.
He went to trade school and became a building engineer. For several years he maintained the Masonic Temple building on St. Charles Avenue. Later, he owned and operated C&C Locksmith, and lived in Gentilly. After sorting out the publishing rights to his old catalog, he earned royalties whenever "Jock-A-Mo" or one of its derivatives turned up in movies or commercials, such as when the Belle Stars’ recording of “Iko Iko" appeared on the "Rain Man" soundtrack.
It was his grandson, the pianist and singer Davell Crawford, who coaxed Mr. Crawford out of retirement. He appeared on Davell’s 1995 CD “Let Them Talk,” and subsequently joined his grandson onstage, including at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In recent years, those appearances became more frequent. Mr. Crawford guested with gospel singer Jo “Cool” Davis as recently as the 2012 Jazz Fest.
Mr. Crawford also taped scenes with Davell for an episode of the upcoming third season of HBO’s “Treme.”
"Jock-A-Mo," both the song and the phrase, is ingrained in the local consciousness. Dr. John, who originally recorded the song for his 1972 album "Dr. John's Gumbo," performed it during halftime of the 2008 NBA Allstar Game in New Orleans. The Abita Brewing Company named one of its beers Jockamo IPA.