James “Sugar Boy” Crawford Jr., b. Oct 12, 1934 is one of the last of the great New Orleans rock’n’rollers still alive. Old timers remember him as having the best band in the city for a decade or more, as well as being the originator of Jock-a-Mo aka Iko Iko, the
Crawford formed his first group in High School– the Chapaka Shawee (which means “we ain’t raccoons”, they had no idea what it meant having gotten it from a Mardi Gras Indian chant). In addition to Crawford on piano and vocals were Edgar “Big Boy” Myles on vocals and trombone, Irving Bannister on guitar, Warren Myles Nolan Blackwell and Alfred Bernard, I’m not sure who played what or if the latter three just sang but in 1952 Aladdin issued their only 45, under the name of the Shaweez. The a-side is a minor masterpiece, “You Made Me Love You” in which Sugar Boy who trades lead vocals with Myles delivers a sobbing finale to this R&B/doo-wop ballad. The b-side was a cover of Guitar Slim’s “Feelin’ Sad”. The record was issued without having even signed a contract, they were paid $5, for the entire group!
Soon Sugar Boy had gone pro and was inked to Chess who issued three 45’s on Checker in 1954. On these sides Sugar Boy was backed by Eric Warner on drums, Frank Field on bass, Big Boy Myles on trombone, David Lastsie on tenor sax and Snooks Eaglin on guitar. The first of these discs– Overboard is one of the wildest R&B discs ever. Taken at Ramones speed, the musicians sound like they’re racing each other to the end of the tune. The record went nowhere but his second Checker disc- Jock-A-Mo was a huge local hit and would later be taken to the top of the charts as Iko Iko by the Dixie Cups (with Crawford’s name missing from the writer’s credit).
Jock-A-Mo missed the national charts but it became Sugar Boy’s calling card and kept him in live work for years. A third disc–“No More Heartaches” b/w “I Bowed My Knee” didn’t sell at all and Chess dropped Sugar Boy, leaving eighteen amazing sides in the vaults. The entire Chess/Checker output can be found here (password is bluesandrhythm.blogspot.com). Tunes like the politically incorrect Watch Her, Whip Her , the instrumental Night Rider , What’s Wrong, There Goes My Baby, are as good, or better, than anything I’ve ever heard. They weld the second line beat peculiar to New Orleans to Rhythm and Blues better than any discs this side of Fats Domino.
By 1956 Sugar Boy was signed to Imperial and back in the hands of Dave Bartholomew who had produced the Shaweez (and about 90% of the great records made in New Orleans in the fifties).
With Bartholomew’s band– Earl Palmer on drums, Lee Allen on tenor sax, etc. (same guys who played on hits by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis, Shirley & Lee, et al) Sugar Boy cut the fantastic She Gotta Wobble (When She Walks) which flopped and the ballad Morning Star which became a minor hit. All together Imperial cut four singles with Sugar Boy Crawford before cutting him loose.
Still, Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters were a good draw and played a two year stint at the all white Carousel Club in Baton Rouge as well as touring all over Louisiana and as far east as Georgia and as far west as Texas. They’d occasionally make it back in the studio, in 1959 cutting a version of Danny Boy b/w Round and Round for Montel and recording I Cried and Have A Little Mercy for Ace (produced by Mac Rebbenack who also wrote the latter) in ’61 . He also cut backing tracks for Jimmy Clanton while at Ace.
In 1963 Crawford’s career came careening to a halt thanks to a beating at the hands of a racist cop who’d pulled the band over after a gig outside of Monroe, Louisiana. Sugar Boy spent a year in the hospital recovering, and gave up rock’n’roll for good.
In 1999 I met Sugar Boy, quite by accident. I needed a locksmith to change the lock in an apartment I’d just moved into and a friend gave me the number of a locksmith he had used. It was Sugar Boy Crawford who showed up and installed my new lock. I tried to talk to him about music but he was quite taciturn on the subject, only saying “I do my singing in church these days…” with a smile. He makes occasional appearances at gospel shows, usually playing piano and has turned down offers to play jazz fest and the Ponderosa Stomp (speaking of which, why is Bon Jovi headlining Jazz Fest? Why don’t they move the Stomp to a non-jazz fest week since there’s almost no cross over audience between the two at this point….pardon me, my mind wanders easily…). Sugar Boy Crawford, yes, he was a great one. He sure was…