One of the pioneers of early New Orleans rhythm and blues, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford died September 15, after a brief illness. He was 77. Although, like many of his contemporaries, he never enjoyed a national hit, he is responsible for recording the rousing Carnival classic “Jock-A-Mo,” a.k.a. “Iko Iko,” a song instantly associated with New Orleans. A master of the B-flat South Louisiana ballad, Sugar Boy’s popularity extended well beyond “Jock-A-Mo.”
Born October 12, 1934, Sugar Boy grew up in Central City, where he learned to play the piano at a neighbor’s house. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, he also learned to play trombone and formed a band with some of his classmates. The group caught a break in 1952 when they were spotted by local deejay Dr. Daddy-O, who invited them to appear on his Saturday morning program. The group didn’t have a name so Daddy-O dubbed them “The Chapaka Shawee.”
The following year, Leonard Chess, the owner of Chicago’s Chess label, was in town promoting records when he heard the group rehearse at radio station WMRY. In exchange for $5, Chess taped what the band thought was an audition. A month later, the group was back in the studio when deejay Ernie the Whip showed them a brand new 78 r.p.m. copy of “I Don’t Know What I’ll Do” credited to Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters. Chess signed them and instructed them to report to the J&M Studio. With guitarist Snooks Eaglin in tow, Sugar Boy achieved immortality upon recording “Jock-A-Mo.”
In 1963, Sugar Boy and his band were on their way to a job in North Louisiana when they were pulled over by the state police. For some reason, a state trooper severely pistol whipped Sugar Boy, and he was in a coma for several months and paralyzed for over a year. He attempted a comeback, but after 1969, he confined his singing to church. He enrolled in trade school and studied to be a building engineer. Sugar Boy maintained the Masonic building on St. Charles Avenue for over a decade.
Eventually, the royalties from “Jock-A-Mo” began to accumulate. Sugar Boy took his earnings and opened his own business, C&C Locksmith. For the better part of the last decade, he crisscrossed the city in a van installing locks and duplicating keys.
Sugar Boy will make a final, posthumous appearance in Season 3 of HBO’s Treme, singing with his grandson Davell Crawford.