Music icon James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford dies at age 77
24th September 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Throughout his life, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford lived up to the nickname he was given as a small child. When people think of him two things come immediately to mind. Crawford, renowned for his vocal and instrumental talents, will remain forever famous for writing and recording his 1953 timeless hit, “Jock-A-Mo,” an oft-covered tune that remains vital today. Those who knew, worked or were merely acquainted with Sugar Boy would marvel at his sweet disposition and great tolerance. James “Sugar Boy” Crawford died on Saturday, September 15, 2012. He was 77.
Dr. John puts it simply saying, “Crawford played so good and he sang so good and he was just a good person. I loved him as a cat. You know what I loved about him is that he would always call me up. Man, I’m going to miss his calls because he always had something positive to say. We’d talk about some old shit that was off the hook but he was never negative – never.
Crawford, who was primarily known as a rhythm and blues pianist and vocalist whose style rang of his New Orleans home, played several instruments including the trombone.
“Trombone was his first instrument and he still talked about it a lot so he still had a love of the trombone,” says Davell Crawford, Sugar Boy’s equally talented grandson. “To this day, I think that’s why he could sing so well and that’s why he could keep his voice well and breathe (properly).”
Sugar Boy played the ‘bone when he attended Booker T. Washington High School that was highly regarded for its music program and thus swarmed with solid young musicians.
In 1950, he and some of his classmates formed a band called the Sha-Weez that headed to producer Cosimo Matassa’s now-legendary J&M Studio on North Rampart Street to cut 1952’s “No One To Love Me” for Aladdin Records. In 1953, the legendary Leonard Chess recorded Crawford under the name Sugar Boy & His Cane Cutters on a ballad called “I Don’t Know What I’ll Do.” That same year, the group, joined by guitar wizard Snooks Eaglin, headed into Matassa’s studio to record the infamous “Jock-A-Mo” on Chess’ subsidiary Checker label. Based on a Mardi Gras Indian chant, the record exploded locally during the 1954 Carnival season and its success garnered Crawford, then 19, a trip to New York. Notably, “Jock-A-Mo” stands as one of the first popular Mardi Gras songs recorded.
“A lot of people thought he was older than he was because, like me, he started really young,” Davell Crawford says. “He didn’t speak too often about his time as a professional musician, but when he spoke you could tell he became excited about him telling me who he was and what he had done and how people loved him. He was ahead of his time.”
Crawford’s vocal prowess and range were excellently captured on another Checker release, “I Bowed on My Knees.” “I always liked that song,” says Dr. John who performed with Sugar Boy as well as writing and producing for him. “Everybody worked with everybody back in the game,” he adds mentioning that Crawford teamed with the likes of Professor Longhair and Huey “Piano” Smith.
Another strong single from Crawford, who enjoyed an active schedule on the club scene, was the fun “She’s Got a Wobble (When She Walks).”
Tragedy struck Crawford’s life in 1963. He and his band were on the way to Monroe, Louisiana for a gig. Alerted by a sheriff, a roadblock was set up and his vehicle was pulled over. Crawford once explained that this was during the era of the Freedom Riders when African Americans constantly and arbitrarily faced harassment and the threat of violence from the police. The results of being pistol-whipped by an officer sent him to the hospital in a coma. A metal plate was placed in his head and it took him two years to recover though, it is said, he never felt he completely did.
“His life was sort of robbed,” Davell says with sadness. “I found it pretty amazing for a guy that lived a certain way with attention around him and lots of love from people who adored his gift, when that was taken away he had not one bit of bitterness. I also found out that he was the kind of guy who didn’t want to raise any confusion with lots of issues. He would rather be at peace and go on about the day doing what he wanted to do.”
Dr. John echoes the observation saying, “After all the shit he went through, he never had any animosity and he had plenty of reason.”
From that time on, Crawford, who was always a religious man, chose to primarily sing gospel music in church. He worked as a maintenance engineer at the Masonic Temple on St. Charles Avenue and after retirement he became a locksmith. Meanwhile he collected royalties from “Jock-A-Mo” and its derivatives. Those who covered the catchy, rhythmic classic include the Dixie Cups, whose hit was renamed “Iko Iko,” Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Cyndi Lauper and others. It was heard by the Belle Stars in the movie “Rain Man.”
Sugar Boy did sing some R&B with his grandson Davell at the 1996 Jazz & Heritage Festival and is heard on his 1995 album, Let Them Talk.
It was at this year’s Jazz Fest that Sugar Boy and Davell Crawford performed together for the last time. The elder Crawford was making a guest appearance with vocalist Jo “Cool” Davis in the Gospel Tent. Davell walked over to say hello and Sugar Boy asked him to play piano for him. The tune was “I Believe.” After that, the two walked over to the Blues Tent to check in with Charmaine Neville.
“Every couple of steps, people recognized him and took pictures — he took pictures for everyone,” Davell recalls. “That was the last time I actually saw him and we had a wonderful time.
“Personally, his biggest influence on my life was his spirituality,” says Davell, who is also recognized in the gospel community as a musician and choir director. “His devotion and relationship with Jesus Christ definitely influenced me.”
A musical tribute and services were held for James “Sugar Boy” Crawford at the First African Baptist Church on Friday, September 21, and Saturday, September 22, respectively.
This article was originally published in the September 24, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper