Iko Iko

Dixie Cups, Red Bird 024, 1965, #20 Pop and #20 R&B
(My copy is a 1987 Antilles reissue that tied in with the movie The Big Easy.)

I love New Orleans. My most vivid memory from all of my visits to New Orleans is that of my wife Sweets sitting on the window ledge of a French Quarter building almost three decades ago, cradling our one-year-old in her lap. Sweets is slurping from an upended bottle of beer, while upending a baby bottle of milk for Li’l Sweets. Nice slice of American family tourist life. When the wife and I went to New Orleans for our 25th anniversary, we stayed in the same guest house where we’d stayed then, The Lamothe House on Esplanade Avenue, and it seemed not to have changed at all. (But we’ve changed; for one thing, the wife no longer drinks beer, and my grown-up daughter no longer drinks milk.)

…it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

It’s believed that the actual family name of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was Lamothe. I’d like to think he may somehow be connected to the place we stayed. (Well, he was born a few blocks up Esplanade.) Jelly Roll was the first great composer-performer of New Orleans, and he knew it. He always said it was he who invented jazz. Whatever his role, his music is the sound of New Orleans—the place to start—from “Wolverine Blues” to “Grandpa’s Spells.”

A few decades later, The Dixie Cups made music that was every bit as N’Awlins as Jelly Roll’s. The single format suits their song “Iko Iko” perfectly. It sounds spontaneous and incomplete, like an inadvertently captured moment that became documented and preserved. And, as a matter of fact, the recording was impromptu happenstance. Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson had recently come out of New Orleans (and out of nowhere) with a Ronettes reject, “The Chapel of Love,” which ended up knocking The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts. Their producers, the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had been trying to match that initial success with follow-ups.

One day, the sisters sat in the recording studio, reminiscing about their grandma’s Mardi Gras Indian chants, and, with cousin Joan Marie, started singing while tapping on ashtrays and folding chairs and whatever else was on hand. The trio didn’t realize they were singing variations on Sugar Boy Crawford’s song “Jock-A-Mo,” which Grandma had heard back in 1953. Crawford’s song has almost the same tune and lyrics, full of the lore of the Indians, with spy boys and flag boys, kings out for blood, and the distinctive patois of the marching tribes. Sugar Boy sued the Dixie Cups and won, kind of. He got little financial reward and little recognition. (The songwriter credits on the 1965 single are B. Hawkins, R. Hawkins, and J. Johnson, The Dixie Cups; the credits on the 1987 reissue add Joe Jones, their former manager, and his family members, who claimed authorship. The Dixie Cups sued in 2002, got all the rights back, and are once again listed as the songwriters. Still no Sugar Boy Crawford.) Any way, you look at it, though, it’s the sweet and affectless voices of “Chapel of Love,” in street-parader mode, that produced the version of the song that has the enduring charm.

At the end of the song, near the fade, you can hear that the girls weren’t sure whether or not to keep singing. Leiber and Stoller, in the right place at the right time (the studio board), got it all on tape, and the resulting single, retitled “Iko Iko,” is perfect New Orleans-heritage pop—made in New York City. It only got to #20, but is a far more distinctive record than “Chapel of Love.”

“Iko Iko” appears on another top-shelf document of New Orleans, the 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo. Dr. John not only delivers a revved up, horn-driven version of The Dixie Cups’ song, landing a single of it on the charts again, but pulls out a potpourri of other New Orleans gems, from “Little Liza Jane” to Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” to a medley of Huey “Piano” Smith hits. It’s seamlessly entertaining, and it’s 100% New Orleans, just like Jelly Roll, The Dixie Cups, and, yes, poor Sugar Boy Crawford.

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