SUGAR BOY FROM SUGAR TOWN
[UPDATE 5/8/2013: Audio links are no longer hot. Selected songs from this post have been added to the HOTG Radio webcast stream - in rotation 24/7.]
Vocalist, songwriter, and pianist, James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford passed away this year on September 15 in New Orleans at the age of 77, just a few weeks after Hurricane Isaac hit, and about a month before the airing of the scenes he did with his gifted grandson, Davell Crawford, on the HBO series, Treme. Before the year totally winds down, I want to offer an appreciation of Sugar Boy’s significant contributions to New Orleans music during his all too brief recording and performing career.
Starting in the early 1950s, Sugar Boy became one of New Orleans’ most popular entertainers and bandleaders; but commercial success as a recording artist allowing him access to a national audience was limited, at best. He had fewer than ten singles issued over the course of a decade; and only one of those came anywhere near being a hit. Though he recorded much more material than that during the period, many of those tracks remained unreleased until a retrospective collection came out some 20 years later on the two LP set, Sugarboy Crawford, as part of the Chess Blues Masters series in 1976. It contained his issued and unissued recordings for the Checker label, and has served to introduce a large segment of his early work to existing fans, as well as neophytes.
The well-written overview of the singer’s life and career that appeared on the inside of the gatefold cover was done by record collector and expert extraordinaire, Terry Pattison, who, along with Tad Jones, had interviewed Sugar Boy the previous year. When asked on short notice to provide notes for the compilation, Terry drew on information from that interview and his knowledge of the singer’s releases; but he had to wait until the package came out to hear all the other songs it contained. Needless to say, it has been a revelation to many over the years.
Currently, those tracks and more can be still found on CD. I’ll be including a few tracks from that important vinyl set to supplement selected sides from the few Sugar Boy 45s in the HOTG archives.
Online background on the late Mr. Crawford is fairly accessible, should you wish to partake. I recommend two brief but worthwhile local obituaries, one by Keith Spera at nola.com and the other by Jeff Hannusch at OffBeat [now celebrating their 25th year in print!]. For more detail, Hannusch also did a 2002 interview with the singer for OffBeat, and has a chapter on him in I Hear You Knockin’ (1985). Other useful information on Sugar Boy and his first group, The Chepaka Shawee (a/k/a The Sha-Weez), can be found at Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks site, which includes a discography of released and unreleased material. For more in print, John Broven’s groundbreaking, informative 1974 book, Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans [originally titled Walking To New Orleans], offers more about the artist. I’ll be referencing some of these sources for context along the way.
FROM THE SHA-WEEZ TO THE CANE CUTTERS
As duly noted by all of the above, James Crawford, who acquired the nickname “Sugar Boy” as a child, formed his first band with friends from high school and his neighborhood around 1950. They came to be called the Chepaka Shawee, which was the title of one of their instrumental numbers, through frequent mentions of the band by popular local DJ, Dr. Daddy-O, who heard the group and invited them to perform regularly on his weekly radio show in 1952. That unusual song title/band name seems to have been an approximation of Louisiana Creole for “We are not racoons”, according to Goldberg and Hannusch. It was a risky appellation in the repressive South, where whites regularly referred to backs as “coons”; but the dangerously defiant sarcasm it contained was fortunately veiled by a patois that did not translate across the deep racial divide. Sugar Boy would have been around 17 at the time, just about a decade away from his own life-changing run-in with overt racism.
The local radio exposure created such a demand for the band that Dr. Daddy-O soon recommended them to local record producer Dave Bartholomew, who helped the group get a record deal with California-based Aladdin Records. They cut four songs late in 1952 at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio, and Aladdin chose two, “No One to Love Me” and “Early Sunday Morning”, as the sides of their debut single (#3170) on which the company shortened their name to the Sha-Weez. Sugar Boy had blown out his voice on a gig the night before the sessions, so trombonist Edgar ‘Big Boy’ Myles was enlisted to sing lead on the tracks, with the hoarse Crawford doing only the spoken lines and faux-crying on “No One to Love Me”.
A competent but underwhelming debut, the record [a very rare find these days} got only local airplay and insubstantial sales, causing Aladdin to forgo releasing the other tracks or recording any more on the group. Still, the buzz for the Sha-Weez only increased, allowing them to regularly play a number a clubs around town, including the famed Dew Drop Inn, and do some road work, as well. The next year, they got another opportunity to record through a chance encounter with Leonard Chess.
In town from Chicago promoting new releases for the record labels he and his brother, Phil, ran, Chess happened to hear the band rehearsing at radio station WMRY. As Sugar Boy recalled to Hannusch, the entrepreneur had the group record two of Crawford’s original songs, “I Don’t Know What I’ll Do” and “Overboard”, virtually on the spot, and soon left with the tape in hand, having paid them all of $5.00 for their trouble. Ostensibly, it was a just a demo session; but, about a month later, Crawford, who sang lead on the tracks, found out that the tunes had been released on a single by Checker, a Chess Records subsidiary. To his further surprise, Chess had renamed him and the band Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters, as a catchy marketing gambit.
“Overboard” (James Crawford)
Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters, Checker 783, 1953, from Sugarboy Crawford, Chess
John Broven points out that this was the first Chess company release to be recorded in New Orleans, as well as being Sugar Boy’s debut as featured artist. The A-side, “I Don’t Know What I’ll Do”, was a straight-ahead ballad with a sax solo by David Lastie, and some more faked sobbing (a popular gimmick at the time) by the singer near the end. Meanwhile, the flip side, “Overboard”, true to its title, took off in another direction entirely, being a frenzied raver with a driving, doubled-down backbeat courtesy of drummer Warren Myles, and Sugar Boy shouting out the rapid-fire lyrics just to be heard above the band. Despite having a grim topic [Fats had done a moodier tune on the subject a year earlier, “Going To The River”.], the track rocks its socks off, the sheer energy overcoming the down and dirty recording quality. There seems to have been no bass player at the rehearsal studio that day; but Sugar Boy, in the beginning, at least, ran the low note patterns on the piano before it got lost in the ensuing hubbub. The horns, ‘Big Boy’ Myles and Lastie, fade in and out at random, likely due to there being only one microphone attempting to catch it all. But, you know what they say, close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
Still, it was Sugar Boy’s balladry on the top side that got airplay and enough positive response around town for Mr. Chess to want to follow-up, being more than worth his investment to that point! He signed Sugar Boy to a contract and set-up a further series of recording sessions at J&M that resulted in almost two dozen more songs being cut over the next year or so, starting with the legendary “Jock-A-Mo”, based on Mardi Gras Indians Crawford saw and heard in his neighborhood as a child.
Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters, Checker 787, 1954, from Sugarboy Crawford, Chess
With its references to such a specific and colorful aspect of New Orleans life, black Mardi Gras culture, this highly syncopated, Latin-Caribbean flavored novelty dancer did very well at home; but, surprisingly, it also got the best public response of any of the singer’s records in markets elsewhere in the country, selling well for nearly a year. Of course, it has rightfully become a perennial local Carnival season classic, as well.
As can be heard, Sugar Boy was actually singing “chockamo”, one part of the two arcane Mardi Gras Indian songs he remembered and combined. But, up north, on the shore of Lake Michigan, Leonard Chess heard it as “jockamo” [giving it kind of an Italian ring, though he was Polish!], and that’s how he spelled the record title. In their popular variant version of the song done ten years later, the Dixie Cups sang altered lyrics to a percussion-only accompaniment. They called it “Iko Iko”, taken from another phrase in the refrain; and that has been the predominant title ever since. The girls claimed not to have known of Sugar Boy’s version when they recorded the song, but eventually were convinced to give him writing co-credit. Most of the many cover versions of the song that have come along since mix elements of the two versions in various ways atop a funky, second line groove.
Up until the Dixie Cups' version, “Jock-A-Mo’ was the most well-known popular song to reference Mardi Gras Indian culture; but it had at least one worthy precursor, Dave Bartholomew’s great “Carnival Day” single [78 rpm, of course] from 1949.
In the studio, experienced session bassist Frank Fields and blind gonzo guitarist ‘Snooks’ Eaglin supplemented the core of Sugar Boy’s band on “Jock-A-Mo” and the bulk of the other material cut that year. Irving Bannister, regular guitar player in the Sha-Weez, had been drafted prior to the Checker sessions and would not return to join the Cane Cutters until afterwards. Crawford was lead vocalist on most of the songs, but duetted with Myles on “Long Lost Stranger” and “Please Believe Me”, both unreleased at the time. Several other sessions that came to light on the Chess collection seem to have been intended as demos for other vocalists, with Sylvester ‘Slim’ Saunders doing “Honey” and “Get Away” (plus possibly a few more), and Snooks getting a shot at a couple himself, “If I Loved You Darling” and the killer rumba-boogie, “You Call Everybody Sweetheart”.
“You Call Everybody Sweetheart” (?)
Snooks Eaglin with the Cane Cutters, from Sugarboy Crawford, Chess
The session details and notes credit Snooks as the guitarist but not the vocalist on the latter two songs. While I knew it wasn't Sugar Boy, it took years before I recognized Snooks' singing. Terry Pattison confirmed that when I talked to him last month. It seems so obvious now.
While it’s certainly not a master take for several reasons, such as the vocal having been recorded too hot, this one’s still a keeper. Warren Myles laid down a great, hip-swaying latin groove on the tom-toms that was augmented by some fine, uncredited maracas work. Also noteworthy is the interplay of Snooks’ rockin’ note-running and string-bending with Sugar Boy’s Fess-inspired keyboard rolls and trills. It's always fun to hear.
When Snooks recorded his own sessions for Imperial in the early 1960s, he cut "You Call Everybody Sweetheart" and "If I Loved You [Baby}" again, but neither made it to vinyl then either.
Another interesting number from the compilation is a rare instrumental.
“Night Rider” (Crawford)
I’ve always liked the funky conga-line groove on this raw little band jam, likely just done as a warm-up and/or to set the sound levels in the studio. Notable is the addition of a trumpet to the lineup, which happened on only a few other tracks. The Chess sessionography doesn’t even list a trumpet player; but Terry suggested to me that it was probably Melvin Lastie, older brother of David, which makes perfect sense. Noticeably, Eaglin and Fields aren’t on the track, leaving the core Cane Cutters as the remaining lineup: Sugar Boy on piano, with Big Boy Myles and his brother Warren on trombone and drums respectively. Of course, the performance is somewhat marred by Lastie’s sax being off-key for its entire solo; but that oddity grows on you after a while, until out seems in.
There was one final single from these sessions released on Checker in 1954, which dropped the Cane Cutters’ name, although they were still in evidence.
“I Bowed On My Knees” (Crawford)
”No More Heartaches” (Crawford)
Sugar Boy, Checker 795, 1954
Both these sides display workman-like R&B writing and performances, the A-side having an obvious Domino influence, and the flip being flat-out back-beat rock ‘n’ roll that probably would have served all concerned better had it been on top. As aligned, the record didn’t click with the public beyond New Orleans and environs; and Chess soon cut Sugar Boy loose. However, that in no way diminished his popularity as a live performer, who, it must be remembered, was just emerging from his teenage years.
He and the Cane Cutters gigged steadily, moving up to West Baton Rouge Parish later than year to become the house band at the Carousel Club, which had a whites-only clientele, for a two year stint. In 1956, he returned home to record for Imperial Records, having been recruited by Dave Bartholomew. But, for those sessions, Sugar Boy would be backed by a team of seasoned session regulars rather than his own highly capable band.
GOING SOLO ON IMPERIAL
Although his lack of national hits certainly didn’t curtail his ability to get steady work, the chance to record with Bartholomew for another prominent, nationally distributed independent label must have still seemed promising to Sugar Boy, especially considering the enormous success the producer had with Fats Domino’s records, among numerous others. In all, Imperial released four singles by Sugar Boy between 1956 and 1958, leading off with a hot New Orleans rocker that was the strongest of the lot.
“She’s Got A Wobble (When She Walks)” (D. Bartholomew & J. Crawford)
Sugar Boy, Imperial 5424, 1956
Written by Sugar Boy (with Bartholomew taking a producer’s cut), this ode to a woman with plenteous flesh literally and figuratively has the most Crescent City bounce of any of his issued sides. No doubt that’s a tuba pumping out the bass lines along with the baritone sax, providing perfectly appropriate big fat bottom-end tones, locked-in with the dense, poly-rhythmic, loose-booty drum groove. I’m not sure who did the stickin’ and kickin’ on this one. Top gun Earl Palmer was transitioning out of New Orleans for Los Angeles at the time [early December, 1956], but still could have made the date. if not, Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams, his more than capable studio successor, would be the logical choice. My vote for power pianist goes to session regular Huey Smith, as some of the complex runs bear his signature riffs. Speculation aside, the assembled talent turned this track out, a reminder of just how awe-inspiring the local sessionistas could be on any given day.
Meanwhile, the back side, “You Gave Me Love”, another original, proved to be too melodically close to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for its own good; and weak lyrics made it easy to pass over.
For whatever reason, Sugar Boy’s follow-up single, “Morning Star” b/w “I Don’t Need You” (#5441), marked the first time that both his given name and nickname were displayed on a release. He wrote the plaintive, mid-tempo top side, which had instrumentation and an arrangement straight out of Bartholomew’s standard Domino session book; but, on the flip, one Hal Smith and Bartholomew shared the attribution for a song with a bright, upbeat feel that belies the threat of violence to the woman addressed in the lyrics. Sugar Boy had his own touch of misogyny on an earlier Checker session original, “Watcher Her, Whip Her”, which wisely was never pressed.
Up to this point, Crawford had mainly written his own material. So, the fact that his final two Imperial releases did not include even one of his songs seems to indicate that either he was out of new material or the company wanted to try another angle to move him into national charts. For his next single, he was assigned two songs written by Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King. The pair had a long string of hits to their credit, but seem not to have given Sugar Boy their best shots.
“No One But You Dear” (D. Bartholomew & Pearl King)
“She’s The One” (D. Bartholomew & Pearl King)
James ‘Sugarboy’ Crawford, Imperial 5468, 1957
Frankly, “No One But You Dear” sounds like nothing more than a second rate knockoff of a Fats song. It had the classic elements of his more rocking arrangements, but squandered them by giving Sugar Boy only hackneyed lyrics and a weak melody to work with. The B-side proved derivative as well, but in a surprisingly more blatant way.
Musically, “She’s The One” is a direct lift of Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s big hit of that year on Ace Records, “Rockin’ Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu”. Other than the lyrics, it sounds like an alternate take of the original down to the distinctive keyboard style and shouts. So, the questions arises - did Huey play piano on it, too? Doing so would have meant going against his own self-interest for Dave and Sugar Boy’s benefit - probably too convoluted a move even for the music business. Instead, James Booker or Allen Toussaint, who also played sessions for Dave, could have rendered convincing replicas of Huey’s technique just as they often did Domino’s, making for an easier explanation, but with the same result: Bartholomew simply ripped Huey off, because he could.
Sugar Boy’s final Imperial release, “It’s Over” / “I Need Your Love” (#5513) doesn’t turn up much these days, suggesting it didn’t get the promotion or sales that the others did. The upbeat and aptly titled A-side was another derivative Bartholomew-King number, sounding noticeably like a watered-down version of Archibald’s influential Imperial hit from 1950, “Stack-A-Lee” [Lloyd Price would take that song to the bank on his 1959 version, “Stagger Lee”.], complete with a tack piano. On the back side, “I Need Your Love”, a mid-tempo, Domino-style arrangement wasn't much more than a place-holder, written by Esther Crayton, the wife of Texas blues rocker ‘Pee Wee’ Crayton.
Ultimately, the weak material on the two later 45s again failed to win Sugar Boy a larger audience; and by late 1958, he was a former Imperial artist, and a free-agent once again.
A FINAL FEW, THE END OF THE ROAD, .... AND THOSE SUGAR LUMPS
As before, lack of a record deal did not affect the busy performance schedule of Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters. They played continually on a Deep South circuit that included high school dances and college parties, as well as club work. Around 1959, Crawford cut a distinctive one-off 45 for the Montel Record Company, based in Baton-Rouge.
“Danny Boy” (P.D.)
“White Christmas” (I. Berlin)
James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford, Montel 1003, 1959
The label’s owner, Sam ‘S. J.’ Montalbano, heard Sugar Boy do “Danny Boy” live and, duly impressed, arranged to make the record. According to what the singer told Hannusch, the backing instrumentation for the song was cut in Baton Rouge by a “white band from LSU” (the music depatment?); but he tracked the vocal at Cosimo’s.
Anyone still unsure of Crawford’s top of the line vocal ability should be convinced after hearing his impressive take on this decently arranged and played Irish standard. His voice is strong, perfectly controlled, and smooth as silk. The contrast between the single’s sides offers a glimpse into what Sugar Boy brought to his performances at clubs like the Carousel, where straight-ahead, low-key fare filled the early sets, and the harder hitting R&B came out late in the evening when the clientele were a lot looser.
The original B-side,”White Christmas”, which was picked because the record would be coming out in the holiday season, was reconstituted into a rocker to accentuate Sugar Boy’s other strong suit; yet, I'd put the arrangement and his singing more in the cabaret zone, similar to the lounge/R&B hybrids of the great Louis Prima's Vegas years. Regardless, the playing on the upbeat track sizzles enough to make me think he had the real deal New Orleans session cats behind him. That’s even more apparent on the cooking alternate B-side, “Round and Round”, that appeared on later pressings of the single. I still don’t have a copy of it; but you can find the song in the download marketplace. I don’t see it on YouTube at the moment; but it’s well worth hearing.
In 1961, the singer made what was technically his last single, “I Cried” b/w “Have A Little Mercy”, which was released by Ace Records (#625) and showed him as Sugar Boy Crawford. Recorded in New Orleans, the top side was an updated version of his song, “I Don’t Know What I’ll Do”, that had originally appeared on his first Checker single. For Ace, it got a more concise title, plus the polished, professional performance of an experience entertainer. Producer/arranger Mac Rebennack re-cast the music in the mid-tempo Fats Domino style that Sugar Boy seemed to favor, while one of Mac's own fine pop compositions completed the package as the B-side. Unfortunately, Ace was on a downward slide; and the record quickly slipped into undeserved oblivion, destined to be another hard to find collectible in later years.
According to Crawford, he and his band also worked with Mac to cut the soundtrack and title song for Ace teen idol Jimmy Clanton’s 1961 movie, Teenage Millionaire. The following year, while driving to a gig in northern Louisiana at a time of high racial tension, Crawford was stopped by police in Monroe and beaten so severely that his skull was crushed. Hospitalized and near death for months, he eventually pulled through after doctors put a steel plate in his head to repair the damage; but it took him several years to recover. Although he later briefly tried to resume his career, he was unable to make a comeback, but did not abandon music, finding fulfillment singing in church. Late in life Crawford returned to the stage on occasion to sing spirituals backed by Davell at the Ponderosa Stomp and JazzFest.
Though his role as a popular performer, if hapless recording artist, was cut short long ago, the music he made has endured well into the succeeding century and is still finding fans via new media - a remarkable lifetime achievement and testament to the exceptional talents of the man called Sugar Boy.
* * * * * * *
As a final footnote to Sugar Boy’s recorded output, there is one other single to address that is associated with him. His name is on it, but he wasn’t, as the session didn’t occur until shortly after his traumatic injuries. He had been scheduled to record in Houston for Don Robey’s Peacock label with a female vocal group known as the Sugar Lumps, who had been performing with his band for several years. Crawford identified them to Hannusch as Linda and Dianne DeGrue [or possibly, Degray], Mary Kelly, and Irene Johnson.
Sugar Boy & the Sugar Lumps in better days
With Crawford unavailable, Robey went ahead with the session using the Sugar Lumps, but put both names on the resulting record, probably hoping to attract Sugar Boy fans.
“Mama Won’t You Turn Me Loose” (Deadric Malone)
Sugar Boy and the Sugar Lumps, Peacock 1925, 1963
Of course, nothing about this track would suggest to anyone that Sugar Boy had anything to do with it, being typical of female pop R&B on the radio at the time. The lead singer’s voice reminds me of Claudine Clark, who had a big hit in 1962 with “Party Lights”, which had a similar groove and theme of parental control (a universal teenage complaint). Though Robey [alias Deadric Malone] was credited as the writer, the tune was more likely penned by one or more of his staff, or maybe even some of the Sugar Lumps. The story on the B-side is a bit more...complicated.
“So Long - Goodbye” (Silvers-Crawford-Malone)
The writing credits on this one show Eddie Silvers, who was one of the Duke/Peacock staff writers, Crawford, and, of course, Robey/Malone himself; but it’s hard to tell at this late date if Sugar Boy had actually collaborated with one or both in writing the tune prior to his beating, or if it was a perhaps a song of his that he had been doing with the group on stage and had wanted to record with them. The somewhat strange nature of the session only makes things murkier.
The fact that it has a bluesy R&B feel with piano triplets ala Domino, leads me to favor the idea that Crawford wrote it; and, if so, Silvers probably arranged it for the record and was assigned part of the potential royalties. Here's where the it gets weird. In the segments between the girls' group vocals, the Sugar Lump singing lead kept her voice in a rather low register, perhaps in an attempt to suggest that it might be Sugar Boy's. If you’re not paying close attention [i.e., not an obsessive geek], she does sound like a he here and there; but, as an old friend of mine used to say, maybe I'm trippin’!
In any event, Sugar Boy’s name being on the record was no simple oversight, since Roby promoted it that way in at least a few Billboard ads I found, meaning he wanted the illusion of the absent singer's participation, as ridiculous as it now seems. Sadly, trying to keep Crawford in the picture was certainly a disservice to the Sugar Lumps, who obviously had a good sound going and deserved to stand on their own merits. But ultimately it didn’t matter, as the record seems to have been generally ignored upon its release and quickly deep-sixed.
As far as I know, the ill-fated Sugar Lumps had just two other releases, both on the California-based Uptown label. “The Other Side of Love” / “Won’t You Help Me” (#735) came out in 1966 and was produced by Jody Pitassy, who ran the small Pitassy label in New Orleans. ""Last Train To New Orleans" / "Young Blood" (#752) came out the next year and was produced by Pitassy and the writer of both tunes, Dave Bartholomew [thanks to Ana B for that 752 info!].But those are rarities to pursue another day.
[A note about fonts: As you can see, the fonts on this post and the prior two vary. Blogger, free as it its, still has a crappy text editor, after all these years, with few options. Thus the font choices are limited and the size to me is either too small, or too large - no in between. I tried importing my text from google documents, which is much more of a word processing app, which worked for a while; but ever since the last "upgrade", the code seems incompatible with blogger and just doesn't work right where the links are involved. So it goes.... Why google can't have consistent word processing across their platforms is a mystery. I've sent feedback; but no response. I use Blogger still not for its features, or just to torture myself with the lack of them, but for its semi-permanence. I figure it will be around longer than some of the other blog hosters; and I want the information I've collected available online as long as possible. Thanks. I needed that.]