Fat Tuesday -a day of indulgence on every level. Celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, it’s the last big blowout before Lent kicks in and fasting begins. And of course, Mardi Gras and music go together like floats and parades, jazz bands and beads, purple, gold and green. Songs get stirred up in the spicy gumbo of different cultures and become the celebratory music that begs us to dance and sing along.
One of the most well-known songs of Mardi Gras is “Iko-Iko,” made popular after an impromptu jam session was caught on tape by songwriting greats Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
In 1965 New Orleans girl group The Dixie Cups were recording for Leiber & Stoller’s Red Bird Records in a New York studio. They’d finished “Chapel of Love” and during a break the girls began singing a song they’d learned from their mother called “Iko-Iko,” a call and response chant of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Group member Barbara Hawkins said: “We were just playing around with it during a session using drumsticks on ashtrays. We didn’t realize Jerry and Mike had the tapes running.” Leiber and Stoller later overdubbed bass and percussion along with the drumsticks on ashtrays, released it, and in 1965 it became the Dixie Cups’ final Top 40 record.
“Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups
It turns out the song, originally titled “Jock-a-Mo,” was actually written in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford. It tells of a parade collision between two “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians. There’s a “spy boy” or “spy dog” (a lookout for one band of Indians) encountering the “flag boy” for another band. He threatens to set the flag on fire. Crawford told Offbeatmagazine in 2002: “It came from two Indian chants that I put music to. ‘Iko Iko’ was like a victory chant that the Indians would shout. ‘Jock-A-Mo’ was a chant that was called when the Indians went into battle. I just put them together and made a song out of them. I was just trying to write a catchy song.”
When the Dixie Cups released the song in 1965, they didn’t know the origins of it, only that they’d heard their mother sing it. So the original authorship credit went to the members, Barbara Ann Hawkins, her sister Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. Crawford sued, claiming that “Iko Iko” was the same as his “Jock-A-Mo,” and in 1967 it was settled with him winning no claim to authorship but being credited 25% for public performance of “Iko Iko” in the United States. In the end he said, “I don’t even know if I really am getting my just dues. I just figure 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing.”
The song has since been covered by a diverse group of artists including Cyndi Lauper, Dave Matthews, Warren Zevon, Cowboy Mouth, and the Grateful Dead who made it a staple of their live shows from 1977 on. It’s also been in over a half dozen movie soundtracks including Rain Man, The Hangover and Mission: Impossible II.
Another iconic song for Fat Tuesday is “Mardi Gras Mambo,” written in 1953 by Frankie Adams and Lou Welsch, and originally recorded as a country song by Jodie Levens. In 1954 it was recorded by The Hawketts, a group of New Orleans teenagers that featured 17-year-old Art Neville (who later became the lead vocalist of The Meters before forming The Neville Brothers). The Hawketts’ version was released on Chess Records and became an R&B hit for them, and later recorded by greats like The Meters and Buckwheat Zydeco. “Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn…”
The Story Behind “Mardi Gras Mambo” and “Iko Iko” was originally run in Performing Songwriter by