Iko Iko has been a popular song on more than one occasion and has its origin in the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and elements of the song come from a period in our history long ago.
Many years ago native Africans would be taken from their homeland, often against their will, and brought to the American South and sold as slaves. Those brought to New Orleans would sometimes chant and sing when they gathered together. One phrase that they shouted was "Ago!" which is a Gambian word meaning attention or listen. Another was "jockamo" which is believed to be a word meaning jester. The chants were picked up regionally and spread by word of mouth.
There are groups in New Orleans who look forward to the Mardi Gras celebration there all year long. When Mardi Gras time arrives they will dress in elaborate costumes, maybe eat or drink to excess, and sing the songs that they enjoy; some of these groups pose as Indian tribes during the Mardi Gras celebration. By the early 1950s New Orleans R&B musician James "Sugar Boy" Crawford had heard the chants which were still being recited. He had also long heard the Creole dialect that is prominent there. Crawford had written some songs in the past and liked the rhythm of the old chants. He decided to mix it all together in the hope of coming up with an enjoyable song. He composed a song and called it Jock-a-mo, but the title was later changed to Iko Iko. His group Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters recorded it in 1954. It was incorporated into the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, and it became quite well known in the region.
In 1964 a singing group comprised of three young women from New Orleans, under the direction of their manager, Joe Jones, struck out for New York City in the hope of securing a recording contract. They called their group Little Miss and the Muffets, and were comprised of sisters Rosa Lee Hawkins and Barbara Ann Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. The group's name was changed to the Dixie Cups and in the spring of 1964 they had a huge number one hit with Chapel Of Love. They stayed in New York for quite some time and continued recording for the Red Bird label owned by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. A few more hits followed.
The members of the Dixie Cups remembered Iko Iko from their days in New Orleans and recorded it at a session in the Red Bird studios in May of 1965. The record rose to number twenty on the pop chart and served to introduce this Mardi Gras favorite to the rest of the world. Although there is little musical accompaniment to it, their version is snappy and very catchy.
Iko Iko is a song that keeps coming back. The Dixie Cups' version was later used in the 1987 film The Big Easy. Other artists have recorded Iko Iko over the years, including Cyndi Lauper, the Grateful Dead and the Belle Stars. The latter was an all-girl band from Great Britain and it was their version that appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Rain Man in 1988. The movie was quite successful and Iko Iko returned to the pop chart the following year, in the version by the Belle Stars, and went to number 14.
Some believe incorrectly that Iko Iko is a song that had been around for many years by the time the 1950's arrived. When James Crawford combined various elements of New Orleans culture together to create it in the early 1950's, he undoubtedly had no idea that it would last so long or become so popular. And the fabulous 60's girl group the Dixie Cups certainly did their part well in popularizing this terrific song.
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