19 July 2009

The Dixie Cups

Today The Dixie Cups are playing a tribute show for Wardell Quezergue, put on by the Ponderosa Stomp at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The Ponderosa Stomp is based in New Orleans and is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the music of its home city. The mission statement casts a broader net, explaining that the Stomp exists "to celebrate, pay tribute to, and teach the cultural significance of the unsung heroes and heroines of rock-n-roll, rhythm & blues and other forms of American roots music while they are still alive." And they do not limit their shows to New Orleans musicians, but of course, those specific musics came out of New Orleans and almost all American "roots" music can be traced back to traditions that grew from North America's fertile crescent of culture. Quezergue has played an important role in that musical legacy as one of the city's preeminent arrangers, transposing the intricacies and energy of second line rhythm into popular tunes.

To me, The Dixie Cups represent the popular side of Quezergue's work best. The group was originally comprised of two sisters, Barbara and Rosa Hawkins, and their cousin, Joan Johnson, all of whom grew up in New Orleans. More specifically, they grew up in the Calliope Projects, where the Neville Brothers also grew up. Still teenagers, Barbara, Rosa and Joan began singing around New Orleans as The Meltones, and later, Little Miss and The Muffets, which is a great name but probably would not have stuck to the charts quite the way The Dixie Cups did. Still under the name The Meltones, however, they already had a sound that caught the attention Joe Jones, another New Orleans performer. After working with the three women for a short time, he took them to the Brill Building in New York, where he introduced them to the already well-known song-writing team Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Lieber and Stoller were in the process of starting a small record label, Red Bird Records, and The Dixie Cups were their first group.

"Chapel of Love," written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwhich and Phil Spector, was their first hit. It quickly hit number one on the pop charts in spring of 1964, thankfully knocking the Beatles out of that spot. They had several follow-up hits as well, including "People Say," but "Chapel of Love" remains their strongest claim to 1960s pop stardom. Their last hit, however, registers as their most iconic and the most rooted in their home town. "Iko Iko," released on two different singles in 1965 (b/w "Gee, Baby Gee" and "I'm Gonna Get You Yet"), never hit number one; nonetheless it became their signature song. It seems impossible to even mention their success with "Iko Iko," however, without also mentioning Sugar Boy Crawford's 1954 hit "J0ck-a-mo," which sounds remarkably similar.

As the story goes, The Dixie Cups were in the studio with Greenwhich and Barry and between takes began messing around, banging out a polyrhythm on ashtrays. They didn't realize that the tapes were rolling and, supposedly, Greenwhich and Barry simply dubbed in brass and drums before releasing it. Part of this myth also suggests that Barbara, Rosa and Joan learned the song from their grandmother, as Barbara seems to have claimed publicly, and that it must have therefore been an old Mardi Gras Indian folk song. Crawford's "Jock-a-mo" complicates the myth a bit, but has also led people to assume, on the other hand, that The Dixie Cups and Red Bird ripped it off from Crawford, who never achieved the sort of fame The Dixie Cups achieved. So, there are a number of confusing points to unravel.

First of all, they may very well have learned the song from their grandmother. Each of The Dixie Cups women were quite young when Crawford's version became a regional hit. It's likely, however, that they heard versions of it around town as they became teenagers and started getting interested in performing popular music. In any case, The Dixie Cups certainly didn't record the song on accident. There's an accapella version available on CD (or for download here) where they can be heard starting the song over, with direction from the control room, indicating that they recorded at least a second take. Furthermore, Barry and Greenwhich didn't just make an accidental recording and, on good intuition, turn it into a hit. In fact, that messing around on ashtrays was arranged percussion by Wardell Quezergue. Quezergue would have known Crawford's "Jock-a-mo" well, as he was already playing music in New Orleans when it was released.

Of course, he also would have known the Mardi Gras Indian chants that Crawford cribbed from to compose his song. Unfortunately for Crawford, and many, many other disenfranchised 20th century musicians, music copyright is a prickly affair that usually benefits the industry, rather than the creative and cultural forces that produce anything worth copyrighting. The important point for this post, however, is that The Dixie Cups and Quezergue held their culture and its history in high enough esteem to reformulate the New Orleans tradition in a New York City recording studio without flattening it out into the generic sort of dribble that many yankee businessmen thought appropriate for mass production.

I love "Iko Iko" for its simple presentation of complicated rhythmic patterns and its spontaneous (which is not to say accidental) energy. The arrangement retains the second line ebullience while also being spare enough to appeal to a radio audience. And, unlike "Chapel of Love," which seems quite dated, perhaps because its extraordinary fame helped define a certain 60s aesthetic, "Iko Iko" continues to sound like a breakthrough in popular recording. In 1964, Red Bird released a compilation of The Dixie Cups's singles under the title of their number one hit. I picked it up at Harvest Records in Asheville, NC on my way through town, where I stopped to have dinner with friends before moving on toward Texas. It was a steal at $4 and has filled my summer with much pleasure.

After their initial success Joe Jones decided to move The Dixie Cups over to the larger label ABC-Paramount. While they had other hits, they never were quite as successful and, under pressure to tour constantly, Joan left the group. Shortly thereafter legal troubles convinced the Hawkins sisters to do the same. They've been back at it for several years now, peforming with their old neighbor Athelgra Neville. It's nice to see them making a living from their music and nice to see them carrying the torch with the Ponderosa Stomp, despite having to relocate after Katrina. Since I can't be at the Lincoln Center tonight, I thought I'd share the music with y'all here. Enjoy!

Chapel of Love

1. Chapel of Love
2. Gee the Moon Is Shining Bright
3. I'm Gonna Get You Yet
4. Ain't That Nice
5. Thank You Mama, Thank You Papa
6. Another Boy Like Mine
7. Gee Baby Gee
8. Iko Iko
9. Girls Can Tell
10. All Grown Up
11. People Say

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