How a Mardi Gras Indian chant became a Billboard hit
By no means were the Dixie Cups the first to sing “Iko Iko.” Mardi Gras Indians had been chanting a version of it on the streets of New Orleans for years. They weren’t even the first to record it. James “Sugar Boy” Crawford did that in 1953 with his “Jock-A-Mo.” But when the three girls from New Orleans’ Calliope housing projects harmonized for a version of it for Red Bird Records in 1964, it quickly took on a life of its own. Released the following March, the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” became a Top 20 hit, gaining them — and sounds from traditional Mardi Gras Indians — international exposure in the process.
“Iko Iko” has been covered numerous times over the years by any number of artists, including Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Cindy Lauper, The Grateful Dead and even the Chipmunks. But 53 years after they recorded it, the Dixie Cups’ version stands as the definitive one. In a 2012 poll, readers of NOLA.com ranked “Iko Iko” as their fifth favorite Carnival song, behind, in order, “Carnival Time,” “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Go to the Mardi Gras” and “Big Chief.”
- The original Dixie Cups were sisters Barbara Ann Hawkins and Rosa Lee Hawkins, with cousin Joan Marie Johnson. They started singing together to compete in a talent show at St. Augustine High School — which they lost.
- Like many in New Orleans, music surrounded the Hawkins girls growing up. Their mother at one time was a singer in “Papa” Celestin’s band. Living across the street from them was the now-famous Neville family, and Barbara sang back up for Art Neville as a child.
- The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” with its trademark percussion, happened almost by accident. While they were in the studio and the band was on break, the young women began banging out the beat on whatever was nearby — an ashtray, a Coke bottle, an aluminum chair — and singing a song they used to hear their mother sing around the house. What they didn’t know was that the tape was rolling. After bass and drums were added in, they had the makings of a hit.
- So what do the words to “Iko Iko” actually mean? There are a lot of theories, but even Crawford — who originally recorded “Jock-A-Mo” — has admitted he doesn’t really know for sure.
- The Dixie Cups weren’t always the Dixie Cups. When they started singing together, they called themselves The Mel-Tones and, briefly, Little Miss and the Muffets. It wasn’t until manager Joe Jones took them to New York to record with Red Bird Records that they became the Dixie Cups.
- “Iko Iko” wasn’t the Dixie Cups’ first hit. A year earlier, their “Chapel of Love” went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts — dethroning none other than the Beatles’ “Love Me Do.” The Dixie Cups’ other hits included “People Say,” “You Should Have Seen the Way He Looked at Me” and “Little Bell.”
- After Johnson left the group, she was replaced first by Beverly Brown, then by Dale Mickle, and eventually by Athelgra Neville.
- In 2007, the Dixie Cups were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
- In 2016, actress Natalie Portman, singer Sia and the Roots joined host Jimmy Fallon for a rendition of “Iko Iko” on “The Tonight Show.”
- When it comes to Dixie Cups, which came first: the disposable drinking cup or the girl group? The drinking cup, by nearly 50 years. Originally called the Health Kup, it was invented in 1910 in New York and was rebranded the Dixie Cup in 1916.
“Iko Iko,” with its irresistible beat and its cryptic lyrics — which are so, so fun to sing along with — have become ingrained in New Orleans culture. Beer fans used to be able to enjoy Abita Brewery’s Jockamo IPA. Jacques-Imo’s Café serves up local fare from its Oak Street eatery. When the local HBO series “Treme” shot in town starting in 2009, the production company formed to do so was called Fe Na Ney Productions. But the real importance of the Dixie Cups’ recording of “Iko Iko” is in the way it reached beyond New Orleans. If it wasn’t the first taste of Mardi Gras Indian culture to be exported far beyond the city, it was certainly the most widespread — and to this day it’s still arguably the most beloved.