Culture
7:41 am
Thu June 5, 2014

Chart-Topping 'Chapel Of Love' Turns 50

Originally published on Thu June 5, 2014 5:49 pm

In 1964, The Beatles crossed over to America — and dominated the music charts from the moment they landed. It took an African-American jazz trumpeter in his mid-60s singing a show tune to unseat them: Louis Armstrong with "Hello Dolly." Mary Wells' "My Guy" kept The Beatles out of No. 1 for another two weeks, but it was a trio of unknown teenage singers that proved to be the Fab Four's unexpected competitors. The New Orleans girl group The Dixie Cups knocked The Beatles out of the top spot on the charts 50 years ago this week with the song "Chapel of Love."

Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins grew up in New Orleans' Calliope Housing Project, along with their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. One day, Johnson was putting together a group for a talent show — and Barbara Hawkins remembers running into her.

"I was on my way to the store," Hawkins says. "And she said, 'Hey, come here. I heard you can sing.' "

Hawkins agreed to join, and when the bass singer dropped out, she told the group that her sister sang bass.

"So that's how Rosa got in the group," Hawkins says.

It was a time when New Orleans R&B was hot.

"From the late '40s up to 1963, that era is considered the Golden Age of New Orleans rhythm and blues," author, musician and folklorist Ben Sandmel says. "That's when so many big records were recorded by New Orleans artists such as Roy Brown and Fats Domino and Lloyd Price. And the success of those records inspired record companies from around the country to send their artists to New Orleans to record with New Orleans musicians."

In 1964, the Golden Age of New Orleans R&B came to an end.

"The success of the British Invasion knocked a lot of American artists off the charts," Sandmel says.

But the three harmonizing teenagers from the projects caught a break. While they didn't win the talent show that was the basis of their formation, a scout in the audience loved them. They drove from New Orleans to New York to try to get a record contract.

"We auditioned every day once we got there," Barbara Hawkins says. "We were going to different record companies."

They finally sang for famed songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who immediately signed the group and told its members to change their name. They became The Dixie Cups, and the first song they recorded was "Chapel of Love." After recording, they immediately flew back to New Orleans. A month went by.

"The first time I heard 'Chapel of Love' on the radio, it was on a Saturday morning and I was doing my chores," Rosa Hawkins says. "This record came on and it was like, 'Oh, that record sounds familiar. Oh, I know that song.' And then I realized, 'Hey! That's my voice there!'

"And I ran up the steps and I was screaming, and my mom came down. She say, 'What's the matter? What's the matter?' And I said, 'Our song is on the air! It's being played on the radio.' Then we got the call from Mike and Jerry to come back to New York, so that was the beginning of our career, basically."

"Chapel of Love" stayed at No. 1 for three weeks. Barbara Hawkins remembers one of the follow-up recording sessions when the group began fooling around with a Mardi Gras Indian chant she and her sister grew up hearing their grandmother sing.

"The band had taken a break, and it was just the three of us in the studio," Hawkins says. "So we started drumming on — let's see, we had an ashtray, drumstick, Coke bottle, and there was an aluminum chair. And Jerry and Mike were in the control room and they recorded it. And then they came out afterwards and said, 'That was just awesome.' They never heard anything like that before."

The result was "Iko Iko," which cracked the Top 20 in 1965. But The Dixie Cups never reached the top of the charts again after "Chapel of Love." The group still performs, although founder Johnson retired years ago. Rosa Hawkins even sang "Chapel of Love" at her son's wedding.

"When I start singing the song, I realized, my God, I was a child when I recorded this song," Hawkins says. "And I had no idea that I would be singing this song at my son's wedding."

She says that as long as people still want to hear it, she'll be singing "Chapel of Love."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have a story of the top 40 music charts - 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "LOVE ME DO")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Love, love me, do. You know I love you. I'll always be true. So please, please, please love me, too.

INSKEEP: What everybody knows - even people born much later - is that The Beatles arrived in America and dominated the charts back in 1964. Some may know that Louis Armstrong also had a number one hit that year.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG SONG, "HELLO DOLLY")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Hello, Dolly. This is Louis, Dolly. It's so nice to have you back where you belong.

INSKEEP: Music aficionados may even know that Mary Wells had a number one hit 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY WELLS SONG, "MY GUY")

MARY WELLS: (Singing) Nothing you could say can tear me away from my guy. Nothing you could do 'cause I'm stuck like glue to my guy.

INSKEEP: Here's something you may not know. It's the story of a totally unknown New Orleans trio who released a song in the same year as those stars and also hit number one, 50 years ago this week. Odds are, their song is in your head, even if you have never known their names - until now. Eve Abrams of WWNO has the story of the Dixie Cups.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIXIE CUPS SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Going the chapel and we're going to get married. Going to the chapel and we're going to get married. Gee, I really love you, and we're going to get married. Going to the chapel of love.

EVE ABRAMS, BYLINE: Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins grew up in New Orleans' Calliope Housing Project. So did their cousin, Joan Marie Johnson, who was putting a group together for a talent show. Barbara Hawkins remembers running into Johnson one day.

BARBARA HAWKINS: I was on my way to the store, and she said, hey, come here. I heard you can sing.

ABRAMS: Hawkins agreed to join, and when one of the guys dropped out, the bass singer, Hawkins said...

B. HAWKINS: Well, my sister sings bass. So that's how Rosa got in the group.

ABRAMS: It was a time when New Orleans R&B was hot.

BEN SANDMEL: From the late forties up to 1963 - that era is considered the Golden age of New Orleans rhythm and blues.

ABRAMS: Ben Sandmel is an author, musician and folklorist.

SANDMEL: That's when so many big records were recorded by New Orleans artists, such as Roy Brown and Fats Domino and Lloyd Price. And the success of those records inspired record companies from around the country to send their artists to New Orleans to record with New Orleans musicians.

ABRAMS: In 1964, the Golden age of New Orleans rhythm and blues came to an end.

SANDMEL: The success of the British invasion knocked a lot of American artists off the charts.

ABRAMS: But the three harmonizing teenagers from the projects caught a break. While they didn't win the talent show that was the reason for forming, a scout in the audience loved them. They drove from New Orleans to New York to try and get a record contract.

B. HAWKINS: We auditioned every day once we got there. We were going to different record companies.

ABRAMS: Barbara Hawkins says they finally sang for famed songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who immediately signed the group and told them to change their name. They became the Dixie Cups, and the first song they recorded was "Chapel of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF DIXIE CUPS SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Spring is here. The sky is blue. Birds all sing as if they knew.

ABRAMS: After the session, they flew back to New Orleans. A month went by.

ROSA HAWKINS: The first time I heard "Chapel of Love" on the radio, it was on a Saturday morning.

ABRAMS: Rosa Hawkins.

R. HAWKINS: I was doing my chores which were dusting, and this record came on. And it was, like, oh, that record sounds familiar. And then I realized that, hey, that's my voice there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIXIE CUPS SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Bells will ring. The sun will shine. I'll be his, and he'll be mine.

R. HAWKINS: And I ran up the steps, and I was screaming. And my mom came down. She said what's the matter, what's the matter? I said our song is on the air. It's being played on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIXIE CUPS SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Gee, I really love you, and we're going to get married. Going to the chapel of love. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

R. HAWKINS: And then we got the call from Mike and Jerry saying come back to New York. So that was the beginning of our career, basically.

ABRAMS: "Chapel of Love" stayed at number one for three weeks. Barbara Hawkins remembers one of the follow-up recording sessions when they began fooling around with a Mardi Gras Indian chant the Hawkins girls grew up hearing their grandmother sing.

B. HAWKINS: The band had taken a break, and it was just the three of us in the studio. So we started drumming on - let's see, we had ashtray, drumstick, Coke bottle. And there was an aluminum chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIXIE CUPS SONG, "IKO IKO")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) My grandma and your grandma were sitting by the fire. My grandma told your grandma, I'm going to set your flag on fire. Talking about hey, now. Hey, now. Hey, now. Hey, now. Iko, Iko, unday. Jockamo feeno ai nane. Jockamo fee nane.

B. HAWKINS: And Jerry and Mike were in the control room, and they recorded it. And then they came out afterwards and said that was just awesome. They had never heard anything like that before.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIXIE CUPS SONG, "IKO IKO")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Look at my king all dressed in red. Iko, Iko, unday. I bet you $5 he'll kill you dead. Jockamo fee nane. Talking about, hey, now. Hey, now. Hey, now. Hey, now. Iko, Iko, unday. Jockamo feeno ai nane. Jockamo fee nane.

ABRAMS: "Iko Iko" cracked the top 20 in 1965. But the Dixie cups never reached the top of the charts again after "Chapel of Love." The group still performs, though founder Joan Marie Johnson retired years ago. Rosa Hawkins even sang "Chapel of Love" at her son's wedding.

R. HAWKINS: When I start singing the song, I realize, my God, I was a child when I recorded this song. And I had no idea that I would be singing this song at my son's wedding.

ABRAMS: Rosa Hawkins says as long as people still want to hear it, she'll be singing "Chapel of Love." For NPR News, I'm Eve Abrams in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIXIE CUPS SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")

DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) We'll love until the end of time. And we'll never be lonely anymore.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.