Fifty years ago the Beatles crossed over to America, and it seemed no one could unseat them from the top of the charts. But three girls from New Orleans' Calliope housing project did just that, edging out the Fab Four in 1964 to score a #1 Billboard hit.
The Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love" featured the harmonies of sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins, along with their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. Though Hurricane Katrina took them from New Orleans, they’re back to play French Quarter Fest this Saturday at 2 p.m. This is the story of their enduring hit.
Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins came up singing with their mom in church. In the early 1960s, when they first started a music group with Joan Marie Johnson, they didn’t know she was their cousin.
Barbara Hawkins remembers it this way: “I was on my way to the store, and she said: 'Hey, come here. I heard you can sing.'”
Johnson was getting a group together to compete in a talent show. She convinced Barbara Hawkins to join, and when one of the guys dropped out — the bass singer — Hawkins remembers saying, “Well my sister sings bass.” Hawkins laughs. “So that’s how Rosa got in the group.”
The three harmonizing girls didn’t win the talent show, but a scout in the audience loved them and made plans to take the group to New York to audition for a record contract. But first the girls' family had to approve.
“So my grandmother said, 'Let me see who this gal is,' because that’s the way they talked,” Hawkins explains. “'Let me see who this gal is you going to New York with. Get her on the phone.' So I call Joan, and my grandmother say, 'Ask her mom such and such,' and after about three or four questions my grandmother started laughing. She say, 'She’s okay, that’s your cousin. It’s all family.'” Hawkins laughs. “So that’s how that came about.”
They drove from New Orleans to New York, and auditioned for a number of big record companies, as well as for the famed songwriters and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who immediately signed the group, then known as The Mel-tones. The first song they recorded was “Chapel of Love.”
“The first time I heard 'Chapel of Love' on the radio, it was a Saturday morning and I was doing my chores, which were dusting,” recalls Rosa Lee Hawkins, Barbara’s younger sister.
“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 me playing on the radio!’”
Rosa Hawkins laughs at the memory. “Then we got the call from Mike (Stoller) and Jerry (Leiber) to come back to New York, so that was the beginning of our career basically.”
Ben Sandmel is an author, musician, and folklorist who extensively researches New Orleans rhythm and blues, and who is the author of Ernie K-Doe: the R&B Emperor of New Orleans. “From the late 40’s up to 1963, that era is considered the Golden Age of New Orleans rhythm and blues,” he says.
Sandmel says one of the reasons New Orleans’ Golden Age of rhythm and blues ended in 1963 is that British groups like the Beatles and the Yardbirds came to America.
“The success of the British Invasion knocked a lot of American artists off the charts,” says Sandmel. Which is one reason why the Dixie Cups' 1964 #1 hit was so amazing.
"When 'Chapel' was released, the Beatles had the top 10 sewed up because they were constantly releasing songs, and every one of their songs hit the charts,” recalls Barbara Hawkins. “Many of them went to be number one. And 'Chapel' just went right up there and knocked them out the box.”
The Dixie Cups had other hits which charted, though they never reached number one. One of the most well known was the Mardi Gras Indian chant the Hawkins girls grew up hearing their grandmother sing: “Iko Iko.”
“The band had taken a break,” remembers Barbara Hawkins, “and it was just the three of us in the studio. So we started drumming on... let’s see, we had an ashtray, drum stick, 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.”
Barbara and Rosa Hawkins say “Iko Iko” and “Chapel of Love” made their career. They still sing both songs, though their cousin Joan long ago retired for health reasons. Athelgra Neville has been the third Dixie Cup for the last decade.
Rosa Hawkins says she never tires of singing 'Chapel of Love.' She did so at her son’s wedding. “And when I start singing the song, I realized: 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.”
For half a century, the Hawkins sisters have sung their number one hit at weddings and concerts, and lucky for us, they’ll likely sing it this Saturday in New Orleans at the French Quarter Festival.