Journalist Heather Lende has been writing obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska, for 20 years.
Fifty years ago, three young women from New Orleans hit it big with the release of their single “Chapel of Love.” The Dixie Cups song was an instant chart-topping hit on the pop and R&B charts, displacing the reigning champs of the Billboards, The Beatles, and reclaiming the charts for American musicians in the midst of the British Invasion.
Since 1964, the song has become a part of American culture, providing the soundtrack for countless weddings and used in movies like “The Big Easy” and “Father of the Bride,” and on the TV show “Glee.”
It surpassed everybody on the chart, and it knocked the Beatles out of first place.
The group was comprised of two sisters, Rosa Hawkins and Barbara Hawkins, along with their cousin Joan Marie Johnson.
Today The Dixie Cups are still performing, but not with the original line-up. The newest Dixie Cup is Athelgra Neville, who the sisters refer to as “our sister from our extended family.”
All three ladies joined Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to talk about “going to the chapel.” The Hawkins sisters reminisced about the unlikely way they got their big break — a high school talent show, in which the group did not even place.
“There was a talent scout in the audience, and he didn’t know how to get in touch with us,” Barbara said. “We used to babysit for Larry McKinley, who was the disc jockey in New Orleans, and we were at his home, and his wife’s cousin won second place. Her name was Barbara. So she asked me to go with her to the talent scout, and we ended up going to his home. Well, when we walked in, he kept looking at me. So then he said, ‘Are you one of the ladies who was in the green dresses at the talent show,’ and I said yes. So he went and picked up the program and showed me that he had circled our names. He said, ‘I’ve been trying to get in touch with you guys. You guys were wonderful.’ He said, ‘I want to talk to you about recording,’ and we sang for him, and he just went crazy.”
The rest, as they say, was history, and once the group signed to a label, it took next to no time for “Chapel of Love” to climb the charts.
“When it was released, it went zoom,” Barbara said. “Joe [Jones] had told us that, ‘Your chance of making a number-one record is a 150 million to one.”
“The Beatles were out, and they had, at that time, their song was ‘Love Me Do,'” Rosa added. “But ‘Chapel of Love,’ it was released, it surpassed everybody on the chart, and it knocked the Beatles out of first place and kept first place for three weeks.”
To this day, the song remains a classic and is often used in movie soundtracks. According to Neville, the theme is timeless.
“Everybody wants to get married,” she said. “Every woman wants to go to the chapel. So, you know, I think that’s what did it.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles were knocked off the top of the Billboard charts with this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")
HOBSON: That is "Chapel Of Love" of course. It's by the Dixie Cups, a group made up of two sisters - Rosa Lee and Barbara Ann Hawkins along with their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. Today the Dixie Cups are still performing but without Joan Marie Johnson. The newest Dixie Cup is Athelgra Neville. Yes, those Nevilles.
All three ladies are with us. Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins join us from WUSF in Tampa, Florida. And Athelgra Neville, is with us from WWNO in New Orleans. We're so glad to have you.
R. HAWKINS: Thank you.
B. HAWKINS: Thank you. It's good to be here.
ATHELGRA NEVILLE: Thank you. It's great to be here.
HOBSON: Well, and I want to start with you, Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee. Take us back to 1964 when this song was recorded. How did that all happen?
HAWKINS: In New Orleans, Saint Augustine High School used to have a talent show every year. And this young lady asked me to be a part of her group to participate on the talent show. Well, one of the young men mother was ill, so he had to drop out. So we needed a base. So I said, well, my sister sings bass, so we can use her. So Rosa got in the group, and we rehearsed. We attended the talent show. We did not win first, second or third.
HAWKINS: No, but there was a talent scout in the audience, and he didn't know how to get in touch with us. We used to babysit for Larry McKinley, who was the disc jockey in New Orleans. And we were at his home. And his wife's cousin won second place. Her name was Barbara. So she asked me to go with her to the talent scout, and we ended up going to his home.
Well, when we walked in, he kept looking at me. So then he said, are you one of the ladies who was in the green dresses at the talent show? And I said yes. So he went and picked up the program and showed me that he had circled our names.
He said, I've been trying to get in touch with you guys. You guys were wonderful. He said, I want to talk to you about recording. And we sang for him. And he just went crazy. He said, oh, my God.
HOBSON: And I'm imagining a talent scout, like, wearing a fedora and like an old-time '60s suit.
HAWKINS: No, no, no, no.
HAWKINS: He didn't have that.
HAWKINS: No. No, he just had on a pair of slacks and a nice dress shirt. He took us all to New York. We caravan in two or three cars and went to New York. And we started pounding the pavement, as they say. Everybody wanted to record us, but Joe said it wasn't the right deal.
HOBSON: What do you mean it wasn't the right deal?
HAWKINS: He wanted, what was called back then, front money. So if he couldn't get front money for himself, then he didn't give the people the artist. So finally we sang for Leiber and Stoller, and they wanted us. So they gave him what he wanted. So that's when "Chapel" was born.
HOBSON: How long did it take for it to become the top of the charts song?
HAWKINS: When it was released, it went zoom because at that time the British had the top 100 charts sowed up because you had the Beatles and the Animals and the Rolling Stones. And all of those British groups were over in the U.S., and they all had records on the charts. And Joe had told us that your chance of making a number one record is 150 million to one.
HAWKINS: And the Beatles were out. They had - at that time, their song was "Love Me Do."
HAWKINS: But "Chapel Of Love," it was released. It surpassed everybody on the chart and knocked the Beatles out of first place and kept first place for three weeks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")
HOBSON: But what do you think it was about that song that captured the nation's attention at that time - a song about getting married?
HAWKINS: I think it was the harmonies because when Jeff and Ellie sang it for us we said - they said, well, do you like this song? We said, well, do we have to sing it like that? And they said well, how would you want to sing it? I said, well, give us a moment.
So we walked over in the corner, and we came up with it the way it is. And I think it was just like Rosa would say - most of the groups then had lead-in background, but we were harmonizing.
HOBSON: I want to bring Athelgra Neville in from New Orleans and ask what you think about why this song "Chapel Of Love" really hit a nerve in the United States in 1964.
NEVILLE: Everybody wants to get married. Every woman wants to go to the chapel. So, you know, I think that's what did it.
HOBSON: Now, there is another song that many people know the group, the Dixie Cups for. And that is "Iko Iko." Let's take a listen to some of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IKO IKO")
HOBSON: I'm nodding my head and tapping my feet right now. Where did "Iko Iko" come from?
HAWKINS: It's in New Orleans tradition. It's a song that my grandmother used to sing to me. It's something that the New Orleans Indians sang during Mardi Gras.
And the way it happened, we were recording our first album and the band and everybody was on break. They were on lunch break. And the three of us were in the studio.
Well, we thought we were alone so we start playing around with the song. and there was an aluminum chair, a couple of drumsticks, an ashtray, and that's the instrumentation that you hear. Yeah, and we started beating on those things - and a Coke bottle. Can't forget the Coke bottle.
HOBSON: I don't think Beyonce or - has ever had to perform on an ashtray and a Coke bottle. Maybe.
HAWKINS: I don't know.
HAWKINS: You never know nowadays.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IKO IKO")
HOBSON: We're speaking with the Dixie Cups, 50 years after their song "Chapel Of Love" hit the top of the charts. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IKO IKO")
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with the Dixie Cups 50 years after their hit "Chapel Of Love" reached the top of the charts. And ladies, this is a song that has been covered many times. I want to hear some of the covers. This is the Beach Boys.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH BOYS SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")
HOBSON: You're laughing there. Why are you laughing?
HAWKINS: I've never heard that.
HAWKINS: I didn't know the Beach Boys covered it. I didn't.
HOBSON: They did. And so did the Ronettes. Let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF RONETTES SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")
HOBSON: It sounds like the Ronettes never got off the sleigh ride.
HAWKINS: Well, see what happened - they tell me that Phil Spector was part writer on the song. So from my understanding, the Ronettes and the Crystals had recorded the song before we got it. But we had never heard it.
HOBSON: And the name of your group, by the way, you didn't settle on the Dixie Cups right away, right?
HAWKINS: No. Well, we were Mel-Tones, M-E-L-dash-T-O-N-E-S, when we left New Orleans. But Leiber and Stoller said it wasn't catchy enough. So they came up with - my God - Little Miss and the Muppets. And we said, no way.
HOBSON: No thanks.
HAWKINS: No way, Jose.
HOBSON: Well, so what does the Dixie Cups mean?
HAWKINS: Well, we are from New Orleans, the land of Dixie. And during that time, groups didn't have people names. They were objects like Crystals, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals.
So we said, Dixie. But we didn't know Dixie what. And then we thought about Dixie Cups because it's a real cute name. So we are the Dixie Cups.
HOBSON: Once "Chapel Of Love" became a huge hit, you were part of Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars." You traveled all around. What happened? What was that like for you to go from just being people performing in New Orleans to being international celebrities?
HAWKINS: It was amazing. I'm going to let Rose talk. But it was just amazing because we had never, ever done anything like that. I didn't even know that they put that many stars together on a bus and travel the United States. We were like in awe because there were people there that we liked, you know, other artists there.
HAWKINS: You see all of these artists and, as Barbara said, you even saw artists that you liked their records. But of course, being a teenager, you had no inkling of an idea that you would someday hear your voice on a radio, singing a song.
So riding on a bus and just going from one town to another town - from one town to another - you know, it was weird. Not weird as to, OK, what's going on now. But it was weird that this had become a part of our life. And we were just kind of thrown in there. And no one sat us down and explained what people would expect of us as artists.
We were going on this 30-day trip. You'd be living out of a suitcase, and no one really prepared us for that until we actually got on the tour and of course we met the Shirelles. To this day, they became like our big sisters. We just did a job with Shirley about three weeks, four weeks ago. And we were on the same bill, and we hadn't seen her in a while.
And she walked into our dressing room. She said my babies here, my babies. You know, because they took us under their wing because they saw that we did not know anything, OK.
HOBSON: You were not ready for that.
HAWKINS: We were not ready. And just being thrown into that, you're either going to make it or you're not going to make it. And we heard the saying, if you can sing in front of an audience in New York City at the Apollo Theater, you can make it anywhere in the world. And for the life of me, I didn't understand what this person was saying. Oh, what is he talking about? But when we did get to the Apollo, we did find out.
HOBSON: Was the Apollo the highlight of where you were able to perform?
HAWKINS: For me, yes, because I had heard this saying so much and I didn't really know what it was. And the Apollo Theater - I don't know if you have ever physically been inside the Apollo Theater and been backstage. But the dressing rooms start on the first floor. And of course that was for the star.
And as you graduated in the music industry, you would graduate by coming down a dressing room. And our first dressing room, quite naturally, was dressing room number nine, which was all the way at the top of the theater.
So when it was time for us to go on, you know, the bells would ring - you have 15 minutes, 10 minutes so forth. And the guy would say, OK, Dixie Cups, make it down these steps. You got three minutes. You know, so we had to run all the way down. But the more we played the Apollo theater, the less steps we had to go.
HOBSON: Did you ever make it to number one?
HAWKINS: We were number two. We costarred with Jackie Wilson, yes.
HOBSON: Now, you were both displaced from your homes in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and were later serenaded by President Clinton, which I know is an important moment for you. Tell us about that.
HAWKINS: Oh, my god.
HOBSON: And he sang "Chapel Of Love."
NEVILLE: I was there, and we were at - from the Big Apple to the Big Easy.
HAWKINS: Yeah, Madison Square Garden.
NEVILLE: Yes, Madison Square Garden. And we walked over to President Clinton and introduced ourselves and he said, oh, going to the chapel. So that was really, really, really wonderful.
HAWKINS: Yeah, when we walked up there, I said we're the Dixie Cups. He said I know who you are. And he started singing. And I'm telling you, I was just blown away. Here is the president of the United States of America who know the Dixie Cups, and not only know that, he knows the song. And he sang it.
HOBSON: Well, here we are now in 2014, 50 years later, and you're still performing.
HAWKINS: Yes, we are. We are truly, truly blessed.
HOBSON: Well, let's hear what you can do for us right now with "Chapel Of Love."
DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Going to 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.
HOBSON: What a treat. Athelgra Neville, also Rosa Lee Hawkins and Barbara Ann Hawkins, the Dixie Cups 50 years later. Thank you all for coming in and for singing for us.
HAWKINS: Thank you.
HAWKINS: Thank you for having us.
NEVILLE: Thank you for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")
HOBSON: And you can see pictures of the Dixie Cups with President Clinton at our website hereandnow.org.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I don't know of anyone who doesn't know this song, and that was before social media.
HOBSON: Well, and it's been featured in so many movies now - "The Big Easy," "Father Of The Bride," and it's been covered on "Glee." So it's still part of the popular culture.
YOUNG: Great to hear today.
HOBSON: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Peter O’Dowd follows the route of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train 150 years ago, to look at modern-day race relations and Lincoln's legacy.