The Dixie Cups, a New Orleans girl group, did not want to sing “Chapel of Love.” “It sounded like a country song, OK?” the trio told the Brill Building professionals who’d written the tune.
“We asked them could we do it like we wanted to. And they said, ‘Sure,’” Rosa Lee Hawkins, one of the group’s singers, who died on Tuesday (Jan. 11) at age 76, recalled to the Arizona Republic last year. “So we rehearsed it in a little corner, just the three of us, not the piano. And we came up with the version they released.”
“Chapel of Love,” written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (with a songwriting credit to the late producer Phil Spector), hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, displacing The Beatles’ “Love Me Do.” It became a foundational song for ’60s girl groups, rock ‘n’ roll and pop music. In addition to soundtracking countless weddings, the Dixie Cups classic has been covered by Elton John and Bette Midler, and appeared in movies from Father of the Bride to Full Metal Jacket.
“When it was released, it went zoom,” Barbara Ann Hawkins, Rosa’s sister and a member of the group, told WNYC in 2014.
Rosa Hawkins grew up singing in church, then formed the Meltones with her older sister Barbara and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson, who died in 2016. They sang the Three Playmates’ “Lovey Dovey Pair” at a New Orleans talent show in 1963, and while they didn’t win the $100 prize, they attracted the attention of talent scout Joe Jones, who became their manager. Eventually, they changed their name to the Dixie Cups, because, Barbara Hawkins told The New York Times, they’re from Dixie and “cups are cute.”
Jones ushered the group into the music business, but in her 2021 memoir Chapel of Love: The Story of New Orleans Girl Group the Dixie Cups, Rosa Hawkins accuses the late manager of abusing her sexually and exploiting the group financially. “It’s hard to say when the lying started for Joe,” she wrote.
Rosa Hawkins told the Republic later, “The only time we made money off ‘Chapel of Love’ is when we appeared onstage at the theaters or the sock hops or whatever.”
After “Chapel of Love,” the Dixie Cups recorded many other tracks, including “People Say” and a version of the Mardi Gras standard “Iko Iko.” Johnson left the group in 1966, and one of her replacements, family friend Athelgra Neville, whose siblings are the Neville Brothers, has toured with the Hawkins sisters in the Dixie Cups for decades. Their most recent album, Doing It Our Own Way, which includes versions of “Chapel of Love” and “Iko Iko,” came out in 2011.
The group was doing shows in Las Vegas when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and they lost many of their belongings in the flood. Rosa and Barbara later moved to Tampa, Fla., where Rosa Hawkins died during surgery at Tampa General Hospital.
“The most important thing to Rosa, after her son and me and her grandchildren and nieces and nephews, was singing,” Barbara Hawkins told the Times-Picayune. “She was very happy when she was onstage. Her whole attitude and demeanor were different because she was doing something she loved.”