NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, look what you found! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m back in the home studio, so if you hear weird background noises, not to worry: it’s just me.
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Oh, this week’s trivia question is a hard one for ye:
What do the following bands have in common?
- The Doors
- The Velvet Underground
- Art of Noise
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- And Mott the Hoople.
- Need one more? OK, but I think it’s a giveaway. Steppenwolf.
Once again, what do those bands have in common? Don’t think too hard and I bet it’ll come to you.
As usual, I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.
Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins, and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson were a trio of singers from New Orleans who sang together since they were in grade school. When they first began to perform professionally, they worked in that area as The Meltones. Eventually they were discovered at a talent show by Joe Jones, who you might remember from the song “You Talk Too Much,” and he brought them to New York City to meet with songwriting producers Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller.
Leiber and Stoller liked what they heard, and they signed the trio to a recording contract. The first thing they did was change the group’s name since Mel Torme’s backing singers were already called the Mel-tones, with a hyphen between Mel and Tones. Originally they were going to record as Little Miss and the Muffets, but fortunately they were talked out of that. They finally settled on a name that reflected both their New Orleans roots and Mike Stoller’s fondness for small cups of ice cream: the Dixie Cups.
[CHAPEL OF LOVE]
Their debut recording, “Chapel of Love,” was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who themselves had gotten married about a year earlier. And that’s one of the things that makes the song stand out from others of the era. There are lots of love songs from 1964, but it’s mostly teenage, puppy-love level stuff, like the Supremes’ “Baby Love”, “Romeo and Juliet” by the Reflections, and “Love Me Do” by the Beatles. And yeah, I know “Love Me Do” is from 1962, but there’s a reason I’m mentioning it that I’ll share later.
According to Songfacts dot com, Barry wrote the lyrics and Greenwich worked out the chords afterward. But there’s an extra detail to the songwriting that I’ll get to in a minute. See, Barry and Greenwich wrote the song for Phil Spector to produce for Darlene Love, and Darlene Love did, in fact, cut a track of the song. But Spector wasn’t happy with the result and it was never released. But Phil Spector had this habit of demanding a writing credit whenever he worked with songwriters, so even though he didn’t really do anything, he’s got a writing credit on the song too.
ANYway, the Dixie Cups was the first act to record and release a song on Leiber and Stoller’s Red Bird label, which most people thought of as a label for girl groups, but in fact they made up less than half of the label’s roster. However, they also made up more than 90% of Red Bird’s charting hits. So, there’s that.
The recording session caught a lucky break, because it occurred to someone that, since the song is about a wedding, maybe there should be some bells. Especially given the line, “Bells will ring/the sun will shine.” Unfortunately, nobody had planned for that but there just happened to be a set of chimes in the studio from someone else’s recording session. Mike Stoller tried to play them but he didn’t do such a great job, but once again luck stepped in when percussionist Artie Butler came by. So that’s Artie Butler playing the chimes from the second chorus on.
In addition to playing on the record, or trying to anyway, Leiber and Stoller were the song’s producers, and the whole project got Spector pretty angry because Barry and Greenwich had basically beaten him to the market with their record. He thought it was a betrayal, but that didn’t stop him from A) making another recording with the Ronettes and releasing it several months later on their debut album; and B) pairing up with Barry and Greenwich on 1966’s “River Deep, Mountain High” for Ike and Tina Turner.
“Chapel of Love” was by far their biggest hit, peaking at Number One on the BIllboard Hot 100 and remaining there for three weeks. And the song they knocked out of the top spot? The Beatles’ “Love Me Do”, which had only recently been released as a single in the US. See? I told you I’d get back to that. And according to the Dixie Cups’ website, that makes them the first Ameican group to “take back” the charts from the British Invasion. The song also made it to Number One in Canada, and peaked at Number 22 in the UK.
The song has been used a bunch of times in movies and television shows, including Full Metal Jacket, Betsy’s Wedding, and the 1991 version of Father of the Bride.
But it’s almost invariably the Dixie Cups’ version that gets used, despite there being a few covers that are both pretty good, and commercially successful. In fact, the only cover I can think of that made it into a movie was by Elton John, who recorded it specifically for the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Better Midler recorded a cover as part of her 1972 debut album The Divine Miss M, which was arranged and produced by Barry Manilow. It was released as a B-side but ultimately treated as a double-A when it charted, peaking at Number 40 in 1973. Except for the 45, that specific recording was unavailable anywhere until a remastered version of the album came out in 2016 and it was included as a bonus track.
The Beach Boys included a cover on their 1976 album, titled 15 Big Ones, which was a collection of covers. It was Brian Wilson’s first turn at producing for the Beach Boys since Pet Sounds, and the project was hampered by internal squabbles. Ultimately the only single that issued from that album that saw any real chart action was “Rock and Roll Music”, and if there’s anything less Rock and Roll than the Beach Boys’ version of “Rock and Roll Music”, I don’t think I want to know about it.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the Ronettes recorded the song, almost contemporaneously with the Dixie Cups, but their version is considered a cover.
As far as the Dixie Cups themselves, they moved to the ABC-Paramount label before taking a recording hiatus in 1966. Joan Johnson left the music business around this time and was replaced for tours by Beverly Brown. Johnson died in 2016 at the age of 72. Beverly Brown stayed with the Hawkins sisters until the early 80s when she became ill and was replaced by Dale Mickle. More recently they’ve done performances and personal appearances with Athelgra Neville filling out the trio. Athelgra is the sister of the singing Neville Brothers. The group’s official website, which appears to be fan-operated, doesn’t list any appearances of any kind since November of 2018, though, so I really don’t know whether they’re still active.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what these five bands have in common: The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Art of Noise, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Mott the Hoople, and finally Steppenwolf. The answer is that they all get their names from book titles.
- The Doors’ name comes from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception.
- The Velvet Underground is the title of a book by Michael Leigh.
- Art of Noise got its name from a book called The Art of Noises by Luigi Russolo
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds comes from a book and movie called The Bad Seed, originally written by William March.
- Mott the Hoople, believe it or not, was the title of a book by Willard Manus
- And finally, Steppenwolf is probably the most famous title of Hermann Hesse’s works. Or, it was when I was younger. I think they’re making everyone read Siddhartha in high school, now.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is, when you can’t even give it away on Seventh Avenue.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.