RIP Rosa Lee Hawkins of the Dixie Cups, Who Beat the Beatles
The first two weeks of 2022 have not been kind to the female singers of the early 1960s.
This Tuesday, the day before Ronnie Spector died, Rosa Lee Hawkins passed away in New Orleans at the age of 77. She and her sister Barbara Ann were the founders of the Dixie Cups, whose “Chapel of Love” was a №1 hit in the middle of the 1964 Beatles blitz.
Nor does the sad news stop there. Gerry Granahan also died Tuesday, and while he wasn’t a girl group — his best-known band was Dickey Do and the Don’ts, proud performers of “Click Clack” — he produced several memorable female singers in the early 1960s.
Janie Grant’s “Triangle” was one of Granahan’s productions, and so were “Til” and “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels. He was also behind Linda Scott’s “I Told Every Little Star” and “Don’t Bet Money Honey.”
Granahan, who was 89 when he died, began his career singing demos of “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear” for Elvis Presley. After his own records didn’t sell much, he started creating records that sold for others — with a fondness for the female artists who helped finally rip down radio’s “No Gurlz Allowed” signs.
The Dixie Cups were a notable part of that brigade, though they didn’t have an especially long run. Not unusual among “girl groups,” their records often scored higher for quality than for chart position.
“Chapel Of Love” scored both. “It’s one of those songs that will go on forever,” Rosa Lee Hawkins said in 1985 before the Dixie Cups performed at New York’s Bottom Line. “Everybody sings it.”
“Chapel Of Love” also linked the Dixie Cups to Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes for something more than big hair.
Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry wrote the song with the Ronettes in mind. Phil Spector, the Ronettes’s producer, is credited as a co-writer.
The Ronettes recorded it. So did Darlene Love. But the perfectionist Spector didn’t think either recording got it quite right and when he delayed releasing the Ronettes’s version as a single, Greenwich and Barry looked for someone else to cut it.
As it happened, heavyweight producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were starting their new Red Bird label. Since they loved the female sound, they auditioned the Dixie Cups, who had driven to New York from their native New Orleans with their manager Joe Jones, who earlier had a hit himself with “You Talk Too Much.”
Leiber didn’t like “Chapel of Love.” Neither did the Dixie Cups. But Stoller liked it and so did their third label partner, George Goldner. So the Dixie Cups saing it and it became the first release on Red Bird. Not a bad way for a label to start, ensuring its place in history.
Phil Spector was not happy about all this and it would lead to some tension. But there was nothing he could do about it. He released the Ronettes’s version later on an album, dooming it to be forever compared to the smoother, leaner, more melodic and better known rendition by the Dixie Cups.
The two treatments of the song underscored the differences among female groups like the Ronettes or the Chantels, whose singing could blow the doors off, and others like the Dixie Cups, whose softer approach worked both with “Chapel” and their splendid follow-up, “People Say.”
The Hawkins sisters kept the Dixie Cups going for much of the rest of Rosa’s life, which is remarkable itself in a business that famously drives wedges between siblings.
They both worked as models and at other jobs, while rehearsing what Rosa said was “usually once or twice a week . . . so we would always be ready.”
Over the years they played around the world, from England to Thailand. In response to the inevitable question, yes, they did play weddings.
But what both Barbara and Rosa recalled most vividly was the package tours they played in the mid-‘60s, when six to 10 acts with hit records would be sent out on a string of one-nighters.
“That’s where you really learned about the business,” said Rosa. “You’d ride 10, 15 hours in a car or on a Greyhound bus, drinking warm Dr. Peppers. You played cards, you played tricks on other people. I would read a lot.”
“You‘d be out for three months,” said Barbara. “You might get a hotel three or four times a week. After a week or 10 days you lost track of time and place. You knew you were on stage, you just didn’t know where.
“That was how you paid your dues then. You could either accept it or spend all your time being miserable.”
It didn’t help that when the tours went through the South, Rosa recalled, “You sometimes couldn’t get a meal because of the color of your skin.”
You put up with all of it, the Hawkins sisters said, because you got to sing “Chapel of Love” to a crowd that loved it.
“You appreciate it more,” Rosa said, “when you look back.”
(Thanks to Ron Farber for some of the Gerry Granahan details.)