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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Joan Marie Johnson and the Dixie Cups--An appreciation

The Dixie Cups didn’t have a lot of hits, but the female 1960s New Orleans R&B trio left its mark.

“Their success was the product of one of the great unacknowledged mashups in rock history,” notes Aaron Fuchs, the New York-based president of Tuff City Records and sister label Night Train Records, specifically, “the importing to New York whole cloth of New Orleans musicians by [Jerry] Leiber & [Mike] Stoller. As always we get the rose--the Dixie Cups--without knowing the soil it grew from: all the best New Orleans musicians and bandleaders, without whom it couldn't have happened.”

Fuchs, who has highlighted New Orleans artists in his releases, was prompted to reflect on the Dixie Cups by the death of Joan Marie Johnson on Oct. 3. Johnson, 72, was a founding member of the Dixie Cups, whose 1964 hit “Chapel of Love,” written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwhich and Phil Spector, is historically significant for knocking the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” off the top of Billboard’s singles chart—as well as for its lasting appeal.

“When I was six or seven-years-old, I didn't know who the Dixie Cups were--but I knew the words to ‘Chapel of Love,’” says native New Orleanian Sally Young, now a DJ for celebrated New Orleans music-centered station WWOZ. “They were part of my soundtrack when I was growing up in New Orleans and listening to WTIX AM--the Mighty 690—all the time on transistor radios!”

“Chapel of Love” was in fact recorded in New York, as Fuchs notes, with New Orleans musicians Joe Jones and Wardell Quezergue, and Leiber and Stoller producing. It was the first release from Red Bird Records--the legendary label founded by Leiber and Stoller and producer George Goldner—and sold a million copies; it has since appeared on the soundtrack to films including Full Metal Jacket and Father of the Bride. Originally recorded by the Blossoms and also cut by the Beach Boys, the Ronettes and Bette Midler—who had a hit with it in 1973—it was ranked #279 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The Dixie Cups—sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins, and Johnson, their cousin—followed “Chapel of Love” with “People Say” (No. 12 in 1964) and “Iko Iko” (No. 20 in 1965), the latter being the most successful recording of the much-recorded New Orleans song centering on chants by clashing Mardi Gras Indian "tribes."

“When ‘Iko Iko’ scored a hit, the Dixie Cups put Mardi Gras Indian chants on the Billboard Hot 100, which is a major cultural achievement--even though in an abstract sense only, since no one outside of New Orleans had heard of the Mardi Gras Indians at that time,” says New Orleans music journalist/musician Ben Sandmel. “But it was very cool just the same, and then a decade later the Neville Brothers and Wild Tchoupitoulas [tribe] began raising awareness of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.”

The Neville Brothers were a key part of the self-titled album The Wild Tchoupitoulas, released in 1976. As for “Chapel of Love,” “it’s still played at many weddings here, sometimes at the beginning of the ceremony before the couple walks down the aisle, to great dramatic/poignant effect,” says Sandmel. The Dixie Cups' success, meanwhile, “also highlighted the great arrangements on their hits written and produced by Wardell Quezergue, who worked on so many other great records such as ‘Mister Big Stuff’ by Jean Knight, ‘Groove Me’ by King Floyd, etc.”

And at the time of Johnson’s death the Dixie Cups were "still popular and beloved,” in New Orleans, Sandmel says.

“They performed every year at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and played some other dates around town. One of the Nevilles is in the Dixie Cups now--Athelgra Neville Gabriel, sister of Art, Aaron, and the other brothers. The interconnected world of New Orleans R&B!”

Sandmel concludes: “It's very sad to hear of the passing of Joan Marie Johnson, who leaves behind a legacy of great music.”



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