Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had struggled with the Los Angeles-based Spark records operation they'd started in early 1954; only one national hit ("Smokey Joe's Cafe" by The Robins) came as a result of two years' effort, but even that didn't happened until they shuttered the label and signed a production-and-songwriting deal with Atlantic, after which the single was rereleased on Atco. About seven years of success followed with acts like The Coasters, Drifters and Ben E. King, along with some chart-topping songs they'd written, recorded elsewhere by no less than Elvis Presley. Then the Baltimore-born duo (who have been called "geniuses" by many) decided to take another stab at label ownership, where profits are greater...and losses are too. Phil Spector was riding high in 1963, unleashing one hit after another on his Philles label founded with partner Lester Sill, who initially took care of the business end, leaving Phil to immerse himself in the creative side. Jerry and Mike enlisted longtime record huckster George Goldner (of the Tico, Rama, Gee, Roulette, Gone and End labels, to name the most notable) to serve the same function for them. Their Tiger ("Something You Got" by Alvin Robinson its one notable single) and Daisy labels fared as poorly as Spark had before they hit pay dirt.

As young hot-shot producers were finding success with their own independent labels, Red Bird emerged as something of a New York counterpart to former associate Spector's straight-outta-Hollywood phenom. Leiber and Stoller tapped a lot of the same talent as Spector including, in one significant way, Phil hmself. Goldner listened to a stack of demos they'd done but hadn't been satisfied with. One recording stood out to the seasoned mogul, a song penned by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Spector that had been recorded by Darlene Love many months earlier; singer Joe Jones (whose "You Talk Too Much" had been one of the top hits of 1960) produced "Chapel of Love" ('Spring is here, the sky is blue...birds all sing as if they's the day we'll say I do...') as a stars-in-their-eyes sonnet by a female trio from New Orleans who'd called themselves The Meltones. The finished take has a sparse sound in comparison to Spector's elaborate productions, but the low opinion L&S had of it didn't phase Goldner, who insisted it would be a smash...and it was!

Jones had spotted the trio early in 1963 performing in a talent show in their native New Orleans. Barbara Ann Hawkins and eleven-months-younger (but taller!) sister Rosa Lee Hawkins lived in the Calliope housing projects in the Central City district, as did schoolmate and distant cousin Joan Marie Johnson. Unlike most girl groups of the era, they didn't have a designated lead singer, choosing to sing together in unison or occasional harmony. In early '64 Jones approached Leiber and Stoller, who let him produce the song under their supervision, though it sat on the shelf a few months before Goldner gave it his thumbs-up. A name for the group, Little Miss and the Muffins, came close to being used, but was abandoned for the less cumbersome, southern-sounding Dixie Cups (though it lifted the brand name of the "original" paper drinking cup, a product developed by a Boston-based company around 1908). "Chapel of Love," the inaugural Red Bird release, reached number one, managing to dig a three-week wedge between John Lennon-Paul McCartney-penned chart toppers ("Love Me Do" by The Beatles and "A World Without Love" by Peter and Gordon) mean feat in June 1964!

Leiber and Stoller's move from Tiger to Daisy to Red Bird was a name game that finally clicked as the pair sought to gain a sizeable niche like Spector, who no doubt came off a bit disgruntled at letting a hit - his own song! - slip through his fingers (after a stellar '63, none of his '64 releases reached the top 20). Phil slapped a previously-recorded version of the song by The Ronettes onto the end of their debut album (...presenting the fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica, held back more than a year after the first of the group's string of hit singles); by then, the Dixie Cups' 12-track Chapel of Love had beaten them to the longplay punch. Barbara, Joan and Rosa, all born within a year of each other in 1943 and '44, were closer in age than any other comparable the height of their success in late September and early October 1964, all three were 20 years old.

Barry and Greenwich composed the Dixie Cups' next three singles, the narrative of each taking a sort-of-backward progression. "People Say" had a high-school-mindset, pre-marriage point of view and was a top 20 hit in August (lyrics running the emotional gamut from 'I know our love is here to stay...' to 'Don't you ever hurt me...if you do, everything they're saying will be true'). "You Should Have Seen The Way He Looked At Me" reversed the maturity level a bit further ('He asked me for a kiss...and I just had to do it!') and became their third straight top 40 hit. The sequence nearly worked its way back to where it started in early '65 with "Little Bell" (' the chapel...ring!'), just without the wedding celebration.

Rosa Hawkins, Joan Johnson, Barbara Hawkins

About this time, a left turn would have gone a long way towards halting the downward sales spiral. It happened unexpectedly in the studio as the trio launched into an old Native American chant the Hawkins girls had often heard their mother sing. Popular in their native cajun region, particularly during the Mardi Gras celebration each February, it became known by several titles over the previous decades, more recently as "Jock-A-Mo," under which bluesman James Crawford had recorded it for Checker Records in 1954 as Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters. The Dixie Cups tapped out the beat on ashtrays with drumsticks as they improvised their take on the lyrics: 'My grandma and your grandma were sittin' by the grandma told your grandma I'm gonna set your flag on fire,' followed by the 'Jock-a-mo fee-na-nay...' part that may not have an agreed-upon spelling. Jones started running tape; after a couple of runs through, and some bass and hand claps added to the mix, they had their next hit, rechristened "Iko Iko," a tune bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the Cups' first four singles. All three group members claimed songwriting credit on their interpretation of the traditional song, which made the national top 20 in May of '65. To promote the tune, they donned American Indian garb created by Harold Fedison (a local New Orleans costume designer noted for his detailed outfits), which they wore while performing and on at least one photo shoot.

After one final Red Bird disc, the Barry-Greenwich-Spector song "Gee the Moon is Shining Bright," as it became obvious The Shangri-Las were getting higher priority as the label's hottest act, Jones and the group negotiated their exit and signed with ABC-Paramount Records. They kicked things off in the summer of '65 with another Indian/Mardi Gras-related chant, "Two-Way-Poc-A-Way," again taking songwriting credit (with Fedison, who claimed original authorship). "What Goes Up, Must Come Down" came next; penned by Barbara Hawkins with Big Easy songwriter Lee Diamond (born Wilbert Smith, his main claim-to-fame would be Aaron Neville's '67 smash "Tell it LIke it Is"), it fared no better than the previous disc. Joe Jones took writer credit for "A-B-C Song," though it's basically the 'Now I know my A-B-Cs' nursery rhyme most of us learned in school. It was tough going; the title of an album and EP suggested the girls were Riding High, but they really weren't. The final single (on ABC, no more Paramount) was "Love Ain't So Bad (After All)." Perhaps the strongest of their later efforts, it was written by blues guitarist and singer Earl (Johnson) King, a Crescent City favorite who'd been on the club scene and recorded no less than two dozen discs since 1953 for various local labels. With its failure, the Dixie Cups' recording career screeched to a halt in the fall of 1966.

Red Bird, coincidentally, ran out of steam at the same time; late in the year, Leiber and Stoller sold the company and all its recordings (including the Tiger, Daisy and Blue Cat masters) to George Goldner. They had quickly built a formidable track record, but the bubble burst much sooner than anticipated. Nevertheless, Red Bird is highly praised for its roster of "girl" singers, the most popular being the notoriously 'good-bad' Shangri-Las, plus the Dixie Cups and similarly-configured Jelly Beans and Butterflys, in addition to Blue Cat's female-led quintet The Ad Libs and solo teen Evie Sands. Combined, they accounted for a sizeable share of airplay and sales over a two-year span.

As for the Dixie Cups, the apparent end of a recording career doesn't necessarily mean a group with popular hits can't get their kicks performing for audiences for years...or decades. There was one wrinkle: Joan Johnson, who'd become discouraged by the trio's inability to find success beyond the Red Bird stint, was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia and decided to call it quits. Beverly Brown had recorded "You Got Me Helpless" for a small New Orleans label, ABS, in 1967, and joined as Joan's replacement in '69, also doing occasional solo side projects until her untimely death in the early 1980s. Barbara and Rosa Hawkins carried on and Joan, who died in 2016, sometimes filled in. At least two other singers have covered the third spot in recent decades: Dale Mickle and The Neville Brothers' sister Athelgra Neville. 45 years after leaving ABC Records, The Dixie Cups returned to the recording studio and emerged with a self-released, eight-song EP, Doing it Our Way.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Chapel of Love Riding High