Joan Marie Johnson of The Dixie Cups dead at 72

Published 8:31 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) — Joan Marie Johnson, one of the founding members of the New Orleans girl group The Dixie Cups, who had a No. 1 hit in 1964 with “Chapel of Love,” has died at a hospice in New Orleans. She was 72.

Johnson, who was only with the group for its first few years because she was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, died of congestive heart failure Oct. 3, according to former bandmate Barbara Ann Hawkins.

Their “Chapel of Love,” written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, supplanted the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” as the No. 1 song on both the pop and R&B charts. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame later included it in the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll. It turns out the trio arranged the vocals on the spot.

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“When Ellie and Jeff first played ‘Chapel’ for us, we looked at each other, like, ‘You really want us to sing that like that?’ They said, ‘Well, how do you want to sing it?’ So I said, ‘Give us a minute.’ So we went in the corner and started singing. We walked back to them and when we sang it the way it was recorded, they were just, ‘Wow! That was awesome,'” Hawkins said.

The trio’s other hits include “People Say,” ”You Should Have Seen the Way He Looked at Me” and their version of a traditional New Orleans song “Iko Iko.” Though they meet all the qualifications for entry in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so far they have not been invited to join.

“We went through a lot because it was the early ’60s and we went through a lot as far as race and a whole lot of other things. We had a manager who wasn’t really in our corner, but there were a lot of good times,” Hawkins said.

Johnson started the group as a teenager and asked Hawkins to join. Hawkins soon asked if her sister, Rosa Lee, could also join. When they were about to go to New York to set up music deals, Hawkins’ grandmother called over to the Johnson house to find out more about her and her family.

Soon the grandmother started laughing and the Hawkins sisters eventually realized that Johnson was their cousin. “I had never even met her,” said Barbara Ann Hawkins.

The trio would eventually be signed to Red Bird Records by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. But the traveling and inconsistent meal times took their toll on Johnson, who dropped out of the group.

She is survived by a sister, Ida, and a brother, Howard. A memorial is planned at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Oct. 18.