A million-selling number one hit, "Chapel of Love" put the Dixie Cups on the map. A girl group from New Orleans consisting of Joan Marie Johnson and her cousins, sisters Barbara Ann Hawkins and Rosa Lee Hawkins, the Dixie Cups were discovered by producer Joe Jones -- a singer who had a hit of his own, "You Talk Too Much" -- who brought them to New York to work with some writers from the famous Brill Building. There they got to take a stab at the song, written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and the legendary producer/writer Phil Spector. Spector had already produced versions by two of his girl groups, the Crystals and the Ronettes, as well as another of his artists, Darlene Love, but he was not quite satisfied with the results, refusing to release any of the recordings. The Dixie Cups started rehearsing the song and Barry and Greenwich brought the group to audition for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's Red Bird Records. Though apparently as disenchanted with the final results as Spector was about his recordings, the label heads decided to release the song as a single in 1964, and the rest is history. Spector quickly followed up with the version by the Ronettes on his own Philles label.
The Ronettes' recording is a raw recordning and Spector's reluctance is understandable. Though it features many hallmarks of the producer's productions -- heavy percussion, layered vocals, deep reverb -- the wall of sound does not feel nearly as complete and radio-ready as Spector's other "teenage symphonies from God." This recording is a plodding, pitchy mess, albeit a soulful one. Yet the song is clearly a diamond in the rough and the demo quality of the recording gives it a fascinating archaeological feeling: the early fossil of a tune that evolved into a polished piece of pop history embedded in the public's collective consciousness.
The version that everyone knows is the 1964 hit from the Dixie Cups. It is a much slicker, lighter recording than the murkier Spector production. The jaunty sing-song melody, unencumbered by the heavy wall of sound, skips with all of the innocent giddiness that the narrator feels when she sings the famous lines "Spring is here, the sky is blue/Woah, birds will sing, as if they knew/Today's the day we'll say 'I do'/And we'll never be lonely any more/Because we're going to the chapel and we're gonna get married/Gee I really love you and we're gonna get married/Going to the chapel of love." The guilelessness of the lyric, the melody, and the straight performance of the Dixie Cups -- in harmony on the chorus and unison on the verses -- lends a wistful hint of melancholy to certain lines, like "We'll love until the end of time/And we'll never be lonely anymore," as if we think we know better. The lines should not be heartbreaking, and yet....
Not everyone finds such beauty in the song. Many have been quite annoyed by the sing-songy, cloying, childish quality. In fact, the hipster Leiber has said that it was a "record (he) hated with a passion." Greenwich -- as sure as any song she wrote before or after that "Chapel of Love" was a hit -- was particularly persistent in getting the song recorded. Barry was her writing partner and -- as with the famous teams of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann -- her husband as well. It was Leiber & Stoller who took the pair into the Brill Building stable where they became a very successful source of material for Spector, with such offerings as "Da Do Run Run" and "Be My Baby." Greenwich went on to sing backing vocals on many and varied recordings, as well as writing and producing for television and advertising. Barry, meanwhile, became a staff producer of Neil Diamond, the Monkees, and others.