Effervescent girl groups were everywhere prior to the British Invasion, but only The Dixie Cups brought a Crescent City flavor to their guileless harmonies. Sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins grew up surrounded by second-line rhythms in the Calliope Street projects. In early 1963, their cousin Joan Marie Johnson asked Barbara to join her in a group slated to play a high school talent show, and Rosa was soon in the cast too. Joe Jones, whose singing resume included the 1960 smash You Talk Too Much and the original California Sun, was impressed with the trio. "He took us to New York," says Barbara. They auditioned for songwriting legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, then heading their own Red Bird label. "When they heard us, they and the manager (Jones) were able to come to a deal," says Barbara.
Hot young Brill Building composers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were entrusted with creating hit material for the newcomers. "We were looking for somebody, because Phil Spector had recorded 'Chapel Of Love' with the Ronettes, and it hadn't come out, and we didn't know if he was going to release it. We really felt that song was a hit," says Ellie. "So we just thought we would do it with these innocent little girls." The two had already collaborated with Wall of Sound architect Spector on the Crystals' Da Doo Ron Ron and the Ronettes' Be My Baby. "Hopeful romanticism and that stuff, that was kind of a natural thing to write about," says Greenwich.
"When they played 'Chapel Of Love,' we didn't like it!" says Barbara. "So I asked, 'Do we have to sing it that way?' 'Cause they sang it for us. And they said, 'No, sing it any kind of way you want!' So we did it the way we wanted to, which was the way it was recorded." Back at St. Augustine High School, the trio was billed as The Mel-Tones, but that wouldn't do, and the girls laughed off a suggestion that they be Little Miss & The Muffets. "We are from New Orleans, which is the land of Dixie," says Barbara. "And 'Cups' was cute. So we said 'Dixie Cups.'" Leiber and Stoller weren't initially sure of the song's potential. "They hated 'Chapel Of Love,'" says Ellie. "We convinced them that they really should consider it." So did veteran New York record man George Goldner, newly hired by Leiber and Stoller at Red Bird. They found him sitting at Jerry's desk after a long solo night of listening to acetates, swearing on his father's grave that the song would be a smash. George, Jeff and Ellie knew best: Chapel Of Love topped the pop charts that summer. The group's '65 hit Iko Iko was a Carnival Day strut from back home originated by local R&B belter James 'Sugar Boy' Crawford as Jock-O-Mo. The Hawkins sisters still perform as two-thirds of The Dixie Cups.