“Chapel of Love” wasn’t supposed to be a hit for The Dixie Cups. Phil Spector had claimed the Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich composition for The Ronettes, who did record the original as album filler. Indeed, the song’s single-minded declaration of girlish devotion is of a piece with hits like “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You”. The Ronettes record also benefits from Ronnie Spector’s distinctive voice, which makes up for any lyrical slightness (the entire song can be summed up by “Gee, I really love you, and we’re going to get married”) through the power of her delivery.
Barry and Greenwich, sensing the song’s hit potential, shopped “Chapel of Love” around before producing it themselves. (Leiber and Stoller are officially credited, but general agreement is that their contributions were nominal.) They settled on The Dixie Cups, a mostly unknown group from New Orleans. While The Dixie Cups were certainly fine singers, there was no standout in the group a la Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love, whose own version of “Chapel of Love” adds a more confident, adult edge. As a result, their version isn’t quite as compelling as either of the Spector-prodced recordings. Still, the pleasantly catchy melody and The Dixie Cups’ agreeable vocals are enough to carry the day. The lyrics, though narrow in focus, are also direct enough to develop a kind of universality, as demonstrated by the song’s continued ubiquity in films and at wedding receptions. And while The Dixie Cups never became stars on the level of The Ronettes, they did manage a few more hits, including one that better played to their strengths: the much-covered New Orleans anthem “Iko Iko.” 7
Hit #1 on June 6, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
110 of 983 #1’s reviewed; 11.19% through the Hot 100
(Apologies for the video – it’s the only one I found on YouTube that used the original recording.)
The ascendance of “Save the Last Dance for Me” almost seems to be a bit of overcompensation on the part of the American listening public. After “Mr. Custer,” anything would have been an improvement, but instead we get one of the best records of 1960 and an instant classic. The proto-Wall of Sound arrangement (there’re rumors that Leiber and Stoller’s protegee Phil Spector may have had a hand in the recording) is the absolute summation of the bittersweet lyrics. The brisk, dance beat shuffle of the percussion in the verses (“You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight”) is offset by the stirring strings that sweep in during the chorus. “But don’t forget who’s taking you home, and in whose arms you’re gonna be,” Ben E. King sings, his assertive rasp keeping things from getting too sappy. It’s an eloquent statement of pure love, one that’s patient and understanding, never jealous or arrogant. 9
Doc Pomus, the song’s lyricist, walked on crutches as a result of childhood polio. He was allegedly inspired to write the song by his own wedding, having watched his wife dance with his brother in his place.
Hit #1 on October 17, 1960 for 1 week; repeaked on October 31, 1960 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
38 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.94% through the Hot 100
My first exposure to “Kansas City” was Wanda Jackson’s rollicking version on Queen of Rockabilly, where Jackson was anything but demure in her plan to nab a “crazy little fella.” Wilbert Harrison’s version is a little more low-key, based around a piano riff rather than electric guitar. “Kansas City” was one of the first songs by Leiber and Stoller, written in 1952 and so pre-dating the rock and roll. Harrison’s version carries it across the threshold.
“Kansas City” sounds at first like a boogie-woogie, with its 12-bar blues structure and walking bassline. But there’s a bit of yearning in Harrison’s voice straight from country music. While Jackson’s version is a party song about chasing boys and painting the town, Harrison’s is melancholy: “If I stay with that woman, I know I’m gonna die/Gotta find a brand new baby and that’s the reason why/I’m going to Kansas City.” He doesn’t sound entirely convinced that his plan’s going to work out the way he hopes. His “bottle of Kansas City wine” is there for solace, not for having a good time. This fusion of blues and country created rock and roll. Wild Jimmy Spruill’s brilliant but brief guitar solo toward the end of the song drives the point home, sounding like neither of the parent genres but only like rock itself, coming into its own. 8
- Wild Jimmy Spruill also provided the guitar solo for “The Happy Organ,” the previous entry on No Hard Chords.
- The YouTube video linked above plays not only “Kansas City,” but the B-side “Listen My Darling” and follow-up single “Goodbye Kansas City” (virtually identical to “Kansas City,” but now Harrison’s headed to New York City).
- Wilbert Harrison also did a pretty good version of previous entry “Stagger Lee” (view here).
Hit #1 on May 18, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
14 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.45% through the Hot 100