How The Beatles Trampled a Singing Nun on Their Way to the Top
Editor's note: Since Oct. 6, 2012 (the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' debut album Love Me Do), we've been on a half-century celebration cycle in which we are scheduled to relive every Beatles innovation, every release of the Beatles' landmark career in real time, right until the inevitable 50th anniversary of their breakup in 2020. But what other long-forgotten anniversaries are being overshadowed by the Fab Four (Again?) To answer that question, we present this series: The 50th Anniversary of Something Else.
Fifty years and three months after their arrival on these shores, we were still being sovereignly ruled over in the pop charts by the Beatles, a domination so across-the-board that it may be impossible to understand by today's music-devaluing standards. Generations X, Y, and Z only have to look at Donald Sterling's racist monopolization of our news cycle to find a comparable blackout (no pun intended) of other concurrent events.
When Capitol Records finally decided to release a Beatles album stateside in January 1964, the resulting Meet the Beatles spent 11 weeks at No. 1, knocking the previous long playing chart-topper The Singing Nun off its pious perch. Prior to the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Sœur Sourire (or Sister Smile, as her nunny name translates from its Belgian origin) was one of Ed's most popular imports, discounting Topo Gigio and the Moscow State Circus' dancing bear. During the brain-dead months following the JFK assassination, light musical fare like The Singing Nun's No. 1 hit "Dominique" was about the only madrigal traumatized Americans could handle.
But even The Singing Nun with friends presumably in high places could not handle the bigger-than-Christ onslaught of Beatlemania. When the Beatles' British debut album Please Please Me and the band's first three singles were rejected by the fools at Capitol Records the year prior, the ensuing 16 tracks were licensed to the Chicago-based, black-owned Vee Jay Records label. Despite this early vote of confidence, Vee Jay had no success with any Beatles recording prior to Capitol's $40,000 publicity campaign on behalf of its "new" act. The Please Please Me album, now rechristened Introducing the Beatles by Vee Jay, zoomed up the charts and nestled itself behind Meet the Beatles, knocking down the singing nun, Sister Smile, who had dominated the album charts for nine weeks, almost to the day the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
After that, things didn't end too divinely for Jeanine Deckers, Sister Smile's real name. (She was also known as the Singing Nun.) Even someone who had taken a vow of poverty was not prepared for the pittance she was getting from her record label. After a film about her life story starring Debbie Reynolds was released in 1965, she was forced out of her convent by her superiors, who clashed over "musical differences." Prevented from recording as either The Singing Nun or Sister Smile, the desperate Dominican was reduced to recording a disco version of Dominique in 1982.
Sadly, she and her partner of 10 years Annie Pécher both committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates in 1985, having already recorded a song called "Sister Smile is Dead." I say sadly because none of this was made into a film also starring Debbie Reynolds. Who knows how long Meet the Beatles would have stayed at No. 1, but thanks to Capitol's insatiable greed for Beatles product it once happily rejected, it now released The Beatles' Second Album, which pushed the Capitol debut down to number two on May 2 and aided the Singing Nun's descent into oblivion. Despite only having one Paul McCartney lead vocal, "Long Tall Sally," and clocking in at a curt 27 minutes, The Beatles Second Album became the fastest rising pop album to date, zooming to No. 1 in its second week. It also meant The Beatles simultaneously held down the No. 1 No. 2 album positions for another 16 weeks. Here is that album, clocking in the same time it would take you to watch the average sitcom or eat a very, very large macaroon.
Meanwhile on the single charts, the Beatles continued its stranglehold of the No. 1 spot for three and a half months with three different tracks -- "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," and "Can't Buy Me Love." Yet this streak was finally stopped, not by another member of the clergy but by a man who had not seen a Top 40 appearance since the onslaught of rock 'n' roll. Yet his gift for improvisation is credited for making rock 'n' roll happen in the first place. I'm taking about Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Let's pause to roundly thrash about the head anyone who just said "Louis who?'
Although his records with the Hot Five and Hot Seven demonstrated his peerless skills as a soloist at its peak and raised the bar for all musicians who followed in his wake, he should be remembered statistically for ending the Beatles' stranglehold on the American charts not with some hot jazz trumpeting, but with his rendition of "Hello Dolly."
That this historical achievement couldn't have happened with a better record is probably just empty quibbling a half-century later, but it did start an unfortunate tradition of legends coming back from decades of dormancy with a truly mediocre representation of their talents. Witness Chuck Berry ascending to the top of the Hot 100 with the juvenile "My Ding-a-Ling" in 1972. Or the Beach Boys breaking their 22 year absence at No. 1 to bring us the insufferable "Kokomo." You're probably already singing "Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you." That's how pure evil that song is. It lodges in your brain like fruity dopamine.
By June, Armstrong's Hello Dolly album would also top the charts, trading places with the original cast album of the Broadway version of Hello Dolly, in the quiet weeks between multiple Beatles LP releases. That album showed that Satchmo had basically turned into a singer of show tunes who occasionally blew into a trumpet. Fans of the musical Bye Bye Birdie might enjoy hearing the jazz great singing that Conrad Birdie classic "Got a Lot of Livin' To Do."
Once Dollymania subsided, there would be no more high charting hits in the rock era for Louis Armstrong, who was admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "early influencer" in 1990. But maybe they should have inducted him as "earliest example of a Beatles usurper."
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