In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
When a nation is confronted with grief and doubt and uncertainty, its culture can sometimes fold inward — to the simple, the comforting, the seemingly pure. And maybe that’s what happened late in 1963. The first song that hit #1 in America after the assassination of JFK was one of the simplest, plainest songs that ever climbed to the summit.
The Singing Nun was exactly what it said on the label. Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers was a 30-year-old former teacher from Belgium who, four years earlier, had joined the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Our Lady and taken the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle. In the convent, she liked singing and playing guitar and writing songs, and her sisters told her that she should make an album, so she did. “Dominique” was a sweet and admiring French-language song that Deckers wrote about Saint Dominic, the founder of her order: “On every road, in every place, he talks only of the Good Lord.”
The song became a surprise global sensation, topping charts in four countries and going top 10 in plenty more. It’s hard to say why it hit the way it did in the US, a country where not too many people speak French. Maybe it worked as a balm. It’s a stark and warm song, but it sounds happy. There’s obvious warmth in Deckers’ voice. And maybe, in a newly dark and chaotic landscape — a place where beloved leaders die in broad daylight, and where their killers are randomly shot on live TV — it radiated a needed sense of wholesomeness.
Of course, things are never as simple as they may seem. Deckers might’ve sounded happy, but she wasn’t. She later complained that the Mother Superior of her convent had censored any sad lyrics she might’ve written. She didn’t benefit much from her sudden global fame; almost all the money went to her label, with some royalties trickling down to her convent and none to her. In 1966, a year after Debbie Reynolds starred in a biopic about her, Deckers left the convent, later claiming that she’d been forced out.
Deckers tried to restart her singing career after leaving the convent, but her old label prevented her from using Sœur Sourire, the stage name she’d used in French-speaking countries. She also clashed with the Catholic Church. Angry that the Church was slow to adapt the liberal policies of the Second Vatican Council, she released a pro-contraception song called “Glory Be To God For The Golden Pill.”
Later, Deckers fell in love with a younger woman, and they lived together for years. But things didn’t get easier for her. She suffered nervous breakdowns and drug dependencies. She fell in with a religious movement called Catholic Charismatic Renewal, and the Belgian government went after her for back taxes even after she claimed that her money had gone to her label and her convent. Then, in 1985, she and her partner died by suicide, taking intentional overdoses of barbiturates and alcohol — an ending so much sadder than any of the millions of people who’d bought “Dominique” could’ve possibly imagined.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the synthpop version of “Dominique” that Deckers released in 1982, in a last-ditch effort to get her singing career going again: