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.
The songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry got married, and then, a year later, they wrote “Chapel Of Love.” They brought the song to producer Phil Spector. They’d already worked with him a bunch, co-writing “Be My Baby” for the Ronettes and “Then He Kissed Me” for the Crystals. Spector recorded the song with Darlene Love, but he didn’t like the way it turned out. He’d meant to give it to the Ronettes, but before he could, they made a deal to give the song to Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Spector was mightily pissed, even though he got a songwriting credit on the song. (Spector would always give himself songwriting credits for the songs he intended to produce, whether or not he had anything to do with writing them.)
The Dixie Cup were a trio from New Orleans, two sisters and one cousin. Their manager had brought them to New York to sing for Leiber and Stoller, and “Chapel Of Love” ended up being the first single released on Red Bird, the label that they co-founded. Leiber and Stoller co-produced the song with Greenwich and Barry, and the result is one of those immortal girl-group bangers that derives all its power from its simplicity.
Listening to “Chapel Of Love,” you can totally tell that the people who wrote it were newlyweds. The song radiates a sun-dazed happiness, as if the mere idea that anything could go wrong is unthinkable. (It did go wrong. Greenwich and Barry got divorced in 1965.) The song’s naïveté is a powerful force: “We’ll love until the end of time, and we’ll never be lonely anymore.”
That same naïveté is in the Dixie Cups’ voices. They sing in close harmony, nobody taking the lead, a Greek chorus of pure and unvarnished optimism. The song’s arrangement is a gorgeous thing: slow-bursting horns, humid rhythm guitars, some chimes that someone had apparently left behind in the studio during a previous recording session. The handclaps have just the right amount of echo on them. I have a hard time imagining that Spector and the Ronettes could’ve done the song better.
The song doesn’t have a lot to tell us about what being married is like, but we don’t need a three-minute pop song to tell us about the petty little squabbles that inevitably become a part of every union. It does, however, tell us plenty about getting married, and its weightless joy is pretty much exactly how I felt the day I married my wife. And it’s also one of those songs that can transmit that feeling, can shine a little bit of that light into your soul, no matter what’s going on in your life. It’s a small miracle of pop music — sharp, economical, idealistic, guiltlessly sentimental.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket where Marines sit around in a tent, arguing over who’s been in the shit and listening to “Chapel Of Love,” just before their camp is attacked: