How The Beatles Trampled a Singing Nun on Their Way to the Top
Sister Smile, a.k.a. the Singing Nun, held the top spot on the charts prior to the Fab Four's explosion onto the American music scene.
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.