On This Day in 1963, The Singing Nun Outsold Elvis

Bad Bunny, BlackPink, BTS, Psy, Falco, and even Nena have proven one doesn't need to sing in English to have a massive global hit.

In 1963, right before the British Invasion, a 30-year-old Belgian singer named Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers took the world by storm with "Dominique," the first single from her debut album.

Deckers took the name Sister Luc-Gabrielle in 1959 when she joined the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Our Lady of Fichermont not far from where Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo and inspired the 1974 ABBA hit.

The affable Deckers loved to sing and play guitar for the sisters and soon it was decided that she had to cut an album, in part so that visitors and locals could buy the record and help support the convent.

Deckers recorded under the stage name Sœur Sourire aka "Sister Smile” but she was better known as The Singing Nun which is what her record label, Philips, emblazoned on the album cover.

It didn't take long for the single "Dominique" to take off. Was divine intervention at play? Possibly.

In 1963 less than 5% of the planet spoke French. There wasn't Google Translate. There wasn't even remote controls for televisions.

How was anybody supposed to ask their clicker what that nice nun was singing about?

Truth be told, much of America wasn't interested in details about songs in early December. In November President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a dark, somber winter where even the most poignant moments in pop culture were bittersweet.

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If the US and much of the world needed a distraction, why not it come from the wholesomeness of a bespectacled nun playing a guitar?

Somehow the world discovered she was going on about Saint Dominic, a struggling troubadour who simply loved Jesus.

Domi-nic -nic -nic went about simply,
a poor singing traveller.
On every road, in every place,
he talks only of the Good Lord,
he talks only of the Good Lord.

Again, this is not who Philips thought would woo audiences when the 1963 charts were being topped by The Beach Boys harmonizing about surfing, 13 year-old Stevie Wonder getting the kids to dance to "Fingertips," Bobby Darin crooning about love, and The Angels bragging about their boyfriend being back and how you're gonna be in trouble.

If anyone was in trouble it was the Philips marketing department who had to compete with Elvis Presley's cheeky new diddy about a woman who looks like an angel but is really the opposite. WHATEVER THAT MEANS.

And yet exactly 60 years ago today she went to #1 on the US charts. Yes charts, plural. Both her album and single beat all comers, making her the first artist in Billboard's history to simultaneously have a number one LP The Singing Nun and a number one single “Dominique” from that album.

The tune's dominance lasted ten weeks in the US and became the best selling song in six other countries from South Africa to Australia, from Canada to New Zealand.

It was so hot Ed Sullivan took his crew from New York to Belgium to show his viewers the nun, her sisters, and convent.

Eventually the movie The Singing Nun (1966) was made, somewhat about her life, starring Debbie Reynolds as the songwriting sister.

The film had one glaring omission. Hollywood always seemed to want a romance. Even in a story about a nun.

There was a romance, but it wasn't with a man.

Deckers in 1982 with a disco version of her hit.

In real life Deckers was a lesbian, according to her diaries, and in love with a woman she knew for a long time. Once she stepped down from the convent, the couple struggled with depression, religious angst, and a society that wasn't yet ready for same sex relationships.

When the government demanded a fortune in back taxes, an amount she said she never received thanks to the church taking six figures and Philips nabbing the rest, she became despondent.

In 1985 she and her lover intentionally downed barbiturates and booze and left a note saying they wished to be buried together, which was honored.

Fret not, Deckers' legacy lives on in one of the many countries that embraced her 60 years ago. In Washington State there is a group of sisters who call themselves The Singing Nuns.

And yes, they do cover "Dominique."

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Last updated: 19 Apr 2024, 05:57 Etc/UTC