Popdose Flashback 1963: The Singing Nun, “Dominique”
Jeanine Deckers was the singer of the tune about Saint Dominic, a Spanish-born priest and founder of the Dominican Order. Deckers had been a member of the Order (as Sister Luc-Gabrielle). The English-version lyrics of the song were written by Noël Regney, but the original was sung in French (as Deckers was, by birth, Belgian).
“Dominique” outsold Elvis during its time on the Hot 100. It was the second to last #1 hit before the British Invasion, and was the second #1 hit in the post-Kennedy assassination era, which I believe explains the majority of its appeal in America. The song was a worldwide phenomenon, translated into multiple languages, but how could some of the U.S.’s biggest stars (we are talking about Elvis in his prime here) be upended by the self-described Singing Nun?
To say that everything in America had changed after the assassination of John Kennedy is probably being overdramatic. It wasn’t that everything had changed, but that everything that we had been taught to believe, contrary to the evidence presented outside of the American bubble, was incorrect. From a distance one thinks Kennedy was universally beloved by his countrymen, but that wasn’t the case at all. Like any politician, there were people who disliked his policies, disliked him, and probably made offhand statements on the order of, “he’d be better off dead.” That someone (or someones, depending on your beliefs) would do it in such a public fashion was the shocker. We don’t kill our leaders like they do in (name your alternate country), and we don’t do it in such a brazen way, and we haven’t been in that business for many years. The last presumed assassination was of Warren G. Harding, purportedly of poisoning, in 1923. Kennedy was shot in the head in the middle of the road, in front of a crowd, by an unknown assailant or assailants in November 1963.
Even those who railed against Kennedy had to be upended by this. They had to think, “we don’t do that here,” which is the height of naivete, and thus the cotton candy of post-WWII suburbia, post-conflict growth and prosperity, and utopian definitions of American exceptionalism were all confronted in this violent act. So the people raced to the comfort of their sanctuaries. Having not been born yet, I can only imagine this collective shock was akin to my stupor after 9/11, how blood donations spiked to unseen levels even in the days after when it was apparent that there would be no more survivors found. Attitudes “went soft” for a while. There was a wounded unity emerging, and where did we look to for solace?
I don’t think it is too much of a leap to say that even in the early 1960s world of pop, where old school crooners still had a shot at the top spot on the chart, that a nun singing about a saint in French is highly unlikely in every respect except under those extraordinary circumstances.
I cannot apply personal experience to the collective emotion around such an event, a presidential assassination — a near assassination, yes. I was around when Ronald Reagan was shot, but there was a degree of closure involved. John Hinckley Jr. went to jail. Reagan survived. James Brady survived as well but due to his injuries would never be the same again. And although the chattering immediately rose among the Boomers about where they were when they found out Kennedy was killed, it quickly subsided.
I do not recall what I see as an overt pop culture contraction occurring post-Reagan obviously. And to be honest I don’t recall one post-9/11 either. Clearly there were things not presented — movies, television shows, some songs — to either honor the moment or to avoid controversy, the evidence of that “softening” I mentioned. People were adamant there were subjects they didn’t want to touch in that moment and the marketplace was not about to make waves. But at the same time, I don’t recall there being a withdrawl into a bygone mindset either. The audience adopted the Five For Fighting song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” as an unofficial anthem for the moment, and Paul McCartney hastily recorded “Freedom” but that never stuck. Just as well, it is (to me) a terrible song.
But I am curious about why we did not suddenly gravitate back to older signposts and “comfort food” media. Maybe it was because of the nature of the action, that it was done by outside forces, that we were finding out that Al Qaida were in our midst in the formative period before the attack, and that unlike the Kennedy assassination it wasn’t a bullet, magic or otherwise, for one man but the usage of a commonplace machine turned against us all indiscriminately.
I tend to believe that it was more because we had become so steeped in the American mythology in the fifties and early sixties that the disruption, and the murders that came afterward of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, shook apart what the U.S. thought it was. By 2001, we knew what we were capable of, that the world was a dangerous place, and that we openly courted enemies, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. We didn’t need to retreat into the embrace of a gentler past because we no longer believed such a thing to have existed.
Jeanine Deckers was a one-hit-wonder and never would be a celebrity on the same order after the success of “Dominique.” She would leave the Order and would take up with her partner Annie Pescher in 1975. Her claim to fame would come back to haunt her in the form of tax problems and financial disarray, brought on by the recording of “Dominique.” Seeing no clear way out of their troubles, Deckers and Pescher committed suicide in 1985.
So much sadness seems to have come from this song about a saint, sung by a nun, taken to heart by the world and in specific a grieving nation.