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‘Chapel of Love’ singer Rosa Lee Hawkins dies in Tampa at 76

Hawkins, of The Dixie Cups, moved to Florida after Hurricane Katrina
Rosa Lee Hawkins performed with her group, The Dixie Cups, in the late 80s.
Rosa Lee Hawkins performed with her group, The Dixie Cups, in the late 80s. [ Courtesy Barbara Hawkins ]
Published Jan. 31|Updated Jan. 31

On the day they created a hit, The Dixie Cups thought everyone in the studio was on break.

Barbara Hawkins, Joan Marie Johnson and Rosa Lee Hawkins had been messing around with a song the Hawkins sisters grew up hearing their grandmother sing in New Orleans.

A year before, the girl group had topped the charts, unseating the Beatles with Chapel of Love. On that day in 1965, they grabbed the kinds of things they’d used to make music on their front porches as kids — an ashtray, a drum stick, a Coke bottle, an aluminum chair — and started singing.

“My grandma and your grandma were sitting by the fire…”

The producers was listening and started recording. Iko Iko spent 10 weeks on Billboard’s top 100 charts.

The Dixie Cups found instant success with Chapel of Love and Iko Iko, and they spent the decades after working to reclaim that success. Their youngest member, Rosa Lee Hawkins, used her voice to share their story in a 2021 book and, despite hardships, loved performing.

“I don’t care how she was feeling, once she stepped on that stage, baby, that was all gone,” said Athelgra Gabriel, who joined the group in 2001. “I mean she lit up when she got on that stage. She loved it. She was in her glory.”

Hawkins died in Tampa on Jan. 11 due to complications from surgery. She was 76.

The Dixie Cups appeared in newspapers around the country after their hit songs. This photo ran in the El Paso (Texas) Times on May 30, 1965. Pictured from left to right are Rosa Lee Hawkins, Barbara Hawkins and Joan Marie Johnson.
The Dixie Cups appeared in newspapers around the country after their hit songs. This photo ran in the El Paso (Texas) Times on May 30, 1965. Pictured from left to right are Rosa Lee Hawkins, Barbara Hawkins and Joan Marie Johnson. [ Via newspapers.com ]

Singer, model, mom

The Hawkins sisters grew up with music. They sang in the children’s choir at church and as a trio with their mother, who left the Papa Celestin Band to raise them.

After high school, Joan Johnson and Barbara Hawkins were one person short for a trio, and Rosa Lee Hawkins stepped in to sing bass.

“And that’s how The Dixie Cups were born,” Barbara Hawkins said.

They were discovered by manager Joe Jones at a talent show, and by 1964, Chapel of Love was a hit. After recording their album, the women moved home from New York, and Hawkins studied to be a model at Barbizon Modeling. When she wasn’t performing, she was modeling and, later, teaching modeling.

Eric Blanc grew up going to gigs with his mom and her group, and he sang in plenty of gospel choirs, but his best memories don’t include performing.

Hawkins, who raised her son by herself, was known as “Mom” to all his friends. She was there for everything — birthday parties, movies, trips to the park. When the King Tut exhibit opened in New Orleans, he begged for weeks to get tickets. Together, they stood in a line that wrapped around the building waiting to get in.

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This photo of The Dixie Cups ran in 1989 in the St. Petersburg Times. Pictured from left to right are Dale Michael Thomas, Barbara Hawkins and Rosa Lee Hawkins.
This photo of The Dixie Cups ran in 1989 in the St. Petersburg Times. Pictured from left to right are Dale Michael Thomas, Barbara Hawkins and Rosa Lee Hawkins. [ HANDOUT | Times files ]

Refugee, storyteller

The Dixie Cups and the Hawkins sisters come from New Orleans, and their story is a New Orleans story, at least until Hurricane Katrina.

The sisters usually traveled in a caravan out of town during hurricanes with the Neville family (group mate Athelgra Gabriel is a Neville.) But as Hurricane Katrina headed for New Orleans, the Hawkins sisters were having work done on their family home. They left late and ended up in Baton Rouge. After a week, Hawkins was able to get in touch with her son in Tampa.

They told him their plans to go to Tennessee. He insisted they head to Florida instead.

It took awhile for them to settle into life in Tampa, but they did, and Hawkins got to be near her grandchildren as they grew up.

“She did most of the things she wanted to do,” Barbara Hawkins said. “The last thing was to write that book.”

That book, Chapel of Love: The Story of New Orleans Girl Group the Dixie Cups, told Hawkins’ story, with the help of journalist and author Steve Bergsman.

“Rosa carried this terrible story her whole life,” Bergsman said, “and I guess she just felt it was time to unburden. I always tell people, she was very brave, she didn’t hold back.”

The book includes stories about the years of financial abuse the group suffered at the hands of their manager Jones, and how he preyed on Hawkins.

She wanted people coming into the entertainment industry to know they had power, her sister said.

“You’re the one with the talent, so somebody is going to help you,” Barbara Hawkins said. “But we didn’t know that at the time.”

The Dixie Cups perform at the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in 2011. Pictured from left to right are Rosa Lee Hawkins, Athelgra Gabriel and Barbara Hawkins.
The Dixie Cups perform at the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in 2011. Pictured from left to right are Rosa Lee Hawkins, Athelgra Gabriel and Barbara Hawkins. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

Star

Before The Dixie Cups recorded it, Iko Iko was a folk song by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford. Since The Dixie Cups’ version hit airwaves in 1965, it’s become an integral part of Mardi Gras.

In the late 1980s, the group performed their accidental hit in Kissimmee.

Under the glow of neon, in a hot pink dress with frills, pleats and puffy sleeves, Hawkins spun slowly, hips winding, on stage at Little Darlin’s.

“And you’re doing what?” her sister asked into the microphone.

“I’m moving my motor to the beat of the music,” Hawkins replied, drawing whistles and shouts from the audience.

“Well move on,” Barbara Hawkins said as her sister continued dancing, flashing a smile. “How ‘bout a hand for Rose?”

The crowd roared.

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Correction: The Dixie Cups’ hit song was “Chapel of Love.” An earlier version of this story got the song title wrong.

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