In a recent post, I pointed out how The Beatles changed the face of popular music when they exploded on the world scene in late December 1963.
As evidence for the Beatles' complete takeover and makeover of the record charts, I contrasted the rock they brought with them to the milquetoast pop that characterized the Hot 100 of that year, epitomized by the last #1 hit of 1963: “Dominique” by The Singing Nun—a reverential ode to Saint Dominic. A top-selling song in America being sung in French by a Belgian member of the Dominican Order was thought by some to be a sign of the Apocalypse.
In one sense it was. “Dominique” was considered the last gasp of the old hit parade before the Second Coming of Rock & Roll, ushered in by the Four Horsemen of Liverpool—and followed by hundreds of artists who picked up where The Beatles left off. These acts brought us funk, punk, metal, alternative, hip-hop, and every micro-genre you could imagine. Fifty years later our #1 hits are—not surprisingly—“Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus (who, you may be surprised to learn, is not a Dominican nun).
But in doing a little research on The Singing Nun—whose real name was Jeanne Deckers and whose stage name in Europe was Soeur Sourire or “Sister Smile”—I found a treasure trove of biographical data indicating that Sister Smile was anything but a status quo symbol, who in time became a different kind of sister. This erstwhile songstress of innocuous religious ditties blossomed into an independent thinker and a serious threat to the establishment.
After Sister Smile became a worldwide sensation in 1962-1963 (she even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in January, 1964, one month before the Beatles) her songs underwent censorship by her mother superior who was worried that Sister Smile, now writing more personal songs, might dare to express authentic emotion. (Sister Smile had to remove any verses she wrote about “feeling sad.”) But the good sister was developing the autonomous spirit of a budding artist smacking up against the institutional hierarchy of a religious order—inside the larger patriarchal system of the Church. This uppity sister had to be smacked down.
Eventually her battles with ecclesiastical authorities over her freedom of expression—not to mention doctrinal matters—got her booted out of the congregation and her liberation was underway. Unfortunately it turned out to be a painful one.
Deckers moved in with her childhood friend, Anne Pecher, and continued to write and record her music, but subsequent recordings were not met with the same success as previous ones, in part because she was not allowed to use her former stage names. (Apparently Sister Smile and The Singing Nun were the property of her former recording company.) In time Deckers also grew alienated from church teachings and came out in support of contraception, a revolutionary move for a former nun in 1967! (She even released a song “Glory Be to God for the Holy Pill,” though it didn’t sell.) Her public backing of John Lennon’s controversial comment that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus would also qualify as radical (and perhaps ill-advised!).
In the 70s Deckers continued to struggle financially, but the crushing blow was a tax bill she received in 1979 from the Belgian government for $63,000, based on recording income from “Dominique” a decade and a half earlier. Having taken a vow of poverty while in the convent at the time, she didn’t see any of the record royalties because they were kept by the religious order. But when the Dominicans refused to take responsibility for it, Deckers remained on the hook.
Finally in 1985, pushed to the brink of poverty, Deckers—and her partner Pecher—committed suicide together from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. A sad ending, but one befitting a rock star.
A subsequent French-Belgian biopic painted Deckers as a rebellious and unstable troublemaker from the beginning—“a punk before her time.” Whether that description is accurate or not, The Singing Nun was a genuine iconoclast—more so than many rockers, rappers, divas, and fashionistas who have become known for their sensationalistic but trivial brand of defiance. (Hello, Miley Cyrus.) Ironically, Sister Smile turned out to be the real wrecking ball.
If there’s a business lesson here, it’s a simple one. If you’re a free-thinking creative, working inside an autocratic or patriarchal organization is a true spiritual test!
To read an earlier post on a famous band of women who rebelled—and triumphed—check here.