The Singing Nun

Evergreen - - Summer 2018 - BILL BAX­TER

If I say the name Al­lan Smethurst to you I don’t sup­pose it will mean very much. So, here goes: Al­lan Smethurst. No? I thought not. How­ever, what about “The Singing Post­man”? I’m sure that will stir a vague mem­ory for fans of Six­ties’ pop­u­lar mu­sic. You might also re­mem­ber “Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy?”, the hit record from 1966 that won Al­lan ( who re­ally was a post­man) an Ivor Novello Award for best nov­elty song of the year and, with a se­ries of LPs and less- suc­cess­ful sin­gles that fol­lowed, in­tro­duced Nor­folk di­alect to the lis­ten­ing pub­lic ( Not for­get­ting, of course, the song’s colour­ful hero­ine Molly Wind­ley — “she smook like a chim­ley”).

The 1960s pro­duced a num­ber of sim­i­larly offbeat artists and songs, pro­vid­ing a re­fresh­ing con­trast to the es­tab­lished pop groups and singers with their elec­tric gui­tars, long hair and fash­ion­able clothes, and bring­ing with them, in many cases, in­ter­est­ing back­ground sto­ries that were seized upon by the press. Un­for­tu­nately for Al­lan, who suf­fered from chronic stage fright, the sud­den fame and for­tune proved im­pos­si­ble to han­dle: prob­lems with al­co­hol fol­lowed and he ended his days in poverty in a Sal­va­tion Army hos­tel.

The sad saga of The Singing Post­man, and the stark dif­fer­ence be­tween the gen­tle in­no­cence of his songs and the harsh re­al­ity of his life, pro­vided an un­com­fort­able echo of an­other “nov­elty” per­former who had reached the charts three years ear­lier. In fact the story of Jeanne (“Jea­nine”) Deck­ers, the Bel­gian nun whose self- penned song “Do­minique” be­came a world­wide

hit in 1963 — reach­ing num­ber one in Aus­tralia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA — was even darker and more tragic.

Born in Laeken in 1933, the daugh­ter of a baker, Jea­nine be­gan play­ing the gui­tar and singing at Girl Guide meet­ings. Af­ter at­tend­ing art school, in Septem­ber 1959 she en­tered a Do­mini­can con­vent in Water­loo, took a vow of poverty and adopted the name Sis­ter LucGabrielle. Spec­u­la­tion later sug­gested that it was a failed en­gage­ment and sub­se­quent ner­vous break­down that had prompted her to take such a rad­i­cal step.

The young sis­ter con­tin­ued to write songs to en­ter­tain the other nuns, re­ceiv­ing the ap­proval and ad­mi­ra­tion of her re­li­gious su­pe­ri­ors who sug­gested she should record an al­bum of orig­i­nal re­li­gious songs which could be sold to vis­i­tors. How­ever, when an ex­ec­u­tive at the Philips record­ing stu­dio in Brus­sels heard her com­po­si­tions he im­me­di­ately recog­nised there was po­ten­tial far be­yond the con­vent walls. With the agree­ment of the Do­mini­can or­der, at the end of 1963 the song “Do­minique” ( about the 13th- cen­tury saint who had founded it) was re­leased as a sin­gle un­der the singer/ com­poser’s stage- name of Soeur Sourire (“Sis­ter Smile”).

As al­ready de­scribed, the song, pro­moted by its un­likely com­poser on a world tour, be­came a huge hit, as did the al­bum from which it was taken, Soeur Sourire — The Singing Nun, which sold more than two mil­lion copies. In the United States Sis­ter Luc- Gabrielle even ap­peared on the pro­gramme that had

be­come a must for all UK acts with am­bi­tions to make it big on the other side of the At­lantic: The Ed Sul­li­van Show. In the United King­dom the record reached num­ber seven in the charts in De­cem­ber 1963. Just how un­usual she and her song were is em­pha­sised by look­ing at the top six at the time: 1. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ( The Bea­tles), 2. “She Loves You” ( The Bea­tles), 3. “You Were Made For Me” ( Fred­die and The Dream­ers), 4. “Se­cret Love” ( Kathy Kirby), 5. “I Only Want To Be With You” ( Dusty Spring­field), 6. “Glad All Over” ( The Dave Clark Five). De­spite high sales, the record made no money for Sis­ter Luc- Gabrielle, with all prof­its go­ing to the record com­pany and the con­vent. The same was true of her sec­ond LP, Soeur Sourire: Her Joy Her Songs ( 1964).

Be­spec­ta­cled, fre­quently ex­pres­sion­less and clothed from head to toe in her nun’s habit when­ever she per­formed, it was dif­fi­cult for ob­servers to gauge what “Sis­ter Smile” re­ally looked like or, for that mat­ter, once the adopted names were peeled away, what the woman who had been Jea­nine Deck­ers was ac­tu­ally think­ing. In fact, be­ing painfully shy, she was quickly find­ing all the at­ten­tion and ex­pec­ta­tions of how she should be­have a ter­ri­ble bur­den. She came to de­spise the “Sis­ter Smile” tag, loathed The Singing Nun, a 1965 film pur­port­edly about her life which starred Deb­bie Reynolds, and even be­gan to ques­tion many of the teach­ings of the Ro­man Catholic Church.

In 1966 she left the con­vent but con­tin­ued to pur­sue her mu­si­cal ca­reer un­der the name

“Luc- Do­minique”. She still fol­lowed a life of prayer and med­i­ta­tion, but a year later out­raged many of her most loyal fans by re­leas­ing a song in favour of con­tra­cep­tion. She also courted con­tro­versy by set­ting up home with long- time com­pan­ion, 22- year- old An­nie Pecher.

I Am Not a Star in Heaven, an al­bum of chil­dren’s songs re­leased in the 1970s, was not a suc­cess, and by this time Jea­nine had fallen into a down­ward spiral of de­pres­sion and de­pen­dence on tran­quil­liz­ers and al­co­hol. Her sit­u­a­tion was made even worse by the re­lent­less de­mands of the Bel­gian tax au­thor­i­ties who claimed she owed $ 63,000 in un­paid taxes. When the con­vent to which she had do­nated most of her royalties re­fused to pay ( no records had been kept of where the money had gone), a lengthy, de­bil­i­tat­ing le­gal bat­tle en­sued. These fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and Jea­nine’s frag­ile men­tal state also meant that, in 1985, a board­ing school for autis­tic chil­dren that she and An­nie had opened was forced to close. In a fi­nal, des­per­ate at­tempt to raise the money, Jea­nine re­leased a disco ver­sion of her fa­mous song. From gen­tle voice and softly strummed gui­tar to flash­ing lights and whin­ing syn­the­sizer… the hu­mil­i­a­tion and loss of in­no­cence were com­plete.

“We have reached the end, spir­i­tu­ally and fi­nan­cially,” wrote An­nie in the note that was found be­side their bod­ies on 1st April 1985, “and now we go to God. We go to eter­nity in peace. We trust that God will for­give us. He saw us both suf­fer and he won’t let us down. It would please Jea­nine not to die from the world. She had a hard time on earth. She de­serves to live in the minds of the peo­ple.”

The cou­ple had killed them­selves by tak­ing bar­bi­tu­rates and al­co­hol. They were buried to­gether in the ceme­tery at Wavre in Bel­gium, and Jea­nine Deck­ers was fi­nally at peace. How strange that a sim­ple song in praise of a saint should have cre­ated such tor­ment and tragedy.

The town square and city mu­seum in Brus­sels.

To­gether in death as in life... the grave at Wavre.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.