It used to be that Darlene Love knew exactly where she would be on a certain late December afternoon: New York City, at the Ed Sullivan Theatre, taping “Late Night with David Letterman” and singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It did it 28t straight year, but with Letterman gone that tradition goes too. Letterman played a key part in Love’ srenaissance and keeping her in the public eye. ”Darlene is a good friend and a fantastic singer who is a deserved member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Letterman said. “She’s one of my favorite things about the holiday season. It isn’t Christmas without Darlene Love.”
Last year, also, there was the surprise hit documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom,” about the largely unheralded world of background singers. Love’s own roller-coaster ride was one of the main threads of the film. Her autobiography, “My Name Is Love,” was re-published in in 2014, too.
Love, born Darlene Wright 73 years ago, joined the girl group the Blossoms in 1959 and over the years sang background vocals for a cavalcade of stars – among them, Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley and U2. It was Phil Spector who gave her a new surname and she was a key part of Spector’s legendary wall-of-sound girl group hit-makers in the early-mid ‘60s. She sang lead on “He’s a Rebel,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts” and backup on lots more. She also sang lead on four songs from the 1963 album “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector,” one of the best Christmas albums ever. Love plays the Cabot Theatre in Beverly Sunday Dec. 13 with a ten-piece group – which includes three background singers. (The show is sold out through the theater’s channels, so if you want to go you’ll have to hit the ticket resale sites.) JSInk spoke to her from her New York home.
It’s the time of the season. Of course, you’ll play your hits, but will they be Christmas-themed?
This will be my Christmas show. All the songs that were on the Christmas album with Phil Spector – “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Marshmallow World” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” David Letterman says it will not be Christmas until you hear this song and I’ve incorporated what David has says over the years into my Christmas show. We even have a thing on film [in my shows] where we use maybe 10 years of him saying, “Now, Darlene Love,” “Now, Darlene Love.” He ends up introducing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3e3osJtLdk
Is Christmas really something special to you?
It really is very special to me. I was raised Pentecostal – my father was a minister – and Christmas was always such a big thing in our church. We did Christmas plays and Christmas programs, one with the children and one with the adults. It’s that idea of family. We never all get together at one time, but we get together at Christmas time. It’s also a special time because people feel more giving than any other time because of the giving spirit. I always say in my show, “It’d be great if we could have this kind of spirit all year long.”
Except for that over-commercialization thing.
That’s the biggest problem because they start it earlier and earlier and now they turn the Christmas lights on after Halloween. It really has been very commercialized. I’ve tried as much as possible, rather than giving gifts, giving myself
If Letterman re-launched you in the ‘80s, I’d say “20 Feet From Stardom” has done it again this year. What went through your head when you watched the film?
That they got it right. I was with them most of the time. It started out with Gil Friesen, the producer, who had the idea to do it. He called me and said, “I have this idea to do a story about background singers and they tell me I should start with you first.” I told him some people I thought would be great to go and interview. But we had no idea it was going to turn out to be as big as it did. When they got the stars that they did, like Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Chris Botti – they picked the ones who really love their background singers and their background singers are a part of what they do. I didn’t tell ‘em to go and get those guys because I didn’t think they could ever get those guys. But they really care about background singers. It’s a part of who they are.
Your story, after your star had fallen, about being a cleaning lady, and scrubbing the rich white folks’ home while hearing your Christmas song on the radio is sad and then poignant, it being the signal for you to try and resume your career.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to have a career; it’s just that I couldn’t find a way to find a career. I never thought about asking anyone to help me. I’d helped a lot of people along the way, especially doing background because there were a lot of people who couldn’t afford to pay background singers so you do it for little or nothing. But I got it in my mind that I have to sing. I was at a friend of mine’s house who had just come back from a cruise. I don’t even know why I thought about this, but I said, “Do they have entertainment on these cruises?” She said, “Yeah, but they’re bad.” [I thought] “Hmm, I wonder if I could get a job on a cruise ship – I’m good.” And I got a job on a cruise line. That kind of opened the door because people would come up to me and say, “Why are you on a cruise ship? Why aren’t you out doing what stars do? We’re finding you on a cruise ship selling bingo tickets.” I wasn’t just an entertainer; I was part of the cruise staff. I did a little bit of everything. But the longer I stayed on the ship the more they didn’t want me doing the cruise staff work, because they didn’t want their star doing bingo work. The more people that got on the ship, the more I realized I had a lot of fans who still knew who Darlene Love was. Then, I ended up getting the job at the Bottom Line because Steve van Zandt talked me into moving to New York to do this show. And here I am, 31 years later and I have a wonderful career going.
How did the “Leader of the Pack” show at the Bottom Line club in New York develop?
They had this idea once they saw me sing all these Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry and Phil Spector songs. They hadn’t connected that Ellie and Jeff and Phil had written all these songs that I did. So they put the show together. It wasn’t called “Leader of the Pack“ at first, in 1983. The show just kept going, as more people came to the Bottom Line. See, I had never worked as “Darlene Love.” I always worked as a background singer so people never saw me as Darlene Love. People went, “Wow there really is a Darlene Love!” The Bottom Line was really my springboard.
When you worked with Spector, you weren’t pictured on most album covers, right? There was not really any indication that you were black.
Yeah, Phil Spector had hid us for years. We had a pop sound; we didn’t have a “black” sound – [all of us] the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. People didn’t know we were black.
To be “hidden away” like that, how did that feel?
It wasn’t that bad because we were making so much money as background singers and we weren’t out in the public yet. My thing was once Phil started recording me as Darlene Love, my records weren’t as big as the Ronettes and the Crystals. To me, the songs weren’t as great. The biggest my songs got was maybe Top 10, Top 20, and the Crystals records were going top five and the Ronettes records were No. 1. And mine were not. That hurt me more.
It must be complicated for you when you consider Spector’s role in your life. Without him you wouldn’t be where you are and yet …
And I say that, I give him his props. I would not have a career if it wasn’t for those songs. Those songs are what made Phil famous and they also made me famous. I can’t say anything bad about him. The reason for doing it we’ll never know.
Doing it? You mean Lana Clarkson’s murder?
You went there! No, doing the songs the way he did, we’ll never know. [As to the murder] I think he did it, but I think it was an accident. The Phil Spector I know wasn’t a vicious man. He could push your buttons, but if you knew him you would laugh at him. I think that’s why I got away with things: [I’d say] “Sit down, get out of my face!” He was five foot-four; I’m five-three. The other part is he really did respect my talent. Over the years, I think what happened was he didn’t want anybody else to be responsible for making me a star. He wanted to be that person. He gave me my last name and everywhere I went over the years, even after I left California, he tried to block any success I was having. But, hey, I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Can’t get no better than that.
286 Cabot St., Beverly, 978-927-3100, www.thecabot.org