Darlene Love’s career is a study in talent and determination winning out over entertainment industry injustice.
“The hurdles are there for you to jump over them,” says the 76-year-old singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who headlines the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center on Thursday. “They’re not meant to keep you back.”
Love’s story, as told in Morgan Neville’s 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, is about credit not being given where it was due.
In the 1960s, the powerfully voiced life force sang with in-demand vocal trio the Blossoms, and was a key part of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production team. But though she sang lead on the 1962 hit “He’s a Rebel,” the song was credited to the Crystals, another group Spector produced.
One song that she did get credit for was “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the holiday perennial-to-be that she performed on David Letterman’s late night TV shows for 29 years. She reprised it with the Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in December.
In 2015, Love released Introducing Darlene Love, an album produced by E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt featuring songs by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and others. She talked on the phone last week before a show in Mesa, Ariz.
After the success you had in the ’60s, in the 1970s you were out of the music world and worked for a time as a maid in your hometown of Los Angeles. Does that experience make your success now sweeter?
It really does. When you start in the music business, you think it’s never going to end. My career started very slowly because my name was not on the big hit records. I started doing backups, and that gave me a real perspective about life on the road. How hard it is to be 20 feet from stardom, as they said in the movie.
Who’d you tour with?
First, it was the Righteous Brothers. We did Shindig with them, and they asked us to go out on the road. And then Nancy Sinatra and Tom Jones and Dionne Warwick. We ran the gamut of singers who were superstars at that time.
Did it make you angry to have to tour as a backup vocalist?
No, it didn’t really make me angry, because I couldn’t have survived without that. I ended up working with some of the greatest people, who looked at Darlene Love as someone they were happy to have as their backup singer. They looked at me as one of their peers, and they almost always gave me a solo spot in their show.
The list of sessions you sang on is amazing. You sang with Frank Sinatra on “That’s Life.” That’s Frank going for a Ray Charles sound.
Oh, yes. That’s why it’s so good. What people don’t realize is that the Blossoms were the first black backup singers. … Because we worked with Nancy Sinatra, Frank Sinatra called. And working with him was amazing. When he walked in the room, without saying a word, you could feel it. The same thing with Elvis Presley. It was like, [whispers] This is Elvis Presley, you guys!”
Did you tour with Elvis?
No. We made a movie with him, Change of Habit. [In that 1969 film, Presley plays an inner-city doctor and Mary Tyler Moore plays a nun.]
We passed on a lot of things because we were making a living. Recording in the studio, those were union jobs. We were working for scale, which was $22.50 an hour. Then when we had somebody like Frank Sinatra, we would charge him triple scale. This was in the ’60s and ’70s, and we were making close to $150,000 a year
What about “The Monster Mash”?
[Sings] “The Monster Mash” … We did that on Shindig for Halloween. That was with Lou Adler. We also did “Basketball Jones” with Cheech & Chong for Lou.
It was through Adler that you met Steve Van Zandt, right?
I did a show in the early 1980s at the Roxy in L.A. Lou owned that club, and he invited his friends, including Steven and Bruce Springsteen. After the show, Steven said, ‘You need to move to New York and you need to let me record you.’ I said, ‘Get me work and I’ll come.’ And he got me two jobs, at the Peppermint Lounge and the Bottom Line.
We [she and husband Alton Allison] moved to New York, and that’s when it got tough. We went around knocking on doors, banging on nightclubs. I just pursued, pursued, pursued. That’s what I call paying dues.
You did Leader of the Pack, the Ellie Greenwich musical, at the Bottom Line.
Paul Shaffer played Phil Spector in the show. He invited David [Letterman] down, and the next night on his show, David told Paul, ‘That’s the greatest Christmas song I’ve ever heard.’ And from then until the show went off the air, I did that song on the show. David started calling me ‘The Christmas Queen.’ You wait for that one chance that you know is going to come. That was my chance.
So many songs that you sang lead on with Phil Spector you’re not credited on. But your name is on that one. How come?
By that time, people had found out that I was singing on “He’s a Rebel.” He had no choice.
What was your relationship with him like?
The five or six years we worked together, we had an unbelievable relationship, when we did “Be My Baby,” when we did “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” We didn’t really start knocking heads till he went to London and became friends with the Beatles and everything.
When I started doing the Letterman show, he actually called NBC and told them I wasn’t allowed to sing that song, and if I did he was going to sue.
Was that just words?
Just words. When you’re as powerful as Phil Spector, you think you can do anything. It’s just that that he wasn’t as powerful as NBC. I had to tell him, ‘Man, I’m not afraid of you. You didn’t give me this voice. You helped me put this voice out there, but you didn’t give me this voice.’
You played Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies. How’d you get that gig?
I was working at the Bottom Line and the casting director came up to me and asked me if I wanted to be in a movie with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. They wanted an unknown. I told them I’ve been acting all my life, this is just on screen.
Has Introducing Darlene Love given you a boost?
It has. Steven wanted it to sound like the old Phil Spector records, but he wanted the writers to write songs for today. I needed some new material. I do the old songs because that’s what people want to hear. But now I put the new songs in my shows, which gives people a whole other perspective on who Darlene Love is.
My husband says, ‘You’re the boss. You’re the CEO.’ It’s a great feeling, because I didn’t get all this 50 years ago. I’m enjoying it now because I didn’t work all those years as Darlene Love. I was a backup singer. I wasn’t out there out for 50 years like Dionne and Gladys and Aretha.
You look great. How’s your health?
My health is fantastic. I don’t hang out after the show. I have a little glass of red wine. Then I finally come down. I don’t have to get high. Working gets you high. Then you have to come down from that, to relax.
I exercise when I’m home. I take a kickboxing class at 5 in the morning. And I drink at least 12 glasses of water a day. I’m going to be 77 this year. You’re kidding yourself if you think you can do the same things you did when you were 25. That don’t work.
Your father was a Pentecostal minister, and you started out singing in church. What kind of singer are you?
I am a first-generation rock-and-roll singer. And then I have my gospel background that comes out more on stage that it does on record. But I am a legitimate rock-and-roll singer.