Darlene Love may be the most successful pop artist you didn’t know you knew. Hers is that recognizable voice on a multitude of records by some of the biggest names in music history: Sam Cooke, the Beach Boys, Johnny Rivers, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Darin, the Righteous Brothers, Dusty Springfield and many, many others. It’s said that the great Luther Vandross would not even consider recording an album without first checking on Love’s availability. That 1962 Phil Spector-produced megahit “He’s a Rebel”? You probably thought that was by the Crystals, but no. It was recorded with Darlene Love and the Blossoms, hired when the legendary “wall of sound” producer was working in Los Angeles and didn’t feel like flying the Crystals out from New York City. Not that you could tell by reading the credits; Darlene Love’s name was nowhere to be found.
After the success of the Gene Pitney-penned “He’s a Rebel,” Spector hired Love to sing on a string of other singles. Again, she didn’t get credited in the liner notes, but word got around to other artists and producers, and Love’s reputation as a go-to session singer was secured. During the ’60s, she and the Blossoms emerged from the studio to sing on the popular weekly rock-and-roll TV show “Shindig!” Love also appeared on Elvis Presley’s 1968 televised comeback special.
If Love used to be the most famous pop singer you’d never heard of, her patience has been rewarded: Today she’s a marquee name with a busy performance schedule and a devoted horde of fans spanning several generations. From the shadows to the spotlight, her career is nothing short of music-biz legend.
Love did disappear from the public eye for a while in the 1970s, taking time off to raise her family. She reemerged with a vengeance in the early 1980s — out in front for a change — beginning with a series of highly acclaimed shows at New York City’s Bottom Line. Broadway came calling: She played herself in the mid-’80s Tony-nominated jukebox musical Leader of the Pack, and followed that up with roles in productions from Grease to Hairspray. Love also made her way to the silver screen — for example, as Danny Glover’s wife in all four Lethal Weapon films.
Love has had a coveted spot on the “Late Show With David Letterman” every December since 1986, singing “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” The show’s longtime music director, Paul Shaffer, a huge Love fan, reproduces the “wall of sound” — complete with extra musicians and a full choir — for Love’s live performance. The holiday number was originally recorded in 1963 for Phil Spector’s Christmas Album. The record failed to sell well at the time, released just before the period of deep national mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy.
In recent years, Love has been touring and entertaining fans with her “Concert of Love.” The show morphs into “Love for the Holidays” in December and has become a much-anticipated annual event at New York City’s Lincoln Center. Her most recent CD, The Concert of Love, was released in 2010. On March 14 of this year, Darlene Love was at long last inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone has declared her “one of the best singers of all time,” while the New York Times once wrote that “her thunderbolt voice is embedded in the history of rock and roll.” The spotlight may be overdue, but it suits her well.
Seven Days spoke to Love by phone in advance of her concert at Burlington’s Flynn Center next Wednesday, December 14.
SEVEN DAYS: It’s hard to believe that someone so youthful and energetic and in such good voice has been a professional for 50 years.
DARLENE LOVE: It’s a surprise for me, too.
SD: And this year you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This must be a dream come true for you.
DL: Yes, you know, a lot of times you dream things, and then you let the dreams fade because you say, “This is taking too much of my time, so I’m just going to chill and let life deal with this.”
SD: On December 2, you performed with composer Tim Janis at Carnegie Hall in The American Christmas Carol. Is it true you cowrote two songs for the CD?
DL: Yes, and it’s amazing, as that was another dream of mine, to be able to do my Christmas show at Carnegie Hall. You never know, when you ask for something, how it’s going to turn out.
SD: On December 23, you’ll be performing your Phil Spector-era classic “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” on the Letterman show for the 25th consecutive year. Paul Shaffer really gets it right with a big production.
DL: For the past 25 years he has got it right!
SD: I know he’s a big fan of yours and played a role in reintroducing you to the public back in the 1980s.
DL: Yes, indeed. We did a play at a club called the Bottom Line, and Paul actually played Phil Spector in the play. And here we are 25 years later, and I’m still doing that one song on that television show, which is amazing.
SD: Letterman himself says it’s his favorite part of Christmas.
DL: I know! One year, with so many people on the stage, David came over to me and asked, “Who’s paying for all this?” And I said, “You are!” [Laughs.]
SD: If anyone asks me about Darlene Love, I refer them to YouTube. Are you happy that there are so many of your great performances there?
DL: It’s amazing! Other than the 25 years on Letterman, there’s the 25th show of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at Madison Square Garden with Bruce Springsteen, also on YouTube. So there’s a lot of the history of my life…
SD: Including your fantastic performance of “A Fine, Fine Boy” with Springsteen.
DL: I’ve never seen anything like it, either, because I told him it’s really great being back with the “wall of sound” again.
SD: Can we go back to the early days? You were born in East Los Angeles, the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. How did you manage to listen to the rhythm and blues that influenced you while growing up in what I assume was a very strict household?
DL: I didn’t! [Laughs.] Not in my house, anyway. I listened to that music at my girlfriend’s house.
SD: The earliest Darlene Love recording I have is one by the Echoes on the Combo label. Yours is one of those voices?
DL: Oh, Lord, yes! Wow! Yes, that was the first group I ever sang with.
SD: Then you joined the Blossoms. I hear your voice on an early recording of a song titled “No Other Love.”
DL: Wow! Yes, that was my first recording as the lead voice.
SD: And then you and the Blossoms became the first-call female studio backup group for recording sessions in LA. And some of your first sessions were with Sam Cooke?
DL: Well, you know, I knew Sam Cooke before he started singing secular music. I used to go to church services and see Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers sing. So it was great to be able to go into the recording studio with him — not that I ever thought I would be called. But when we were called to do a session with him, it was like, “You’re kidding. We’re really going to record with Sam?” [Laughs.]
SD: Back in my early days as a DJ, I was playing records that featured your voice prominently, but without knowing your name. You were in Duane Eddy’s Rebelettes, Al Casey’s K-C-Ettes, Hal Blaine’s Young Cougars, the Playgirls, the Wildcats, even Moose and the Pelicans!
DL: [Laughs.] Yes, we were all over the place, all different names.
SD: By 1962, you were doing sessions with Phil Spector. Sadly, many people know him by the terrible tragedy that defines him today. But you’ve always been able to separate the genius of his music from his troubled life. How did you first become associated with Phil?
DL: Yes, today it is unfortunate. I worked with his partner, although I didn’t know it at the time, Lester Sill. He was a record producer here in Hollywood when I first started out singing, and he hired the Blossoms to sing on some sessions for him. He pulled me aside and told me his partner was coming from New York and he wanted to record this song and he needed a lead singer. He introduced me to Phil, and we went to Gold Star [Studio] to rehearse the song, and that was the beginning of Darlene Love and Phil Spector.
SD: “He’s a Rebel” came out as being by the Crystals and became a No. 1, million-selling hit single. Did it bother you that you weren’t credited by name on the record label?
DL: No, because we had a lot of songs like that: Al Casey, and the Rebelettes and all that, you know. So, in doing another song for Phil Spector, the only difference was that I was singing the lead. But I didn’t even think about it. I just charged him triple scale to do the lead. And I knew it was going to be a Crystals record. It was after that that we started having our problems! [Laughs.]
SD: After that hit, as a DJ I received a letter from Spector saying, “Watch for my next hit, ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ by Bobby and the Holidays.” But by the time the record came out, he came up with a different name for the group.
DL: Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. That was my next hit record.
SD: As a New Yorker, I remember Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans appearing back then in New York. Were you touring with the group?
DL: Yes! We first went to New York and we did Murray the K’s show at the Brooklyn Fox, and we toured as Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. But Murray the K found out that I did the lead singing on “He’s a Rebel,” and he had a falling out with the Crystals, for whatever reason. So every night, we’d go on as Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans and sing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and he would introduce me as the lead singer of “He’s a Rebel,” and so we would actually perform that song, too.
SD: It was during that trip to New York when you met Dionne Warwick, who had just started recording for Scepter Records.
DL: Yes, and she was on that same Murray the K show.
SD: And for years, you were part of a touring backup group for Dionne that included her sister, Dee Dee, and…
DL: Yes, me, Dee Dee and Cissy Houston. Yes, I worked for Dionne for about 10 years.
SD: The singing sisters of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick make me think of another pair of great singing sisters, Darlene Love and Edna Wright [former lead singer of Honey Cone, with the smash 1970s-era hits “Want Ads” and “Stick-Up”].
DL: [Laughs.] Thank you! Now that we’ve gotten older, we’ve been trying for years to get together to do some stuff, and this is going to be the first year that she’s going to be singing with me, doing all my East Coast Christmas shows.
SD: Wonderful! Are you planning an album of duets with your sister?
DL: Hopefully you are speaking a prophesy! [Laughs.]
SD: When Phil Spector agreed to record songs under your own name, I found it ironic — I know you had a married name and, of course, your maiden name, neither of which is “Love.” Did Phil make up that name, too?
DL: Yes, he actually changed it. He asked me if I liked the last name “Love,” and I said yes. It was after a gospel singer, Dorothy Love Coates, who Phil liked. About 10 years after that, I went and had it changed legally to Love so he couldn’t come back and say he owned it.
SD: He would do something like that.
DL: For sure!
SD: As Darlene Love, you made some great records, including “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home” and “A Fine, Fine Boy.” But what ever happened to “Stumble and Fall,” a great record that was released, but then Phil quickly withdrew it?
DL: He withdrew it! It was a great song! As a matter of fact, there were two songs on that record that were really great. The other side was a song called “(He’s a) Quiet Guy.”
SD: Very bluesy.
DL: I love both those songs. I was doing “Shindig!” at the time, and he pulled the record.
SD: He didn’t like the idea that you had a full career separate from him. Was it that he didn’t like not having full control of you?
DL: That’s it! He always had to have control, and he had control of the Ronettes and the Crystals, but he never did have control of me. I think every time I would go and make an advancement that he didn’t have anything to do with, it would upset him.
SD: Some of the musicians you worked with back then have told me that you were one of the few people who wouldn’t be intimidated by Phil Spector. If he acted a little crazy, you’d give it right back to him.
DL: Oh, yeah, that’s right. I think because I didn’t have to depend on him for my livelihood, I really didn’t care. I just wanted to do the right thing, if you know what I’m saying.
SD: I know you recorded the original lead vocals on the big hit “Da Doo Ron Ron,” but then Phil put La La Brooks of the Crystals on lead for the released version. But don’t I still hear your voice on that recording?
DL: Oh, it’s still there. He just put my voice down enough to put La La’s voice over mine. You know, the Crystals aren’t anywhere on that record. All the voices are the Blossoms.
SD: Can I ask you about a couple of records? “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers. That record holds the distinction as the most-played-on-the-radio record of the 20th century, with more than 8 1/2 million airplays. And your voice is on that record.
DL: Oh, yes. We did mostly all the background sessions for Phil Spector, until he decided to leave California and go to Europe to be with the Beatles and Rolling Stones and all of that. But other than that we did almost all of the work that was done at Gold Star in California.
SD: The beautiful ballad “Unchained Melody” by Bobby Hatfield [of the Righteous Brothers] also has your voice there in the background chorus. Today, Phil Spector takes credit for having produced that gorgeous recording, but I heard that’s not true.
DL: No! He didn’t produce that. Bill Medley [of the Righteous Brothers] produced that.
SD: You sang backup for Elvis Presley, including on his marvelous 1968 TV comeback special. What was it like backing up Elvis?
DL: It was wonderful. But the thing about backing up Elvis — we ended up being really good friends. When we were doing those sessions, he found out I was a gospel singer, and his favorite music was gospel. So he would go get his guitar and we’d hang out and do gospel singing. He was truly, truly amazing. He was very introverted, very shy. But when it came to gospel music, he didn’t have a shy bone in his body.
SD: You and the Blossoms went on to portray nuns in Elvis’ film Change of Habit.
DL: Yes, it was amazing. He decided he wanted us in the movie, and he wanted us in the gospel segment of his 1968 comeback special.
SD: What a great résumé you have.
DL: Never say never when it comes to Darlene Love! [Laughs.]
SD: On Broadway in Hairspray, as Motormouth Maybelle, your performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been” was the absolute showstopper. It got you standing ovations each of the four times I saw the show.
DL: Marc Shaiman, who is a dear friend, wrote that song. And every time I sing it, I say to myself that I know he wrote that song for me, because I lived that song!
SD: Will there be a motion picture on the life of Darlene Love?
DL: Well, we’re working on it. It’s taking more time than I ever thought it would take, putting everything together. Getting a director, getting a script written, being in the right place at the right time. But, yes, there has been a lot of movement in that area. So hopefully in the next year or so we’ll be on our way to making a movie on the Darlene Love story.
SD: Another recalled record, “Touch Me, Jesus,” [released] as by the Glass House, clearly has your lead voice on it. A great record that should have been a hit.
DL: Yes, that was another one. You know, I just run into all those people. They love me, they love my voice, but don’t want to give me credit. [Laughs.]
SD: [Another is] “Johnny Angel,” by Shelley Fabares, a No. 1 hit on which you sang backup. I’ve had arguments with people who said that couldn’t possibly be the Blossoms; they sound too “white.” I say, no, the Blossoms could sound any way the producers wanted them to sound.
DL: That’s right! That’s the reason why the Blossoms were in such demand. We can sing any way on any kind of song you wanted us to sing. [Record producer] Lou Adler was a very good friend of ours, so we did a lot of his recording sessions. That’s the reason we did “Johnny Angel.” You name it, we sang it with them. If they were singing in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the Blossoms were backing them.
SD: Lou Adler produced “Stoney End” with you and the Blossoms. Barbra Streisand copied your original arrangement note for note.
DL: Yes, that was me that she learned the song from, that’s for sure. Because we recorded it first with Lou Adler. But then they gave the song to Barbra Streisand, and the rest is history. It was a smash for her.
SD: I heard that you even sang backup on a Christmas novelty record titled “Santa’s Coming in a Whirlybird,” sung by Gene Autry. Is it true you even sang backup for the legendary singing cowboy star?
DL: Absolutely. We sang with everybody who could sing.
SD: The huge, No. 1 Halloween novelty smash hit “Monster Mash,” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett — you’re on that one. Some say that the record producer, Gary Paxton, was as eccentric as Phil Spector. Any memories?
DL: Well, it wasn’t so bad. You realize, they become eccentric later. They never start out that way. [Laughs.]
SD: You and the Blossoms sing on “In My Room,” the beautiful harmony number by the Beach Boys, produced by the genius Brian Wilson. I heard that, to get the right echo, Brian had you singing in a swimming pool?
DL: That’s very true!
SD: Did you make any other records with the Beach Boys?
DL: We also did “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and I’ve never heard that song. I keep telling Brian, please send me that recording, because I don’t remember it.
SD: I love the Johnny Rivers records you sang on.
DL: Oh, those were some of my favorites, with Lou Adler producing. We did a lot of great songs with Johnny Rivers, including “Poor Side of Town.”
SD: On “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” you really let loose with your signature “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s toward the end of that one.
DL: Yes, I did! [Laughs.]
SD: You toured with Nancy Sinatra, and you backed up Frank Sinatra on his big hit recording of “That’s Life.”
DL: You know, it was great, because he was such a great man. You know, just being in his presence. He just oozed personality. He was so nice, so friendly. Not only did we become friends with Nancy, but we also became friends with Frank. He would always come to our dressing room and say, “Thank you for working with my daughter. You guys are great.”
SD: At her shows, it seemed Nancy Sinatra was acknowledging that she had better singers behind her than she was herself, and she’d put you up front for a number.
DL: Yes, at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, she had the Osmonds with her and she had the Blossoms. She knew what to do.
SD: A favorite record of mine that was not a hit on the East Coast, but was a great dance record on which I clearly hear your voice, is singer Round Robin’s  recording of “Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann.”
DL: Oh, yes. Right! I forgot all about that one. Round Robin did “Shindig!” with us, too.
SD: On the big hit “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” there’s more of you on that record than Betty Everett.
DL: I know. The background on that record actually sounds like it became the lead, more so than Betty’s part.
SD: Have you ever been to Vermont before?
DL: No, this will be the first time.
SD: Well, we’ll have to give you some Vermont maple syrup and put skis on you when you’re here.
DL: I don’t know about the skis, but I’d like the maple syrup.
SD: Any words for your fans in Vermont?
DL: Well, just tell them we have a hell of a show for them. It will be “Love for the Holidays.” It will be very special for me having my sister on the show with me. It will be the first time my sister will be with me in over 20 years, so the show will be great.
SD: You sang anonymously on the many big hits you made in the 1960s, but today I’m so glad you are the star you’ve become.
DL: Well, you know, good things come to those who wait, and I have plenty of time!
Darlene Love performs her “Love for the Holidays” concert on Wednesday, December 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Flynn Mainstage in Burlington. $15-45. Love will give a preshow lecture at 6 p.m. in the Hoehl Studio Lab, Flynn Center, third floor. flynntix.org
Joel Najman is the host of “My Place,” a show about pop-music history airing Saturdays at 8 p.m. on Vermont Public Radio. This Saturday, December 10, his show is about “the other side of Darlene Love,” featuring her most famous backup recordings. vpr.net/program_about/68/