Taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused:
You might not know Darlene Love’s name, but you’ve definitely heard her sing. Discovered by “wall of sound” producer Phil Spector, she became his secret weapon, singing backing vocals on his greatest hits with her group The Blossoms and taking the lead (uncredited) on girl-group classic “He’s a Rebel” and the festive perennial “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. She’s backed up Marvin Gaye, Cher and Nancy Sinatra onstage and can be heard on Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, the Halloween hit “Monster Mash” and tracks by everyone from the Beach Boys and Sam Cooke to Tom Jones and Luther Vandross. After years of being dicked around by Spector, the now 72-year-old has finally been recognised as a legendary performer in her own right, and her career is now receiving another boost from the 20 Feet from Stardom doc,which sees the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder profess their admiration for her work.
Born Darlene Wright in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, Love was the second oldest of five siblings. When, aged 16, she sang at a wedding of a girl at her church, the Capitol Records-signed The Blossoms were in the audience. “After they heard me sing they asked me to audition for their group,” she says, speaking from her Christmas tour in Canada. “I just sang a song that I knew well.” What was the song? “Gosh, you know what, I don’t even remember! It’s about 55 years ago!”
She joined the group “just for fun, something to do, something to get away from home.” Their talent and proximity to Hollywood found them in demand as session vocalists, working for producers including Lester Sill, Spector’s partner. When the 21-year-old Spector returned home to California from New York in search of the next big thing, Love was 19. She booms with laughter when asked if she remembers the first time she met him, at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. “Yes, I definitely remember that! Being background singers we all dressed very comfortably in jeans and sneakers and sweatshirts, but he was in a suit and tie, and I noticed that he wore heels, Spanish heels. He was so short – I’m only 5’3 and he wasn’t that much taller than me.” Spector wasn’t famous yet, even if he looked the part. “He was just another record producer trying to make hits.”
Spector and Sill set about doing just that, releasing two moderate successes by girl group The Crystals. But when Spector wanted to be the first to release a version of a new song, The Crystals were away touring, so he recorded it with The Blossoms and rush-released it under The Crystals’ name (much to the latter’s shock and dismay). It was the impossibly tough “He’s a Rebel” – a #1 smash and the definitive Spector hit. In Love’s soulful lead and The Blossoms’ backing vocals, Spector had found an important structural part of his “wall of sound”.
“I said ‘You’re such a jerk,’ and I turned around and walked out”
Noting Love’s talent and promising her a bright solo career, Spector gave her a new surname in tribute to gospel star Dorothy Love Coates. “I didn’t have a problem with it, as I thought, ‘Well, it isn’t gonna last that long, nobody’s gonna care who Darlene Love is,’ so it didn’t really matter to me,” she remembers before another throaty laugh. “I wonder today if I said no what he would have done!” Under her name she performed solo tracks such as the single “(Tonight I Met) The Boy I’m Going to Marry” and no less than four songs on Spector’s festive 1963 album A Christmas Gift to You, including “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”.
But Love was soon sidelined as a solo artist. “I confronted him a few times, especially when ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love’ (another track released under The Crystals’ name) came out. That was supposed to be a Darlene Love record, and driving in my car one day I heard it on the radio and turned my car around and went straight back to Phil’s office. His secretary wouldn’t let me in and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going in. Either I’m going through you or over you so you better get out of the way.’ He was all, ‘Darl, calm down, calm down, it’s gonna be okay.’ I said, ‘Phil, what’s with this? I don’t get it. I thought you liked me, cared for me, so why do you keep doing this to me?’” Spector explained that they were more likely to have hits using a more famous artist’s name. “I was so frustrated at what he was doing. I finally said, ‘You’re such a jerk,’ and I turned around and walked out.”
“Elvis said, ‘You know, I’ve never had a relationship with a black woman.’ I said, ‘...And you ain’t getting ready to have one with this one either!’ That truly was a pass”
Perhaps it didn’t help that she was so good at delivering whatever it was a producer wanted. “Most people didn’t know if The Blossoms were black or white, because we didn’t sound black or white,” Love says, and the group were in constant demand for the rest of the 60s. When they appeared as part of a choir on Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback TV special, Presley and Love got on like a house on fire. “He found out that I was a gospel singer and he wanted to sing gospel, that’s all he wanted to do. Whenever we got time away from recording or took a break, he’d go get his guitar and The Blossoms and I would just do gospel with him.” A year later, she was given a bit part in Change of Habit, Presley’s final dramatic movie. Another flurry of chuckles ensues when I ask her if it’s true that Elvis chatted her up. “While we were doing the movie we broke for lunch and I told the girls, ‘Go on ahead, I’ll catch up with you.’ I had to get my sunglasses and on the way back to my car Elvis was still in his trailer. His door was open and he saw me pass by and said, ‘Oh Darlene, would you come in for a minute?’ He was always surrounded by people so I figured he must want something really important, because there was nobody around. He said, ‘Well, I’ve had this thing on my mind for a while. You know, I’ve never had a relationship with a black woman.’ Before he could say anything else, I said, ‘...And you ain’t getting ready to have one with this one either!’ We both fell out laughing. That truly was a pass.”
“It’s funny because he invited all the people that he ever stomped on to watch him be inducted”
Love finally became free of Spector when her contract ran out, and in 1974 she signed with Philadelphia International, home of The O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. “I was there for about a week. It was going great until Phil bought my contract back from them! He didn’t want me to be successful with nobody else.” Love remembers her final session with Spector in the mid-1970s, recording the song “Lord If You’re A Woman”, intended as a first step to a full album. John Lennon and Cher were in the studio and Spector was playing Mr Big Shot, constantly making her re-record her vocals. “I couldn’t do it well enough for him,” recalls Love. “That went on for a couple of hours. And then I saw him joking, ‘I’m gonna make her do it again.’ We tried it one more time and I said ‘Phil, I’ve had it.’ I took the earphones off my ears, put my coat on and walked out the door. And I didn’t see him or talk to him for another ten years.”
After parting ways with Spector, Love’s career took a nosedive. She found herself working as a cleaner, and was tidying a bathroom one day when she heard “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio and decided to reignite her music career. “That was tough,” she says. “I wasn’t the type of person who asked anybody for help, but this time I felt my friends would help me if I asked them.” Love called Dionne Warwick and producer Lou Adler and told them she needed money. She started on the comeback trail by getting work on cruise ships, spending almost two years singing on the high seas. “I still knew I could sing, I just had to find a way to let people hear me.” Musical work on Broadway followed as the girl-group era underwent a revival, and she even broke into the movies, appearing in the Lethal Weapon movies as Danny Glover’s wife. In 1986 she sang “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on David Letterman’s US talk show, starting an annual tradition – she’s just delivered her 27th performance when we speak to her.
The next time she met Spector was at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. “It’s funny because he invited all the people that he ever stomped on to watch him be inducted,” she laughs. Why did she go? “I wasn’t going to miss that. Just to see him walk around and strut and make a big fool out of himself. He was drunk, he was slurring his words, and I sat there and said, ‘Mm-hmm, I know where you’re headed.’ After that he never really did anything. He went down from there.”
Love won a landmark case against Spector over unpaid royalties in 1997, and wrote a memoir, My Name Is Love, which was set to be made into a movie a few years back. “It’s still out there. It’s going to happen – it’s a great story, it’s just a matter of time.” Since Spector’s imprisonment for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson, Love has tried to bury the hatchet. “I’ve actually written him since he’s been in prison, but he hasn’t returned my letter. It wasn’t a nasty letter. I told him, ‘I feel for what’s happening to you because you were a great man and my career today is what it is because of Phil Spector records.’ I never heard from him. That’s okay, I’m fine with it – I don’t hate him, I don’t hold anything against him. I just needed to move on and I had to forgive him to move on.”
“I wish I started out as a solo artist”
In 2011, Love was herself inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Tom Waits, Dr. John and Alice Cooper. “The night was such a blur,” says Love. “There were so many stars there – I just sat around the room looking! When I stood up to get my award everybody in the place stood up – famous people who knew me, and I had no idea they knew who I was.” When she went to perform, there was a guitar on the stage and she didn’t know who it belonged to. As she got ready to sing, Bruce Springsteen leapt out of the crowd and strapped it on. “Come on, it don’t get no better than that!”
Love’s career now is finally what Spector promised it would be half a century ago. “I wish I started out as a solo artist,” says Love. “It took so long to get where I am today – that’s like the movie 20 Feet from Stardom, but it took over 20 years!”
20 Feet from Stardom is out on March 28 in the UK & Ireland