Darlene Love Finally Gets Her Due

Written by | Entertainment, Music

Nearly uncredited, Darlene Love helped create some of the biggest hits of the 1960s, but now that she’s the headliner, everybody is feeling the Love.

By Jeffrey James Keyes

Darlene Love

Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love is busier than ever. Following the success of her turn in Academy Award–winning documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, she released Introducing Darlene Love featuring classics like “River Deep, Mountain High”along with new songs like “Forbidden Nights.” Darlene has had an epic career, including work with Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, and as part of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” hit factory. But she may be best loved for her annual performance of the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” with Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra on the Late Show with David Letterman. Perhaps Shaffer said it best: “Darlene Love is rock and roll.”

What was it like to be nominated for an Oscar?

I didn’t think we had a chance, but then everybody started making those little whispers: “You guys might get nominated; I hear you might win.” And I thought, Yeah, sure, I would never let my hopes get up that high.

But then you won and gave that great speech…

The night before, they asked me to do the speech, and I thought, The speech for what? You must be kidding, right? They told me they were serious. They asked me to go up there and accept the Academy Award [on behalf of the] singers. Usually when they give an award to the best documentary, nobody but the producers come up, but they said that one of us should go up, and they chose me. I couldn’t think of anything to say or do, so I just sang. It ended up being an unbelievable night.

Tell me about being on the road now as a headliner.

It’s really different because I’ve played so many places over the world when I was a backup singer. I worked with Dionne Warwick for 10 years, with Tom Jones for a couple of years, Nancy Sinatra — there were so many people I was out on the road with and I was able to see so many parts of the country, but there are so many places I haven’t even touched yet. … It’s really wonderful to get out there and say, “These people are coming to see Darlene Love.”

How do you decide what you sing on tour?

Most of the songs I chose are the ones that Steven Van Zandt put on [Introducing Darlene Love]. We wanted to let the people know this is a great record, and you should go out and buy it! Other than that, I like to bring a lot of old songs like Marvin Gaye. I was coming up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so a lot of the time that’s where I go to get music. Most of the time, I’ll pick a male song over a female song. I always say in my head: If you sing one of Aretha’s songs or one of Mariah Carey’s or Whitney Houston’s songs, they’re going to size you up with them and say, “She doesn’t sing that song as well as Aretha!” But when you sing a guy’s song they don’t make that comparison.

The video for “Forbidden Nights” features everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bill Murray. How did you decide what the video would look and feel like?

That was all Stevie [Van Zandt’s] idea. I don’t know how I would have done it. I definitely wouldn’t have come up with the idea for it to be at a beach. What was great about it is that the fans were able to come and be a part of the video. We did it in Asbury Park where Stevie, Bruce, and all the guys are from. … We ended up calling Joan Jett — she’s a very good friend of mine, of course — and Paul Shaffer. … I didn’t know how we were going to get David Letterman because he doesn’t do anything, but when they called and asked, he said, “Sure, when?”

Seeing you on Letterman was always a highlight of the Christmas season. How did you start doing it?

Paul Shaffer and I were doing a show together at The Bottom Line in Manhattan called Leader of the Pack, and Paul played Phil Spector in the play. Paul invited David down to see the show one night. In that show I sang “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” The next night on television, David told Paul, “That Christmas song that girl sings in your show is one of the greatest Christmas songs I’ve ever heard; we need to get her on the show.” I thought it was going to be a one time and one time only thing — and then it became something I did for 29 years.

How did you come to be part of 20 Feet from Stardom?
It started when they called me and asked who they should talk to, and I was on the phone with them for about two hours before they even decided they were going to do this documentary. … The more they dug, the more they realized they wanted to find out about background singers, and the story continued to get bigger and better. We were all happy about it. We went out and worked our tails off for it to be great. Thank God there were five or six of us [to represent the film] because we traveled from city to city and overseas when they showed it. I don’t think just one of us could have done all of that. As it was, I had the whole state of New York to do; then I did Florida; and then there was California and Philadelphia. When it came to overseas, I said, “Y’all got it, I can’t do no more.”

Well it definitely paid off.

It sure did! Surprise, surprise!

How has your life changed since the documentary came out?

I’m more busy today than I’ve ever been. If you don’t call my manager or my agent before late June, all of November and December is already booked. Thank God I have a great manager who goes out and knows what to do. … I’ve always wanted to sing in front of people. After a while, you sing in front of 10 people or 30 people or 50 people or a couple hundred people — but you always say, “I want to sing in front of more people, for them to see what I have to say.” … I’m actually humbled by the fact that I can go and sell out a room to 2,000 people. Before the documentary came out, I did 500-seaters, but now it’s growing, and it’s continued to grow.

Has your touring schedule been packed?

This Christmas I was like, “OK, guys, that’s enough … don’t take any more dates.” Our “rest day” was our “off day.” Our “off day” was a “travel day.” I don’t call that a rest day. When you’re traveling, you really do have to get to that next place. That’s not a rest day. It might take you four or five hours. Then you have to work the next day. It’s not a rest day; you just don’t happen to sing on that particular day because you’re getting to the next thing. I’m not complaining, though.

Has your relationship with your audience changed over the years?

A lot of my audiences are now bringing their children. That’s what’s so great about going out now. I’ll be 75 years old this year. That means some of my audience is in their 80s. Now I have people who are 20, 30, 40 and 50 years old coming to see me. I have a whole new audience.

Do you have a favorite song from Introducing Darlene Love?

I do. It’s a song Jimmy Webb wrote, “Who Under Heaven.” It’s one of those great message songs that you’re singing to the world. … “Who under heaven are we saving this world for? If not for our children then who are we saving it for?” There’s such a great message under that song. Stevie wrote such an unbelievable arrangement for that, and he also has an unbelievable instrumental solo that’s right smack-dab in the middle of that song that’s crazy fabulous. You know what? That kind of song sticks with me. We were hoping Columbia would choose that as the big single — it’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

How did the album come about?

This album was supposed to come out over 30 years ago, when I first met Stevie [van Zandt]. I was living in Los Angeles, and he told me we needed to get together, so he could record me. I thought that would be great because, at that point, I didn’t have a producer and nobody wanted to touch me. They didn’t think that anybody over 25 could sing or sell records. That’s the record industry. … I moved to New York because of Stevie, and one night he came down to B.B. King [Blues Club & Grill] to see me, and he said, “What are you guys doing tomorrow?” I told him we had a day off, and he said, “No you don’t. You’re going into the studio tomorrow, so we can start recording.” That’s how it got started in 2013, and here we are. It took awhile to get the record done because he wanted to find these great writers to write for me. He dug hard and deep to find them. … He put everything he earned and learned over the last 30, 40 years, and that’s why it’s such a great album.

Darlene Love

Let’s talk Broadway. You’ve done four Broadway shows, right?

Broadway is like a tight little clique, that’s what I call it. It ties you down to do eight shows a week — day in and day out, and you don’t have time to do anything else. Even if your show is a hit, you still can’t go out. They sign you up six months at a time, and you have [about] a week off. By the time that week comes around, you need to rest. … A lot of the kids want to go out and do things after the show, but I just go home. I go on vocal rest. I don’t talk. I don’t do anything but rest and get ready to do the same thing the next day. I enjoy doing Broadway. I love Broadway, but if I ever did it again, it wouldn’t be for more than a year — maybe even six months.

Are there any shows you would love to do?

I would love to be in Hairspray again. I would love for somebody to find and offer me the right part. I think there are a lot of great shows going up on Broadway right now. If I did anything on Broadway right now, it would really have to be something I love — not just doing it to get a paycheck.

What do you think of the new trend of networks doing live musicals like Grease and Hairspray?

They can always bring great shows back. Hairspray was one of the greatest. … It had the music, the story. So was Grease, and I did both of those.

Can you tell me a little about your process and how you prepare to be on stage?

I start my day really early. I have a kickboxing class I go to at 5am, and I’m home by 6:30. On the days that I work, I don’t go to class, and all day — from the time I get up to the time I get to the show — I’m preparing for the show. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m thinking: What am I going to wear? Can I sing this song? I go over my words, music, and it’s a quiet time for me. My children are grown. They don’t live with me; they live in California. My husband works with me but is always busy taking care of the business. So I’m here alone a lot, and everybody knows that when I’m working, I don’t do a lot of talking unless it’s something I have to do. Sometimes I have to do interviews on those days, but very rarely do they schedule anything where I have to do a lot of talking. I’m preparing myself all day long. Before I get to work I’m ready.

What do you sing when you’re by yourself?

I love gospel singing. I love gospel songs. My father was a pastor, and whenever I was in church he would ask me to come up and sing to him, and it would always be an old spiritual song. Usually if I’m singing [for me], it’s the old gospel songs — not the ones they have today (not that anything’s wrong with them, but I don’t have them in my heart). I have the old gospel songs — what they call hymns — in my heart.

What are your hopes for the rest of 2016?

I want our record to get more notice than when it first came out. … It’s one of those albums that will tickle the ear because [listeners] will feel like they have heard these songs before. I’d like to get out of the country more and visit other places. I’d like to go to some of the places I toured with Tom Jones, Cher, and Dionne Warwick. People know about me; we just haven’t had the opportunity to get out to these countries again. That’s what I look forward to now.

Is there any advice or tips you have for people who come up to you and say they want to be a singer?

Young people today know nothing about how hard we — the people of the ‘50s and ‘60s — had to work in order to be successful. I tell them that this is something you have to love — not just say, “I love to sing!” No, no, no! It’s not that kind of desire. You have to have it inside of you that you cannot do anything else but sing and nothing is going to deter you from it. That’s a hard thing for people to do if they can’t make it. I kept on persevering, persevering, persevering when I couldn’t find work. I had to go and look for work, work on a cruise ship, wherever I could sing, church — I can always sing in church. You have got to keep your instrument oiled. If you don’t sing, your voice is going to go away. That is why my voice is as strong as it is today because I always sang somewhere.

Last modified: January 17, 2018