Every singer recalls those special moments when they heard their voice on the radio, but those experiences have been double-edged for Darlene Love.
First there were her early Phil Spector sessions. Love helped the producer build his Wall of Sound production formula, taking an uncredited lead on the Crystals’ No. 1 single “He’s a Rebel” while that girl group was on the road in 1962. “We did that all the time,” Love says of her vocal group the Blossoms. “Nobody was aware of it, and most of the time the records weren’t hits!” She did expect her name to grace “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” only to hear that on the radio, billed once again to the Crystals.
Then there’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” one of four classics under Love’s name on 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Alas, her own tracks never charted like those Crystal hits. By the early ’80s, despite a career that also included backing up Elvis Presley, Dionne Warwick and Tom Jones, Love was cleaning houses in Beverly Hills to make ends meet. That’s when she heard her holiday trademark, piped through a home while she scrubbed a bathroom.
“That happened to be the right time and the right place, where the song came on the radio and it just gave me another spark in life,” says Love, 76. “I thought, they’re playing this on the radio. Somebody wants to hear me do it in public.”
She focused on re-establishing her career—and finally reached new milestones. Love performed “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on The Late Show with David Letterman for 28 holiday seasons until the comedian’s 2015 retirement, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, and nabbed a top role in 20 Feet From Stardom, the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary about backup vocalists.
Now Love plays nearly 70 shows during the holiday season, including her return to the Cabot in Beverly on Nov. 25. “Holiday time is where I’m going to do my most work, so I take my vacation after my Christmas heyday,” she says from her home north of Manhattan. “My husband’s from Jamaica and still has family there, so every year we say we’ll go somewhere else and then say ‘nah!’”
Her holiday shows traditionally include not only Christmas standards but songs from other acts who she’s worked with (such as Marvin Gaye or Luther Vandross) and a taste of 2015’s Introducing Darlene Love, her first album of original pop in three decades. In addition to Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and gospel number “Marvelous” (a nod to Love’s roots in LA choirs and a chance to show off her own backup singers in concert), the album boasts songs written for her by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and producer Steven Van Zandt, whose opening “Among the Believers” turns Love’s story into a widescreen anthem.
“He couldn’t have written a better song for me,” says Love, who sings “We are the rebels who carry your names”—a winking jab at that first Crystals smash—before its emphatic refrain, “I remain among the believers.”
Van Zandt and his E Street Band boss Springsteen attended Love’s first LA showcase after her housecleaning epiphany and urged her to move to New York. “I didn’t have a career in California,” Love says. “I was really working on faith.” She began playing the Bottom Line (where Springsteen got his break), doing the tribute “Leader of the Pack” along with Late Night bandleader Paul Shaffer. When Letterman came to see it, he was wowed by “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” prompting his invitation. The Love affair only grew.
Of course, other Spector-produced hits that Love lays a claim to—“He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron”—pop up in her live sets as well. Two decades ago, Love won a royalties lawsuit against Spector, who’s serving a prison sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. “I didn’t really hold grudges against Phil,” Love says. “I started having a career because of those songs.” ◆
Darlene Love plays the Cabot on Nov. 25.
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