Eric Burdon once sang, “I dreamed I was in a Hollywood movie and that I was the star of the movie.” Darlene Love has him trumped. She really is the star of a Hollywood movie, one entitled, ironically enough, 20 Feet from Stardom.
Eric Burdon is a lead singer. Darlene Love sang lead on some big hits, but she’s always been considered a “background singer,” one of those anonymous voices fattening up the records that someone else’s name appeared on, giving it that extra oomph that spells “H-I-T.”
“I, with the group The Blossoms, was one of the first black background singers in the business,” she told Huffington Post this summer. “I think we did our first session in 1958. There were no black background singers, there were only white singers. They weren't even called background singers; they were just called singers.”
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Darlene Love is anything but background these days. She’ll be singing lead at the Ferguson Center on Monday, December 9th. She has a rich catalog from which to draw, including her earliest forays into lead singing for legendary producer Phil Spector in the early ‘60s. The first was “He’s a Rebel,” a huge hit in 1962, but it was credited to The Crystals, not Darlene Love or The Blossoms. Here’s how the Rock Hall explains it:
“[Phil Spector] knew that the song, written by Gene Pitney, would be a hit. But he couldn’t record it with the Crystals, his main recording group at the time. They were back home in Brooklyn while he was out in Los Angeles, impatient to get the song recorded before a competing version (by Vicki Carr) could gain momentum. So he cut ‘He’s a Rebel’ with the Blossoms, crediting it to the Crystals because he wanted a recognizable name on the record and they had two recent hits.”
Spector did the same thing with “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” listing The Crystals as the artist on the record even though Love was again the singer. She also shared the lead on “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” by Bob B. Sox and the Blue Jeans. In 1963, the producer put out several records under her name—“(Today I Met ) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry,” “Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home,” and “A Fine, Fine Boy.”
But Darlene Love was too busy working on the TV show Shindig and in recording studios as a backup singer to take the time needed to build a solo career. She and her Blossom-mates provided the catchy harmonies and sang the hooks on dozens of recordings, including James Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World,” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin,” Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel” and Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Halloween classic, “Monster Mash.”
But the musical good times came to an end in the early ‘70s. She found herself working as a maid in California:
“I was having a lot of financial problems. I decided to go on the road -- and the road was great, but I got tired of being away from home. I came back home and tried to find session work, but session work was totally nil by then. I couldn't find any work. When I tried to perform again, it was also tough. I decided, ‘Well, I've got to do something. I have two children, I have to take care of me, I have to find some money.’ So I started doing day work. It was the only thing I knew that could give me a job right away to start bringing the cash in. I was making $100 a day, which is a nice little sum of money to keep gas in your car.
“I was cleaning this one lady's house in Beverly Hills and I heard ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ on the radio. I said, "That's me singing that. This is ridiculous! People are playing my records. If they want to play my records that means people still want to hear me.’
She began performing again in 1981. In the mid ‘80s, she starred on Broadway in Leader of the Pack. She appeared in all three Lethal Weapon movies and a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. But it was a holiday appearance on David Letterman’s TV show that really rejuvenated her career and brought her to the attention of a whole new audience:
“We ended up doing the show Leader of the Pack at the Bottom Line. Paul Schaffer played Phil Spector in that play. So, David Letterman came down to see the show, and one night on his show, Dave said to Paul, "That Christmas song the girl does in the play you're in is the greatest Christmas song I've ever heard. We need to get her on our show." It was just one coincidence after another! I started doing the first Christmas show in 1986.”
Her rendition of the song she first recorded on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector in 1963 has been a Letterman tradition ever since.
So it’s appropriate that Darlene Love is coming to town during the holiday season. It’s a good bet she’ll have her audience belting out the “Christmas” call-and-response hook as she sings “The snow’s coming down…I’m watching it fall…Lots of people around…baby please come home…”
And there’s been a lot of Oscar buzz for 20 Feet from Stardom. At 72 years old, Darlene Love has stepped out of the background for good.