Song Writing

Darlene Love

by Roger Catlin

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Of the ornaments taken down after the holidays, one of the most reluctant to remove is Darlene Love's stirring anthem "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." A cut off the classic Phil Spector Christmas album, its power has continued through the decades to inspire singer-turned-housecleaner Darlene Love to reinvigorate her singing career in the '80s. David Letterman made it an annual installment to his show until he retired in 2015; The View picked up the tradition that year, and in 2016, Love also performed it on an episode of New Girl.

Love, 75, started singing in church and later joined The Blossoms, an in-demand backup group for recording artists. When she met up with Phil Spector, he installed her as lead singer in Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and also recorded her on solo singles and the occasional Crystals and Ronettes record.

Her revitalized career includes a 2015 album produced by Steven Van Zandt, Introducing Darlene Love, with new songs from Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello. It came two years after she was featured in the hit documentary 20 Feet From Stardom that recounted her backup singing career and comeback.

We talked to her in her busiest month, December, about her best known songs and her work doing backup.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): You're so well known for "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Has it gotten more popular over the years because of all the years playing it on Letterman?

Darlene Love: That's the biggest reason. I actually told David and Paul Shaffer that a couple of months ago. I said, "I don't know if you guys realize this, but you guys made this song come back to life again."

It's David's favorite song, and everywhere I go, when it's time to sing this song, they say that phrase, "It's not Christmas until I hear you sing that song." He did make that an annual thing. All over the country where I work, all I say at the end of the show is, "I'm going to sing David Letterman's favorite song," and the audience goes crazy.

Songfacts: Was it even released as a single originally?

Darlene: Oh yes, it was released as a single but it didn't get that big until about 10 years ago. It really sells, but it sells at Christmas time. And from what I understand, it was the biggest show they did of the year on the David Letterman Show. Thousands of people watched it that night with their families. That's what made it so big. Because the time of evening when the David Letterman Show comes on, most children of school age are in the bed, and a lot of working people tape that show. People made it an annual thing with their whole families. They'd sit around and wait for it to come on television.
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" was part of the album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, which had the ignominious release date of November 22, 1963 - the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Spector had toiled for months on the album, but it got buried in the wake of the tragedy. It was only later that the songs, including the Ronettes versions of "Frosty the Snowman" and "Sleigh Ride," got their due, becoming holiday standards.
So within the last 10 years he made that song really huge with a special night when it's on. Now so many people have recorded the song. That's when you know you did it good.

Songfacts: The business has changed a lot since those days too. Now you're getting more money, probably, for singing it than you did at first.

Darlene: People are making money today - I call it "stupid money." It's great money, but it's a saying that a lot of entertainers say: "Man, that's just stupid money!"

But I didn't get paid stupid money. When I was on the road with Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, we made $300 a piece. When we'd go to work they'd pay all our expenses, but then they would pay us $300 a piece or maybe $500 a piece. Compared to what they're making today, that's nothing. Even though the economy was not that high. But still, that's not even close.

Songfacts: The list of people The Blossoms sang backup for is so impressive, from Sam Cooke to Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra.

Darlene: Yeah, isn't it?

Songfacts: Did you learn a lot from each of the artists, or was it different with each one?

Darlene: With Tom Jones, we were on the road, we got to know him and got to see how he worked, but his business people took care of everything. We didn't really see the working of what was going on, but we knew what to do and what not to do.

Sam Cooke was earlier, so we weren't able to see how he handled whatever he did. We worked with Nancy Sinatra, Frank Sinatra. It was a little different working with each person we dealt with.

But the person I learned most from was Dionne Warwick, because we were not only business people who worked with her, we were actually family. So we got to know each other's mother and father, the children, a couple of generations. She had so much wisdom in how she handled her business. We were there sometimes when we weren't supposed to be. She was handling business in her home and maybe we were in the living room or whatever, but you could hear them talking, so we learned a lot. I learned a lot from working with her.

Songfacts: Elvis featured The Blossoms on his 1968 comeback TV special. Did you get to interact a lot with him, or did he keep to himself?

Darlene: It was not so much that he kept to himself but I think his people kept him away from everybody. In the studios, we were off in corners, singing and carrying on with him when we had a break, and it was great. But a majority of the time, if it was work related, we hung out with Elvis. If it wasn't work related, they just kind of kept him away from everybody, even us.

Songfacts: How do you maintain your voice after all these years?

Darlene: I have to remind myself not to talk so loud or to laugh so loud. And drinking cold things. My doctor told me, water is your friend. I drink anywhere from eight to ten glasses of water every day — even when I'm not working. And I don't drink ice water. I drink room-temperature water. And you have to get your rest. As a parent, I always tried to get at least six hours. If I don't sleep past six hours, if I wake up, I make myself lie down and go back to sleep for at least another two hours.So those are the things I've learned to take care of my voice. And my doctor falls out laughing. He says he tells his clients to do the same thing and they say, "I can't do that!"

I lost my voice when I did Hairspray because I hadn't done a Broadway show that took that much out of me. Doing eight shows a week, they kept telling me, "Stop singing so hard. You can't do that, you're going to ruin your throat." Because eight shows a week, you have to pick and choose which days you really want to let loose. I'm not saying I don't give it my all every time, but there are some days you just want to bite and get into it. I had to teach myself to do that too.

My throat doctor took me out of Hairspray for a whole week. He said it's either take you out, or you can go back and you maybe will never sing again. Those words "you'll never sing again" always sink into my head when I'm working, and I think, You need to go to your room, you need to go to bed, you need to get you some sleep.

Songfacts: And you've been following that regimen for a long time?

Darlene: A long time! I would say at least 25 years.

Songfacts: I see they are doing a "Hairspray Live" on TV.

Darlene: Yeah, and I'm going to watch it. It's funny, they were sending texts around the last week, wanting to do a party. I said, "Child, I got to go to work the next day. I can't do no party, because I know you're going to be laughing and talking!" So we're going to be doing it here at the house.

Songfacts: Is returning to Broadway something you'd like to do?

Darlene: Yeah, I'd love to do another Broadway show. I'd love to be the first to star in it. In Hairspray, I wasn't the first Motormouth. I was the second Motormouth. I want to be in a play that I start off in, and in something that really means something.

The story of Hairspray really got to me because I lived that. When I did a television show called Shindig, that actually happened. They did not want black people on a national television show. This was just in 1964. We had black-and-white TV at the time. So every time I sing that song, "I know where I'm going, because I know where I've been," that song means something to me every time I sing it.

I'd like to have another show where I could sing like that, now that I know how to take care of myself. And I'd like to do a situation comedy TV show. I've always wanted to do something like that. So those are the things that I still would like to do. And if I keep going to my 5 a.m. kickboxing class five days a week, I'll still be able to do this until I decide I don't want to do it anymore. That's not in the cards any time soon.

Songfacts: You played Danny Glover's wife in all those Lethal Weapon films. Do you think they'll call you up to do a part in the TV remake of Lethal Weapon?

Darlene: Who knows? I was telling everybody, give it time to get a few seasons under the belt and see where it goes from there, because I'm sure they're thinking about that but I think they want to get it going before they venture out and do something new with the show.

Songfacts: It must have been great to have so many people who wanted to be involved in your Introducing Darlene Love album that Little Steven produced.

Darlene: It was amazing because I met Steven Van Zandt over 30 years ago, and we talked about doing an album when I first met him. I told him I just didn't know it was going to take 30 years.

But we took our time. He took his time and one night at B.B. King's, at our Christmas show, I said, "What are you guys doing tomorrow? I have the day off." He said, "No, you're not having a day off. We're going into the studio. We're going to start this album, because if we don't start it, there's going to always be a reason why we can't do it."

So we went in, and it took a while to get the people that Steven wanted to write for me, because he wanted the writers to write something special for me, like Bruce and Elvis Costello, and Linda Perry and Joan Jett - just to write something special for Darlene Love. And plus Stevie wrote a couple of songs. So it was great, and to see Stevie work in another capacity of our business is amazing. I never worked with him in the studio before. He puts all he has into it. He's unbelievable.

Songfacts: It seems like your music originally inspired people like Little Steven and Bruce.

Darlene: They told me that, and I was really surprised. But they give me credit for that. There's a song called "A Fine Fine Boy" that Phil Spector wrote and I sang, and Bruce actually sang it as "A Fine Fine Girl." Years ago, he put that in the show.

So they look at me the same way like I look at them, and I didn't know that for years. That's a great, great thing because they're rock and roll people. To put me in the mix with them is fascinating.

Songfacts: You're playing with Bruce and Sting and others at the annual Rainforest Benefit in a couple of weeks.

Darlene: I was so happy to get that invitation. I'm very excited to do that with them.

Songfacts: Are you doing some songs with them?

Darlene: Well I have a rehearsal next week. I think they want me to do something with Bruce. And I know they're going to want me to do "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." I'll always be in somebody's Christmas show. I call it a Christmas show, but they just say "holiday" songs. But we all know what those holiday songs are.

I'm very excited about that. I think I'm going to do a Christmas song with Bruce. I can't wait to see what it's going to be. I'm sure it's going to be something I know.

Songfacts: Do you sing "Christmas (Baby Please come home)" all year?

Darlene: Oh, no! I just do it at Christmas. I make it very special for them. Believe me, they ask me to sing it, and I say, "No! What are we going to do at Christmas?" It won't be special. So no. Last year I did it a little longer because they kept screaming for it. I did it until the end of January last year. Then I said, OK, that's it. We got to go back to our regular show.

Songfacts: Was it disappointing that your name wasn't on some of those iconic records?

Darlene: No, because that was our job. It's like people that go to work every day. They don't get credit on anybody's paper that says they did this job or that job. It was going to work every day with us. It was just unbelievable people like Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke. We just went to do those jobs.

Phil Spector used three different lead singers on his hits with The Crystals. Group member Barbara Alston sang their early hits, including "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" and "Uptown." When the group was on the road, Spector had Love become the voice of the group for "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love." La La Brooks, a member of the group, sang on their subsequent hits, including "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me."
Songfacts: I'm talking more about being on the Crystals records singing lead and nobody knowing it was you.

Darlene: Well it was disappointing a couple of times. When we did "He's a Rebel," we knew we weren't to get credit for that. We knew it was going to be a Crystals song. He had already told us that, which was fine. It was after that when we didn't get the credit that it was a little upsetting.

But now I sing those songs in my show. I don't even have to explain why I'm doing them anymore, because I sing 'em. Every now and then I tell a little joke about Phil but it's nothing nasty or mean or anything like that. It's all in fun now, because I always tell my audience, if it wasn't for these songs, I would not have a career today. And that's very true.

Songfacts: So there's no bad feelings?

Darlene: Oh no, that's what I'm saying. I always tell my audience that. I don't hate him. I don't dislike him. I don't carry any bitterness in my heart for him because if it was not for these songs that I'm singing to you, I would not have a career today.

Songfacts: What is it like for you to sing these songs after so many years?

Darlene: Well, you know what, it's great to be able to sing them because for years, if you figured I did all those songs while I was a background singer, I never sang those songs in a show. So it's great to be doing those songs today, because I haven't been doing these songs since 1964. I didn't start singing these songs until the '80s. Some people have sang their songs since they recorded them in the '60s and '70s, but I didn't.

Songfacts: I was surprised to find that you're also the voice on one of another holiday's biggest songs, "Monster Mash."

Darlene: Ha ha, yeah. We did Bette Midler's Halloween show this year and she requested "Monster Mash." So that's actually the second time we sang that song since I recorded it.

Songfacts: I guess when you record these songs you don't know what kind of life they're going to have.

Darlene: No, and the other thing is we don't remember all the records we did that weren't hits, and we did plenty of those. You only remember the hits.

Songfacts: What's the percentage of songs you sing that became hits and those that did not?

Darlene: Oh wow, maybe 25 percent. Yeah, because we mainly recorded for the same people all the time. Once you're with a hit artist, if they're writing great songs for you, you can have hits. Like Dionne Warwick had hits right up to the late '80s to the beginning of the '90s.

Songfacts: Dionne Warwick's songs were so difficult to sing.

Darlene: That's why nobody sings them. She got her own little world. The only person who really sang her songs was Luther Vandross, and that's because he made it his song.

Songfacts: Were her songs difficult to sing the background parts of?

Darlene: No. You know, Dionne started out as a backup singer, too. So back in the early days, she did a lot of backup for the guys who made her so successful, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. No, she was easy to work for.

Songfacts: Is it a good way to break through now these days, to be a backup singer?

Darlene: If they can't make it any other way, that's the way to do it: get with somebody famous. There are still a lot of great jobs for somebody who wants to be a singer to work with entertainers, because entertainers who have been out there for a long time, they want to keep great background singers. A lot of background singers today have become stars.

January 26, 2017. Get more at darleneloveworld.com.
Here's our interview with La La Brooks of The Crystals.
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