Through the mid-'60s, Phil Spector was focused on singles, with his definition of an album being "two hits and ten pieces of junk." He took a different approach, however, when he recorded a Christmas album in 1963, putting a great deal of effort into every track. The only original song on the album was Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which he wrote with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Spector issued the song as a single when the album came out, but unfortunately this was the same day US President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. This seriously dampened the holiday mood; the single, as well as the album, were withdrawn.
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" lay dormant throughout the '60s and '70s, but in the '80s, covers and media uses helped introduce the song to a new audience, and radio stations started adding it to their holiday playlists. It eventually became a Christmas classic, but it took decades.
Being an astute businessman, Phil Spector had Darlene Love re-record this song as "Johnny Please Come Home," and released it shortly after Christmas in 1963. The song had the same music and theme, but the lyrics were changed to remove the Christmas references.
Despite the rousing production, the lyric of this song is rather doleful, as the singer can't get into the Christmas spirit without her loved one. Darlene Love, however, calls it "a joyful song." She said in The New York Times: "When I'm singing it, I'm telling everybody to come home to their loved ones. I'm inviting families to get back together again. This is the time to do it."
Spector had previously used Darlene Love as the voice of The Crystals on the songs "He's A Rebel
" and "He's Sure The Boy I Love." In a 2008 interview with Record Collector
, Love talked about working with Spector on "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)": "Phil worked everybody so hard on the album and the days kind of blurred into each other, thinking about it now. But there was a real Christmas party atmosphere in the studio, even though it was the height of summer, and a lot of great musicians were involved. They weren't that well-known at the time but so many of them went on to become famous in their own right, like Leon Russell. Sonny Bono and Cher were involved in a lot of the stuff too, so was Glen Campbell. We worked hard, though, some days we'd be in the studio for eight or nine hours just doing one verse of one song."
This was used in the movies Gremlins (1984), Goodfellas (1990), Bad Santa (2003),Christmas with the Kranks (2004), and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).
Darlene Love came to the attention of talk show host David Letterman when he saw her in the Broadway musical Leader of the Pack. In 1986, he had her perform "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on his show, and every year would invite her back to sing it on his Christmas show. Letterman was never a fan of Christmas songs - especially the novelty tunes - but he loved soul music and was happy to have Love bring the holiday cheer.
Love was backed by Letterman's house band (led by Paul Shaffer) when she sang on the show. At first, it was just a basic performance with the four-piece band, but over the years the productions got more elaborate, with string sections and set decorations.
These Letterman appearances gave the song a big boost and kept Love in the public eye. When she was featured in the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, she got to sit on the couch for an interview with Letterman for the first time. The next year, Letterman announced his retirement and Love sang it on his show for the 28th and final time, climbing onto Shaffer's piano at the end of the song in an effort to avoid breaking down in tears - she knew she would cry if Letterman hugged her, so she took to the piano because she knew he wouldn't follow her up there.
In 2015, the TV show The View took up the tradition, having Love perform the song every year near Christmas.
Some of the artists to cover this song include Jon Bon Jovi, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, KT Tunstall and Smash Mouth. Cher, who sang backup on the original (she was one of Phil Spector's favorite backup vocalists), also did her own version.
The most popular cover, however, was recorded by U2 for the 1987 Special Olympics benefit album A Very Special Christmas. Organized by Jimmy Iovine, he had Darlene Love do backup vocals on the track. Love was the only backup vocalist - she recorded several tracks which were combined to make her sound like a full section.
Phil Spector is Jewish, but his wife at the time, Ronnie Spector, celebrated Christmas in a big way. Ronnie claims that Phil would come to her house to learn about the holiday and get ideas for his Christmas songs.
Love only sings this around Christmas, since she wants to keep it special. Since the song didn't catch on until decades after it was recorded, she never got sick of singing it. "I did all those songs while I was a background singer - I never sang those songs in a show," she said in a Songfacts interview
. "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."