Rolling Stone proclaimed Darlene Love “one of the greatest singers of all times, while the New York Times declared that her “thunderbolt voice is as embedded in the history of rock and roll as Eric Clapton's guitar or Bob Dylan's lyrics.”
However, Love’s name doesn’t quite have the familiar ring of Clapton’s and Dylan’s. That is because for much of her life she worked in relative anonymity in studios and on stages, backing up others.
For her behind-the-scenes roles as popular music’s greatest session vocalist and backup singer, Love has been called “the most successful unknown singer in rock and roll history.” Virtually everyone knows her voice, but only a relative few know to whom that magical voice belongs. With her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that will no longer be the case
Love sang lead on a string of Phil Spector-produced hits from the early Sixties, including “He’s a Rebel,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” “Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home,” “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?” and the seasonal classic “(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home.” In addition, she sang background vocals on numerous other hits that Spector produced for his Philles label, including the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Love wanted to be the lead vocalist on “River Deep – Mountain High,” and although that assignment went to Tina Turner, she sang backup on the session and has subsequently made the song a highlight of her live performances.
Among rock cognoscenti, Love is best known for “He’s a Rebel,” a song credited to the Crystals that was in actuality sung by Love and her vocal group, the Blossoms. The reason for this odd situation has to do with the record’s producer, Phil Spector. He instinctively 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 (“Uptown” and “There’s No Other [Like My Baby]”).
As unconventional as it might sound, Spector’s strategy worked and “He’s a Rebel” topped the charts in 1962. However, it didn’t make a star of Darlene Love. Yet by providing her with anonymity and insisting she work within a system in which his auteur-like vision was paramount, Spector might have done her a favor. As Love reflected in 1988, “He was a great teacher for me. You see, he loved his melodies to be sung. He didn’t want you deviating and carrying on over his melodies; just sing the melodies. And what he taught me made it much easier later on to work with other producers and writers.”
Indeed, Love and the Blossoms became first-call A-list session singers, boasting a sessionography that almost defies belief. With the Blossoms, Love has sung with the likes of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Mamas and the Papas, Duane Eddy, Sonny and Cher, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Luther Vandross and Dionne Warwick. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
“One time I had to make a list of all the people I’ve worked for,” Love recalled in a 1985 Goldmine interview. “The list was unreal, with over 200 famous people we had actually backed up over fifteen years.”
Darlene Love, whose birth name is Darlene Wright, was born in 1941. Her father was a minister, and she grew up listening to gospel music and singing in the church choir. While in high school, she was asked to join the Blossoms – an established vocal group, originally known as the Dreamers – in 1957. Their first session as background vocalists was for actor James Darren. They sang on such hits as Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World,” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin,” Shelly Fabares’ “Johnny Angel” and Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Halloween novelty “Monster Mash.”
The group came to Phil Spector’s attention via his partner, Lester Sill. It was Spector who suggested that she rename herself Darlene Love. She wound up being a fruitful discovery for Spector. As Spector biographer Richard Williams noted, “She had a peculiarly young voice, which made it suitable for the songs Spector liked best – the ones dealing with adolescent emotional experiences. However, unlike most of the kids around, she was also a solidly professional singer with exemplary technique, control and flexibility. She had real power and genuine dynamic range....In a word, Darlene was a godsend.”
In addition to using Love and the Blossoms as surrogates on two Crystals classics (“He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”), Spector made her a member – along with co-lead vocalist Bobby Sheen - of Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Their sultry rendition of a Disney movie song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” made the Top Ten. In 1963 Love released a brace of Spector-produced Top Forty hits under her own name: “(Today I Met ) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry,” “Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home,” and “A Fine, Fine Boy.” While “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” - the only original number on Spector’s classic A Christmas Gift for You - missed the singles charts, the Love-sung number became a much-played seasonal standard.
However, Darlene Love’s solo career didn’t go very far beyond those early singles. She was simply too busy. For one thing, the Blossoms became regulars on TV’s Shindig, a popular weekly music show with a two-year run in the mid-Sixties. On Shindig, the Blossoms sang behind the most popular acts of the day. Moreover, they were now getting steady, lucrative session work as popular music’s most in-demand background singers. What attracted them to producers was their ability to blend in and enhance the work of whatever artist they were backing.
“We didn’t try to change the artists’ sounds,” Love explained. “We tried to sound exactly like they did. Background singers who are any good have to be great imitators.”
The best-known and most enduring Blossoms lineup comprised Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King. But there were also early members (Gloria Jones and sisters Annette and Nanette Williams). Grazia Nitzsche - wife of Spector’s close associate, arranger Jack Nitzsche – was even involved for a while. The Blossoms recorded prolifically on other artists’ sessions, but they also cut a large number of records under their own name. From 1957 to 1972, approximately twenty Blossoms singles were released on such labels as Capitol and Reprise. However, only one of them (“Son-in-Law,” an answer song to Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law”) cracked the Hot 100. In 1972, the Blossoms released their only album, Shockwave.
Love’s primary musical association during the Seventies was with Dionne Warwick, whom she backed on record and on tour. She also sang on the Warwick-hosted TV showSolid Gold, which debuted in 1980. Love briefly reunited with Phil Spector in 1975, cutting “Lord, If You’re a Woman,” a non-charting single written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
A roots-rock revival brought Love into the limelight during the Eighties. First she resumed her solo career in 1981 with club shows in and around Los Angeles. In 1984 she starred in one of the first successful “jukebox musicals,” Leader of the Pack (based on the Ellie Greenwich songbook), which had extended runs at New York’s Bottom Line and on Broadway. She also did dramatic work, appearing in all three Lethal Weapon movies and a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie.
In addition, the veteran singer began recording under her own name again. Her debut album as a solo artist, Paint Another Picture, appeared in 1988. A decade later, a gospel record - Unconditional Love, produced by Edwin Hawkins – brought Love back to her roots in church music. In 2007 she revisited the seasonal theme with It’s Christmas Of Course. In 2010 she released a live retrospective, The Concert of Love.
Darlene Love has professed no regrets about having spent much of her life working behind the scenes, despite having one of rock’s greatest voices. “I never pushed to be a star,” she told writer David Hinckley in 1992. “I didn’t want to. I had my home, my family. Session work let you do the music and leave.”
Darlene Love (vocals; born July 26, 1941)