About 35 years ago, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt were in Los Angeles when they heard Darlene Love was playing at the Roxy. Love had been one of Phil Spector's go-to singers in the 1960s, powering "He's a Rebel," "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry" and other Wall of Sound classics. But by the early 1980s, she had been working as a maid and was attempting a comeback. Van Zandt showed up at the Roxy that night and promised to turn Love's career around. "Steve told me that if I moved to New York, he could get me work," Love says. "Then he said, 'I need to record you.' "
Van Zandt did get her regular work at the Bottom Line and the Peppermint Lounge, but his life got so hectic in the ensuing years with the E Street Band, his solo career and unlikely emergence as an actor that he kept delaying his promise to cut an album with her. "I finally realized last year there's never going to be a right time," he says. "I couldn't have been busier than I was at the time, but I finally said, 'Fuck it, I'm pushing this into my schedule.'"
For Introducing Darlene Love (due September 18th), Van Zandt reached out to many of the best songwriters in the world, including Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jimmy Webb, and Linda Perry. "I said to them, 'I want big,'" Van Zandt says. "I want horns and strings. Her voice wants that. And I told them we weren't waiting, so I gave them a month or two."
Songs poured in. "Elvis Costello jumped in like a motherfucker," says Van Zandt. "He sent me four songs within a day." Springsteen sent complete demos for "Night Closing In" and "Just Another Lonely Mile," two anthemic tunes that would have sounded right in place on The River. "When I first heard he was writing for me, I was like, 'Oh, my God! We'll have a song from Bruce! I can't wait! I can't wait!'" Love says. "When they came in, I just loved them. I listened to them, put them into my mind and made them Darlene Love songs."
The album title reflects the fact that Introducing is Love's first album of secular songs in three decades, and it's part of a resurgence of interest in Love that began with 2013's 20 Feet From Stardom, an Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers in which she was prominently featured.
"[Before the film], some people didn't even realize there was a Darlene Love," she says. "They thought I was a figment of Phil Spector's imagination. Before the movie, we were doing 1,200 seaters, and now we're doing 3,000 seaters. But I want young people to know who Darlene Love is. I have a story to tell them."
The album includes one cover song: a new arrangement of Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep — Mountain High." "That was supposed to be Phil Spector's masterpiece," says Love. "But he buried everything, and you can't really hear Tina. Steve wanted to make a new version of it." Van Zandt is a huge fan of Spector, though Love says the two producers couldn't be more different. "When you went into the studio with Phil, he was like, 'This is what you're gonna do, and I don't want to hear nothing else about it,'" Love says. "Steve wants me to be part of the process. Also, he ain't crazy."
"Steve Van Zandt wants me to be part of the process. Also, he ain't crazy." —Darlene Love
Introducing Darlene Love is part of Van Zandt's long-standing mission to honor the performers that came before him, and often didn't get their due. "The legendary artists of the 1950s and especially the early 1960s really got shafted by the British Invasion," he says. "The Beatles and Stones put all their heroes out of work. Unintentional consequence. I played on the oldies circuit in 1973 where I backed the Dovells. I met my heroes, and they were pissed off, all of them. When I produced Southside Johnny's first album, I got Lee Dorsey to play on it, literally pulling him from under a car where he was working as a mechanic in New Orleans. On the record, I reunited the Drifters, the Coasters and the Five Satins just to remind people how still great they were. Later, Bruce and I got into the studio with Gary U.S. Bonds and actually had a hit, which was a miracle."
He's hoping the same thing happens for Darlene Love, and on September 12th, he's going to join her when she plays the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park to celebrate the release of the album. Might a certain songwriter from the record that lives nearby make a guest appearance? "We'd never announce anything like that because that means I still need help to sell tickets," she says. "This is my show. If anyone shows up, it'll be a surprise."