Darlene Love: Let Love Rule

Forever the backup, never the lead – the lost years and sweet redemption of Darlene Love

June 20, 2013
Darlene Love
Darlene Love
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

That was way over the top!" howls Darlene Love. The topic is Al Pacino's portrayal of her old boss Phil Spector, in the recent HBO biopic. "Phil would never shoot off a gun in the studio – not with musicians around!" We're in a drab ad hoc backstage area in a Manhattan office building, but Love's indestructible smile and ebullient manner are lighting up the room. Without even hearing her sing, you can understand why everyone from Marvin Gaye to Cher wanted her backing them up. The mood is light, until Love hears about some young pop star talking about how much they've suffered for their art. "These young performers, saying they paid their dues!" she exclaims. "Justin Bieber – that's the one that got me!" Her production manager says that he recently saw Nicki Minaj lecturing someone on American Idol on just that topic. With that, Love, full-bodied and robust at 71, bolts upright, her wig of blond curls starts shaking, the water bottle in her hand almost spilling. "Do they even know how to spell 'dues'!? Please!" About 15 minutes earlier, at one of maybe a half-dozen private shows she does a year, Love had knocked out a short set at a cancer benefit, unleashing her earthy pipes on "He's a Rebel," "Da Doo Ron Ron" and the Bill Withers classic "Lean on Me." Up until then, the black-tie crowd had been somber, thanks to testimonials from cancer survivors, but as soon as Love opened her mouth, guests at the vase-adorned white tables begin shimmying. "I see you guys know these songs!" Love says, beaming down at them from a small elevated stage.

They know the songs – but Love's old curse is they may not realize her connection to them. Her roof-raising voice was the lead instrument on some of Phil Spector's most glorious Wall of Sound creations ("He's a Rebel," "He's Sure the Boy I Love"). She's also heard wailing in the background on timeless hits like the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." But the name Darlene Love is rarely on the liner notes of those records. "Her name sounds familiar, but can you identify the songs?" says longtime supporter Steven Van Zandt. "It's one of those strange things."

Bruce Springsteen is a huge fan, and sometimes welcomes Love onstage during shows. But not all his fans are as hip. "People were saying, 'Why is she onstage?'" says Love, remembering one Madison Square Garden appearance. "Then, after Bruce introduces me and I start singing those songs, they go, 'Oh, wow – that's her?'"

This month, the rest of the world may finally wake up. Her story is at the center of Twenty Feet From Stardom, the late record producer Gil Friesen's documentary about backup singers. "Nobody's story encapsulates the history and the heartbreak of the backup world like Darlene's," says director Morgan Neville. "Her ups and downs were so extreme."

Love is counting on Twenty Feet From Stardom to put her over the top, once and for all. "The ducks are all lined up," she says. "This is the first time in years that I really think this is gonna be it."

At her favorite restaurant – a cozy Italian joint in a strip mall in northern New Jersey, not far from her home in nearby Rockland County, New York – Love is working her way through a list of all the bold-face names who count as her past employers or fans. Springsteen; Bette Midler (who advised her on when and when not to work for free); Luther Vandross (who gave Love her last gig as a backup singer); Tom Hanks (who once called her "the greatest singer in the world!"). The two women at the next table shoot curious glances at Love – they have no idea who she is but are dying to know.

Even when sitting for a meal, Love is a formidable presence. She rocks back and forth and unleashes oversize, joyful laughs. Other times she'll end a sentence with "Oh, Lord!" or "Thank you, Lord!" "Her energy never runs out," says her husband, Alton Allison, an affable Jamaica-born former construction worker who also serves as her devoted, doting personal assistant.

Born Darlene Wright, Love began singing in her father's South Central L.A. church in the Fifties. After joining an already established vocal group called the Blossoms, Love spent the early years of her career as a studio singer for Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin and others. She was already in demand when, one day in 1962, she and the Blossoms were hired to sing on a session by Spector, whom she'd never met (she kept staring at his hair, trying to figure out if it was a wig). Since one of his girl groups, the Crystals, couldn't make it to L.A. in time, he asked the Blossoms to sing their parts – with the agreement that the record would still be credited to the Crystals. Not thinking much of the song, Love agreed – the $5,000 she was paid didn't hurt – and then watched as "He's a Rebel" hit Number One in 1962.

Figuring her own records would follow, Wright signed a deal with Spector, who eventually renamed her Darlene Love. But working with the driven, egomaniacal producer was never easy. "He would do things like, 'Sing that line again,' and keep pushing her buttons," recalls Love's younger sister, Edna Wright, who joined Love on some sessions. "It pissed her off so bad she took the earphones off and walked out." Spector infamously loved guns – he may not have fired them off in the studio, but Love sometimes refused to show up for work if she heard he was packing.

After cutting "He's Sure the Boy I Love," Love assumed it would be released under her own name, but again the credit on the 45 went to the Crystals. Cynthia Weil, who co-wrote that song with her husband, Barry Mann, didn't even know Love had sung on the track: "It all came out later. I think it was a terrible thing to do to her." Love sang "Da Doo Ron Ron" in the studio, but Spector opted for another lead singer at the last minute. "When that came out and her name wasn't on it," recalls Wright, "she was screaming, 'That's that record!' That was really upsetting." (Spector, who is serving a 19-year prison sentence for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, was unavailable for comment.)

Today, Love keeps her anger toward Spector in check. "Listen, I can't be mad at nobody," she says. "I have a career today because of those records. Had I never met Phil and did those records, what would I have done? It worked out."

When Spector finally released singles by Love, they didn't even hit the Top 20; nor did any Blossoms singles after she left Spector. Their lack of impact still mystifies Love's former colleagues. "Darlene was a pop artist with a gospel background," says Ode Records founder Lou Adler, who released several Blossoms singles. "Did Aretha fill that slot so completely?"

By the Seventies, the girl-group sound had burnt out, and Love spent years on the road and in the studio, toiling away behind singers who were her equal (Elvis, Tom Jones, the Righteous Brothers) and some who weren't (Nancy Sinatra, Sonny Bono). "A lot of those singers, we were much better than they were," she says. "But a lot of them had what I didn't have – that gut thing, to go out and sell yourself: 'I'm great, I know I'm great, and you need to hear me sing.'"

Unable to secure gigs of her own, since promoters wouldn't often believe her ("They said, 'Well, you're not a Crystal, you're not a Ronette and nobody knows you did these songs'"), Love crashed. She stored her belongings in her Mercedes, moved from one relative's home to another and took a job cleaning houses for $100 a day in ritzy L.A. neighborhoods. She was also raising three sons from her two marriages, both of which ended in divorce thanks to the time Love spent on the road.

As the story goes, Love was cleaning a house one day and listening to the radio when she heard "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" – her Spector-produced holiday classic – and realized she was born to entertain. Borrowing money from friends like Dionne Warwick, she found her own apartment and played L.A.'s Roxy to a crowd that included Springsteen and Van Zandt. "Cleaning houses – holy shit!" says Van Zandt, recalling his reaction. He encouraged her to leave L.A. for New York, which Love did – but not before spending nearly two years singing on a cruise ship, where she met Allison, who was the ship's chief steward. Her first night at work, he recalls, Love sang so powerfully that she wrecked her microphone: "Blew it. Dead."

After she relocated to Manhattan in the Eighties, Love did see her work pick up, but disappointments dogged her. She starred in Leader of the Pack, a girl-group revue, but it flopped when it moved to Broadway. She finally was able to make an album of her own, 1988's Paint Another Picture, but it didn't make the charts. To pay the bills, she went back to her old job, singing backup on the road for Cher. "Another job to keep me alive," she says. "That's how I started looking at everything."

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