On a punishingly hot day in August of 1963, Darlene Love walked into L.A.’s Gold Star Studios with producer Phil Spector to lay down the vocals for a new song he’d just written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich called “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It had the ill-fortune of arriving in record stores on the exact day that President Kennedy was assassinated and didn’t fare well on the charts since America wasn’t exactly in a celebratory mood at the time. But over the years the song became a holiday classic, helped in no small part by David Letterman bringing Love onto his show to sing it every Christmas for three decades.
The song has been a centerpiece of Darlene Love’s annual Christmas show for years, though this year she took on a bit of a lighter schedule since she’s recovering from hip-replacement surgery. But all throughout this month she’ll be on the road singing her favorite Christmas songs along with her classic hits like “He’s a Rebel,” “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “Wait ‘til My Bobby Gets Home.” As she geared up to hit the road, Love called up Rolling Stone to talk about her five favorite Christmas songs.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
This is a big choir song we used to do in my father’s church. It’s all about spreading the news about Christ being born. There were about 20 members of the choir and everyone sang the song at the same time, but then there were step-out parts and maybe you’d have a solo line in the song. It was my father’s church and I had three brothers and a sister, so we more or less took all the solos unless there was somebody else in the choir with a truly great voice. I was never afraid to take a solo even though I was no older than 12 and hadn’t really sang professionally yet.
“Joy to the World”
“Joy to the World” is one of those kind of songs you can really make it gospel rather than a standard sing-along song. In the choir, we started off really powerful with the solo voice and then everybody came in on the chorus, which made it almost like a jubilee. We always knew we were going to have fun singing “Joy to the World.” It’s Christmas time when you’re singing it and you’re telling people really happy about what’s going on right now. And this is our joy — we’re getting joy out of singing that song.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”
This is one of my favorite songs, since it’s all about our Christian beliefs and where Christ was born. I would say it was probably a cold winter night, although they say in the song it’s bright and it’s clear and the stars are shining bright. And then there is one particular star in the sky that’s shining brighter than any other light and it’s over where Jesus Christ was being born in Bethlehem. When I was getting ready to put my Christmas show back together I’d take out certain songs and put certain songs back in and this year I’m going to put “Little Town of Bethlehem” back in the show because it really does mean a lot to me.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
I will always have to include this song in my show. It’s one of my favorite songs and it really has become a traditional Christmas song now. It has my name on it and it really is Darlene Love’s Christmas song to the world. For 29 years I sang it on the David Letterman show, which made it even more special. I can be walking down the street and people will come up to me and say, “Christmas doesn’t start until you come out and sing that song.” It’s David Letterman’s favorite Christmas song.
I remember recording it. We recorded it in August [of 1963] and it was probably the hottest August we had in years. It was something like 100 degrees outside. The studio was always kept freezing, but as soon as you went outside the 100-degree weather hit you in the face.
I’ve been singing this my whole life, but many years ago, I saw Barbra Streisand sing it in Central Park in the summer. I went “Wow, I’ve never thought about this song like this. You can sing the song any time of the year ’cause you’re just talking about a silent, white, holy night and that can be any night.” And the melody of that song is so beautiful. We used to have early morning services at church — around five a.m. we would always go sing that song. It always brings back such wonderful memories when I hear it.