Wouldn’t life be so much easier if the things we wanted came easily? Of course, but we wouldn’t have good stories to tell, would we? This month, we bring you one such story. A woman with more perseverance and determination than most people half her age. A woman who has endured more than 50 years in the music industry and has overcome disappointments that assuredly would have dissuaded even those with the strongest of constitutions from continuing. But Darlene Love is anything but ordinary. Coming up on her 70th birthday, she is an example that endurance pays off, cream does rise to the top and what goes around, comes around—finally.
FAST TRACK TO THE UNKNOWN
In spite of the fact that Rolling Stone called her “one of the greatest singers of all time,” and the New York Times compared her voice’s impact on rock ‘n’ roll to Eric Clapton’s guitar playing, Love is not a household name, though her voice has certainly been gracing homes across America since the 1960s. Given the way Love’s career started, one would have bet that she was destined for widespread acclaim, and fast, but you could liken her journey to that of a fine wine.
Love was discovered as a teenager while singing in the church choir and was asked to join a newly forming all-girl singing group, The Blossoms. Soon after, producer Phil Spector, who was making quite a name for himself in the industry at that time, began producing the group. Spector was enamored with Love’s voice, not only because of its amazing flexibility, range and power, but also because it held qualities that were perfect for the types of songs that were popular at the time: songs about emotional experiences. He has even been quoted as calling Love a “godsend.”
It’s no surprise that the plan was for Love and The Blossoms to sing background vocals for other groups produced under the Phil Spectrum umbrella but eventually become a featured act. It seemed like a sure bet, but the music industry is a fickle creature and only part of that promise was fulfilled. Love certainly sang her share of backup—on countless songs such as “Johnny Angel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Be My Baby,” to name just a few. She even sang lead on the hit son “He’s a Rebel.” The problem was, she wasn’t getting credit. On “He’s a Rebel,” for instance, the label credited The Crystals, an existing group that was located in New York. The L.A.-based Spector was anxious to get the song cut because he believed it would be a hit, so he had Love and The Blossoms—who were in California—record the song. In the end, though, he gave The Crystals the credit because he thought the song would only become a hit if it had been linked to that group. The song did become a hit, but no one outside of the recording studio knew it was Love’s vocals that were, in part, responsible. Needless to say, the situation left her frustrated, angry and disappointed. At the same time, she still believed she would just pay her dues and everything would work out.
For a time, it did. During the course of 10 years, Love would not only have the opportunity to travel the world, but she would work with an unbelievable list of music greats, including Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and Sonny & Cher, to name just a few. But the music industry was in for a dramatic change, as the British Invasion was about to take America by storm. On top of that, Spector was dragging Love along a windy road that seemed to lead to nowhere. And he wasn’t about to let go. When outside writers like Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson approached Spector to ask if they could work with Love or encourage him to record her, the answer was always the same: “No.” Not surprisingly, Love felt trapped. She knew she had the talent, but she wasn’t getting the opportunities from within her record company, and the company refused to release her to allow her to work with others.
“It was an extremely difficult time that really wore on me,” recalls Love. “I remember once when I was in Holland with Dionne Warwick, and I had been working on a recording project, but my lawyer was still negotiating details. He called to tell me that the negotiations weren’t going well and that I had to pack my bags and come home. Naturally, I was devastated, but I will never forget what Dionne said to me: ‘Don’t let the hate against them take you where they are and do what they do. Don’t let them push your buttons.’ That meant so much. Once I realized that I had the choice about whether to give them power over me or not, my perspective totally changed. I often reflect on this advice when I’m faced with difficult situations.” And difficult situations were, indeed, up ahead.
STRENGTH IN HARD TIMES
Pop music in the United States was officially controlled by the boys from across the pond, and Spector’s dominance over the industry abruptly came to an end. Love’s music career had also stalled. Soon, she would find herself on the outside of an industry that she helped to shape for over a decade. And, on top of that, she now found herself alone, with two young children to raise, as her first marriage had crumbled.
“I remember going from traveling the world to having to clean houses to make ends meet,” recalls Love. “It was a low point in my life, but somehow, some part of me knew I would get past it because I always truly believed I had a gift and I would have the opportunity to use it one day.”
That one day wasn’t coming anytime soon, and she would spend the 1970s in obscurity. “I sang on a few projects, but I was mainly with my family and wasn’t doing anything major at the time.” It looked like her ride had come to an end, but she still believed. Love says there was really one thing that allowed her to get through the disappointments of a seemingly failed music career. “It’s really an easy answer. My father was a minister, all my family was Christian, so I was in church every week, and I know my spiritual upbringing has a lot to do with my staying power,” she says. “Even when I was at the bottom and didn’t know what was going to happen, I had people around me telling me, ‘Your gift will make room for you. No one can take it away.’ I believed it, and that’s the way I decided to look at my life, even though nothing was changing.”
That would be a motto she’d have a lot of time to put into practice. During the next two decades, Love’s career would enjoy a few highlights. She would be featured in the musical Leader of the Pack and sing on the soundtrack of the film Bachelor Party; later, Love was cast as Danny Glover’s wife in the blockbuster Lethal Weapon series. Still, she felt she had so much more to do, and now she was immersed in a nasty and seemingly endless battle with Spector.
“One positive thing that was happening was that every year, I would appear on David Letterman’s show and perform, ‘Christmas, Baby Please Come Home,’ a song I had recorded in 1963 with Phil,” says Love. “One year, though, he contacted David and revoked permission for me to perform it and he just kept on going.” Spector, in fact, prevented Love from using any of the songs that she had helped to make famous. A filmmaker had expressed interest in working on a film that would feature several of her songs, but Spector refused to release them and the film couldn’t be made. “It seemed like every step I took, he was right there trying to mess up my plans.”
Then all of that changed. Spector was sent to prison for a murder conviction, and soon after the music was cleared for Love’s use. Finally, at nearly 70 years old (her birthday is in July), one of Love’s dreams began to come true. People would finally know who she was.
“I’ve never wanted the press hounding me or to be some mega-superstar,” says Love. “All I’ve really wanted all along is for people to know what I’ve done and what I’m doing.” With a recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past March (after several nominations and disappointing outcomes), a new DVD called The Concert of Love (which began broadcasting on PBS stations in March) and a movie based on her life story being made, the name “Darlene Love” may just become a household one after all.
But if you think Love has peaked, think again. She is one “almost-70-year-old” who isn’t even entertaining the idea of slowing down anytime soon. She just wrapped up a rigorous touring production of Fame in Australia, and, she says with all seriousness, “I go to the gym five days a week so I can stay in shape, and one day, I’d like to do another Broadway show!” If Love isn’t a testament that you can do whatever you want to do in life, no one is. To make that a reality, “You’ve got to be ready and you’ve got to be prepared—always!” She should know.