Darlene Love: "Maybe I can build a good well for somebody that needs water"
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By Lee Zimmerman
There are legends and. There are legends. Darlene Love clearly qualifies as among the latter. Born Darlene Wright on July 26, 1941, the singer, known professionally as Darlene Love, played an integral role in the trajectory of rock and roll from the early ‘60s onward. Her association with producer Phil Spector, under whose tutelage she recorded such hits as “He’s a Rebel,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” as well as supplying scores of backing vocals for other shared standards, including records by Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Tom Jones, and Sonny and Cher.
Her own efforts took shape in the form of the girl groups the Blossoms and later the Crystals, but it was her distinctive vocals and commanding presence that earned her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and immortalized on celluloid courtesy of the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Her shared singing on such hits as “Monster Mash,” “Be My Baby,” “Johnny Angel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Basketball Jones” by Cheech and Chong, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra, further sustained her success.
Love’s presence has never diminished, having been cited by Bruce Springsteen, Joan Jett, Elvis Costello, Bette Midler and Steven Van Zandt as a seminal influence. Now, more than 40 years after it was originally recorded, a new album, Live 1982, is likely to rekindle her career, courtesy of reworking of many of her seminal songs and a selection of classic covers (hear her version of "Hungry Heart" below). Both a DVD and CD of Live 1982 are available on April 7, 2023.
GOLDMINE recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Love for an exclusive interview.
GOLDMINE: Honestly, Ms. Love, it’s hard to know where to begin. You have such a storied career. Are you a nostalgic individual? Do you look back on all that you've done with any kind of awe?
DARLENE LOVE: Honestly, I've never been asked that question before. I don't do it often, but I think I do it more when I'm very calm, and have nothing else to do, or I'm not thinking about anything in particular. Then it will come to me… all the things that I've done since I was 16. Right. In this business, you become a professional when you start getting paid for it. I do think that we all do things that we don't get paid for when we’re coming up. The minute I started getting paid to sing, even if it was $25, I became a professional. I was talking to a friend the other day about God and how He does things. He'll give you the beginning and he'll give you the end, but he never gives you all that happens to you on the way to where you go into the end.
GM: That’s so well said.
DL: You may say to yourself, no, no, I don't want this if I have to do all this to get to here. So when I think about it, I think about it on those terms. Because you don't know where you're trying to go. You know who you're trying to work with, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there. And if I don't know anybody, well, I'm not gonna get there. And then I think about the things that have happened to me, and I think, wow, that actually happened. And I do say, how in the world did I get there? I didn't have a whole lot of help. I think about maybe the 10 or 20 people who helped me. But there was really like only two or three people who helped me to get to that step. And then maybe another two or three that had to help get to the next step. Nobody does it on their own, unless they're born like the Rockefellers with their rich great grandfather.
GM: That’s so true, but in your case, you clearly made it on your own through your talent and tenacity. What's amazing is that you were successful so early on. It seems like the minute you first started working with Phil Spector, you just took off from there with those hit songs. It really didn't take long for you to make your mark. You were part of these great singing groups at such a young age, and you really nailed it so early on. That rarely happens. So the talent that you displayed was evident, and naturally, you can take credit for it. So it must have been pretty amazing to you as a teenager to all of a sudden be in the company of these amazing people. What was that like?
DL: We were so humbled by the people that we were able to work with that it didn't affect us mentally. The ego was taken out of the equation. It was later on in life that we realized that we were in the presence of these great people, but they were regular people also. They were on our level with us because they were just as happy about me singing on the record as a background singer as I was to be working with them. We never got into that tug of war, where I'm the star, you're the background singer, because we were all there together creating. And that's really what it was, we were creating background sounds for them. A lot of times, when we got with a record producer, he did not know what he wanted in the background behind the singer. So we created it for him. We would sit there, and listen to the record, and we put our little points in here and said, “Oh, let’s do this here.” But I'm also telling you that at the time, we didn't know what we would be creating. I think that's the reason why I am where I am today. It's been a wonderful life, but it hasn't touched me mentally. I never think, um, you know, honey, I'm the greatest, the best. I got all the money in the world. I got everything. No, never.
GM: Well, you have the right to think that way. You’ve certainly had the the accolades and the kudos, whether it was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or that Oscar-winning documentary or the Grammy you got for that. People have obviously, affirmed the fact that you are one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll and popular music. That’s a done deal.
DL: It amazes me still today, when I when I look back, and that's what I see. I think, wow, that was amazing. Then I say to myself, OK, what is going to be the next step. What is it that I've never gotten? What is the place I've never gotten to where I can say to myself that I feel within my soul that I have arrived yet. I still have things I want to do, things I want to accomplish. But they haven't been unfolded to me yet. It might end tomorrow, but my life is still going on while I'm still alive.
GM: So what are those things you want to do? I mean, what more could there be?
DL: That’s what I'm saying. That hasn't been unfolded. Maybe I'm going to be helping people, or feeding the poor. I don't know. It’s been a marvelous life. It's been wonderful. But there are still things you can do. I'm not to build monuments to my life, but maybe I can build a good well for somebody that needs water. It’s those kinds of things now that I want to do, but you need help to do those things. You understand what I'm saying? One of the greatest awards to win for singer right now is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So I'm there, I’ve done that. But I think God has something more for me to do. I can't find that myself. I need help to do it. I haven't figured it out on my own. But just like you asked me that question that nobody has ever asked me. I do sit back and go wow, look at what I've done.
GM: Just look at the people that you've performed with — Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Sam Cooke… just being in the presence of that greatness must have been an amazing experience, to be rubbing shoulders and sharing the microphone with some of the greatest singers in the world. That puts you on the highest plateau imaginable.
DL: The way that you're saying it does. We met Frank Sinatra because of Nancy Sinatra. We did all her background vocals, but not one minute did we ever think we would meet Frank Sinatra just because we were working with Nancy. Once we met Frank and became friends with him, he actually said to me, “Thank you for helping my daughter." I'm telling you, it all ended up that we were all on the same playing field. That made the difference. Nowadays, these people today have millions of fans on Instagram and all that. The reason why they are so popular and so famous is because of the media. Nowadays, everybody can know you from one end of the world to the other. Frank Sinatra didn't have that. He had it, but not in the way certain people have it today.
GM: Yes, social media has certainly changed everything.
DL: I don't think Elvis or Tom Jones, or Sam Cooke were actually looking for that because we didn't have it. But people are still going to remember them forever. They are part of their lives, and will continue to be more than the people who are working today.
GM: Agreed! And let's face it, the legacy that you established is more meaningful and more enduring than how many hits you might get on Instagram.
DL: There's the answer. That's exactly what it is. Will your body of work and what you did survive you? Will it speak to your grandchildren, your great grandchildren? I've never heard these kids ask that today. They're looking for the shows that come along like American Idol, and all of those other vehicles that have given these people everything at one time. They don't have time to grasp their life or what they're doing because they're thrown into it, or as we say, thrown into the fire.
GM: The difference seems to be the practical experience. Clearly, you paid your dues, as evidenced by your resume alone. So when you walked into a session with a Frank Sinatra, or an Elvis Presley or a Tom Jones or the Beach Boys, did you ever feel intimidated? Was it like, Oh, my God, I'm in the presence of these legends?
DL: I think there was a reason we weren't intimidated. We were excited. We were in there to do a job, and do it in their presence. I tell a story about working with Nancy Sinatra. We were all around the piano rehearsing. And Frank Sinatra walked in the room, but we didn't know it. Yet his presence filled the room.
GM: No doubt!
DL: We looked around and it's like, he’s there smoking a cigarette. Just a regular guy, It’s not like, Hey, the king is here. He walked in like a regular person. It was like, “Hey, guys, what are you doing? Oh, y'all working on that? Oh, that's gonna be great." Those people came in to where we were working because we worked our butts off. We weren’t playing around. Once we got to the studio, this is what we had to do. We had to do our thing before they got there. Maybe they weren't even going to come to the studio that day. But we had to work like they were going to be there. But still, we were so ready for them and to be as ready as we could be.
GM: So you were on an equal playing field. That's great.
DL: When they walked in the room they wanted everything to be together and they saw what we could do and knew it would all be the way they wanted it to be.