Music is My Life: Episode 026
Darlene Love Talks Holidays, Phil Spector, and ‘20 Feet from Stardom’
Darlene Love began singing background as a teenager. This in and of itself may not seem like a big deal until you realize who she sang background for: Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and a whole lot more. She also began a promising career as a lead singer, culminating with the holiday classic, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Her career hit a snag when Phil Spector refused to let her out of a contract. She almost gave up singing altogether, but she had an epiphany that led her back to the mic, and eventually into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In this interview, she talks about all of the facets of her career, including her turn in the film, 20 Feet from Stardom. Watch the trailer below!
Read the entire transcript, starting with Darlene talking about recognizing her calling.
Darlene Love: Early days of my church, probably between ages of 10 and 15. But even at that time, I didn’t really think that I had this great voice because when you grow up in church, people have the habit of saying, “Don’t get yourself too puffed up. You just got to be singing for the glory of God. Let Him lead you.”
That was their favorite word, “Let Him lead you.” So I just kind of like, oh, well maybe I am as good as people say I am. First of all, my father was placed in San Antonio, Texas for five years and then we returned back to California and he didn’t have a church. So a lot of my friends were going to one of the biggest Baptist churches in Los Angeles, and my father let us go over there because they had a great choir.
Now, that’s when I really thought I could sing because I was with these voices. They’re like 75 voices in this choir, and I was one of the youngest members in the choir. The director of the choir told me I had a great voice and that I should come, and try to start singing solos with the choir, and I worked with her for a couple of weeks. Then before you know it, the next week on a Sunday morning, I was singing solo. I think that was when I realized I really do have a gift, and I need to use it, and not just in church. God meant for me to use it everywhere.
He’s lightened my light to shine all over the place, and the only way I can do that is go out into the world, and let my light so shine, and I have enjoyed it. I think that’s why I really do it because I believe that my voice is a gift from God, and that I am supposed to use it, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
Now, during this time before you were taken aside by the choir director, were you listening to music and feeling moved by it there or was it just something that was just part of your daily diet?
Well, mostly because at home, rock and roll, rhythm and blues at the time was not allowed to be played in our house, only gospel music. The only way I got to hear other kinds of music was to go to my girlfriend’s house, and that’s where we heard a lot of secular music. But my leading was actually to gospel music because I heard it over the years. I wanted to sing like Marian Anderson, the great singer. That’s who I wanted to sing like. Then I figured out that that road to where Mahalia Jackson was a hard road. So I have to try to figure out another way of implementing what I was doing. So I went to rock and roll and that’s when I really started singing because my singing was more background singing than anything, and I just loved the background. Matter of fact, the group I was with, the Blossoms, we sang to everybody. It didn’t matter who it was just so we were singing.
It wasn’t really until Phil Spector came along that I really started singing solo because most of the people that I was working for were stars. They didn’t want to hear my lead voice because they wanted to hear my background voice, which they really did love. A lot of the people that I worked with never treated me like a background singer. They always treated me as one of their peers. They were really happy and lucky to be having me singing on their records so that was a great feeling.
Well, take me to, I guess, from singing in church, solo, to singing with the Blossoms, and putting that all together.
Well, it came from the singing at the Baptist church I was singing at with the choir. They heard me sing a solo at church, and they asked me if I would like to be in their group because they were looking for another singer, and they thought that I would probably fit in, well, of course I had to ask my mother and father if I could sing in a rock and roll group.
It wasn’t very hard. They said, “Well, okay. We want to know where she’s going and what she’s going to be doing, and we’d like to know you all as parents. We’d like to talk to them and just see what kind of girls they were,” that he was going to allow me to go and sing with them. So he did, my mother and father got to know their parents and we were all really good friends by then. So I was able to go out and sing with the Blossoms. I had to call when we went out to sing, I had to call when we got where we were going, and I had to call where we were on our way back home. They’re really strict about that, and the Blossoms wanted me so they made sure I called my parents when we got where we were going, and when we were on our way home. Then of course, jobs just got bigger and bigger and bigger and we would do solo projects, but they wouldn’t pan out that well. We still ended up just doing background work for everybody.
So when your father and mother let you go, were you surprised that there is no objection to the style of music you’re going to be singing? They didn’t have the objection. It was amazing that the church people were the ones that had their objections, the members of the church. My father said, “Well, if her mother and I feel that she can do it, there is nothing wrong with it. It’s all R&B, music is music. She’s not strip dancing or singing on a flagpole, or any of that thing. It’s singing and enjoying it.”
So if somebody had something to say about it, it would be them not the people in the church. Which was wonderful because at first we didn’t think they were going to agree to it, but they did. I think they never said this, but I think they knew that I had a gift, and that one way or another I was going to use it. I think they figured they should just be in the middle of this to help me and lead me. You know what I’m saying? Because I was only like 15 years old. I really didn’t really start being able to do it full time until I graduated from high school.
Did you think to yourself, “Oh, man. All this time I could’ve been listening to rhythm and blues and rock and roll in the house?”
No, I never even thought about it because I knew back in those days, back in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, parents were more strict over their children, and we obeyed what they said to do. Because we know hellfire was going to be coming down if we didn’t.
So you know what? I really didn’t miss it. What I did here, well, for my girlfriend’s house we enjoyed that, and I just enjoyed when I couldn’t sing it. I didn’t sing it, but once I was able to sing it I didn’t think I had missed anything. I think I just enjoyed it, enjoyed the time, and as I got older and left home, got married, I was really out on my own. I think the protection of my parents helped me a lot to see the woes and mistakes and everything entertainers can make. I think that helped me a lot, so I didn’t have any trouble. I love rock and roll, I love rhythm and blues, but I still, my first choice today is gospel music.
What was your first gig with the Blossoms that made you realize that this was something really serious?
Our first recording session with James Dean.
The James Dean? He sang?
Yes. He sang. Not James Dean, the actor. Jimmy Dean.
Oh, okay. Like “Big Bad John”?
Yes. That James Dean. That was our first gig and we were so nervous because we had never sang before and the guy that was leading us, he was actually our coach, a vocal coach. He was also an arranger so he was the one that got us the job, to sing with him. We were nervous, he was nervous. It was his first session and ours.
After we got maybe an hour into the session, the fear left and plus those were during the days where the band, the singers, the background singers, and the lead singers did everything at one time.
It wasn’t put the music on and then put the voices on, no. Everything was done at the same time. Finally, we made less mistakes when we did it that way. Today, it takes you months to do one song. So, back in those days we would do a three to four-hour session and they would get what they needed in those three or four hours that we weren’t doing background.
Wow. What was that song with Jimmy Dean?
Oh mercy—I almost just said it. I can’t think of the name of it.
Okay. So it wasn’t “Big Bad John” itself.
No. It was his first song which was, gosh, I’ll think of it before we get off the phone. If not, I will call you back and tell you what it is.
So you’re singing background and singing with the Blossoms. What song did you sing on with Sam Cooke and when in the timeline was that?
You know what? That was one of my second sessions after school. We met Sam Cooke, they had a building here in New York called the Brill Building where all writers and singers wrote all the time. They had a rhythm and blues place like that in Hollywood where we would all go to and write, and Sam Cooke’s manager was a friend of our manager. He told him, “Well, we are looking at some girls to sing with Sam.” Of course we were hysterical ‘cause we were in love with Sam Cooke. The first session we did with Sam was “Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha.”
Oh wow, that’s awesome.
Then we did Chain Gang. Nobody knows there’s women on it. But our voices are on that record is what we called—we sweetened a lot of records. When they say sweeten in other words, put a little more onto it than was already on there. So those are the two records we did with Sam.
What was this Brill Building, west called? I had never heard of that.
Oh, it didn’t have a name. I was just using that as an example. I do remember it was on Ivar in Hollywood Boulevard because we used to go there almost every day to rehearse. It was rhythm and blues, it wasn’t rock and roll, it wasn’t like the writers that were writing at the Brill Building. This was the Black part of the rhythm and blues that were there. The Platters rehearsed there, we met all types of people when we were there rehearsing. We would just stand outside the little cubbyholes and listen to what they were doing. That’s how we actually ended up getting started singing background.
Our manager at the time was an arranger called Eddie Bill. He was a big arranger back in those days. He just brought us along with him as the singers on the session, and it actually turned out to be a great deal.
Would you strike up friendships with the other artists and did you strike up a friendship with Sam at all?
We did. We got to be very friendly with him because we were all in the same game and Sam was one of the first Black people to do Shindig, the television show I was doing back in 1964-’65. So, when I say we got to know him, we didn’t hang out, we didn’t go to parties together, nothing like that. But when we were in the recording studio, we were friends. We’d sit around, we’d go to lunch together, those kinds of things.
I remember when we spoke last and we talked about Phil Spector, you definitely weren’t shocked with what he ended up doing later, but I just wonder with Sam’s character, it seems like that would have been more shocking.
Well, Sam loved women, all kinds. We used to tell Sam, and this is very funny because we told him one time, “Man you better stop fooling around with all these crazy women. One of these days you’re going to lose your life.” This was not a prophecy but it’s really amazing what actually happened to him, how he actually ended up dying.
Phil, my prophesy on Phil was because of the way he acted with guns. He always had guns in the studio, and he was always putting them in his pocket and taking them out and flipping them around and all those things. I was the only one that would leave the session because I would say “Listen, if he is going to shoot somebody, it ain’t going to be me.” Guns don’t shoot, people shoot.
I just think it was stupid and dangerous to be in a recording studio. We had like 15-20 musicians in the studio while he was doing this. If the gun dropped and went off, guess what?
So if he had a gun, I would make him take it out of the car, take it out of the studio. Remove the gun or I’m going to remove myself. That was the only way I would record with him, and finally he just stopped bringing it into our sessions. I don’t know what he did with other people. I’ve heard, but I wasn’t going to be shot because somebody was being stupid.
Right. So let’s talk about when you started working with him. So you’d been doing the Blossoms for a number of years and then how did he come to learn of you?
He had a partner Lester Sill who was living in Los Angeles at the time. We did a lot of sessions with him. He was a record producer too, but none of his records were as famous as the one he did with Phil Spector. We forget the ones that weren’t hits and I’m sure they do too. Which were a lot of those. As a matter of fact it was a lot more failures than hits.
But that didn’t stop him from trying, and Phil was rushing to get to New York to record “He’s a Rebel.” I tell the people it was a very simple story. I know people have tried to make it bigger, more gigantic than it really was. The Crystals were 13 and 14 years of age, and their parents wouldn’t allow them to come to Los Angeles.
So the Blossoms were there and Lester introduced us to Phil and said, “Well, I think Darlene can do it.” I said, “Sure, I can do it, but you’ve got to pay me.” That’s how I got involved with him. A lot of good things came our way because we were great session singers. That’s how we met Phil because we had been doing background for four or five years before I met Phil. So we were really ingrained into it by then. We knew the pitfalls and everything else. So him coming along, wasn’t a shock of like, “Okay, so you’re Phil Spector. What do you want us to do?”
When did you become not jaded, but when did you become not afraid of these bigger personalities?
You. You worked with Elvis and the Beach Boys.
Yeah but you know what, I wasn’t afraid anymore. By then, we had worked with Lou Adler who had the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas so we’re used to being around all these people. There were times being around Elvis was like “Wow, look we’re working for Elvis Presley.”
That kind of thing which started in the early days soon left us because of all the people we were working with. We were working with the biggest stars of the day. We got to meet the Beach Boys because of Phil Spector. I mean because he was making friends with everybody.
That means we were making friends with them too because we were all in the recording sessions at the same time. By then I had met Dionne Warwick, then I worked with Tom Jones, so the idea of being afraid soon left after the first couple of years because of all the people we worked with so early in our background career.
So when you were working like that, were you doing like 10-hour days every day in the studio or what was the schedule?
Just about. Some sessions started at 10 o’clock in the morning and our last session might be at say four or five o’clock in the evening. Which means that we might stay out until two or three o’clock in the morning depending on what record producer we were working with. As a matter of fact, that’s the reason why we stopped doing sessions on Saturdays and Sundays. We just had to have the time off ‘cause we had no time. We never got any rest. So we started turning people onto other Black singers that we knew were good background singers. It helped us a little bit but people would wait for us. They said, “Well if you can’t make it next week, how about a week after that?”
No matter who we sent to them, sometimes they couldn’t wait. So they had to use other people. But our background business just got out of control. We were making money. People don’t make that kind of money except session musicians. They made that kind of money. It’s just that we weren’t able to do more than five or six hours at the most per day when we worked.
Right. ‘Cause you run out your voice.
Well, Lou Adler was a very good friend of ours, and one time we worked for him, and it was like 10 o’clock at night. I know you’ve heard of when people get so tired, they get the giggles.
We were so tired from the sessions before, and Lou said, “Come on girls, one more time, come on. We got to get this done.” That became funny, because we had no more voices.
Then finally, Lou just said, “Okay girls, go home, just go home and I’ll see you all tomorrow.” So we went home and we rested, and we didn’t come back to finish his session till the evening. Well, our voices were opened and we weren’t tired anymore, say like around 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock and that’s when we went back to do his session. But it got too much. The musicians can stay up all night and use their fingers.
Or use their hands or whatever they did. As for your vocal cords, it’s not just working on your vocal cords, it’s working on your entire body. We had to stand and sing, and sing good. We never sounded bad so we wanted to be our best every time we went to do a session.
What would you do to keep your vocal health?
Well, the one thing I learned to do long before I went to a doctor was I went on vocal rest. I found out when I stopped talking, or singing, or using my voice, it would come back very, very clear the next day. That’s because as the doctor told me, talking on your vocal cords is actually harder than singing on your vocal cords because you don’t prepare your voice to talk. The first thing you do in the morning is to your husband or your kids, “Hey kids, get up, come on, let’s get up. Let’s go to school.” You’re using your voice, that’s the first thing you do from the time your feet hit the floor.
So you haven’t given your voice time to wake up yet. I learned early, and that’s what really has kept my career. I never drink iced water, I drink room temperature water, and a lot of tea. The vocal rest is the best healing you can do for your voice. I found out when I got older from my voice doctor, he said, “Wow, where did you learn that? I tell all my patients that.” I said, “I had to learn myself, honey. We couldn’t afford no doctor.”
So a lot of things came to us by fault and learning, and trying this and well, let’s try this. I did realize when I didn’t get up and tell the kids to get up, go to school, or even saying, hi, good morning, or answering the phone before 10 o’clock in the morning, my voice just cleared up. So I just took that with me the rest of my vocal life, and it has worked. I can be so hoarse one night, and I’ll go home and I’ll take a lot of vitamin C. For some reason, vitamin C helps your vocal muscles. I take a lot of vitamin C, drink a lot of tea and water. As what my doctors said, “Force water.” Like 14 glasses of water.
You stay in the bathroom. Plus, I never talked. I never said a word, never said good morning. How are you? My husband and I use hand signs.
You stay in the bathroom. Plus, I never talked. I never said a word, never said good morning. How are you? My husband and I use hand signs.
We would not say a word. If I wanted this to last me as long a lifetime, I had to really take care of it. I never really was a heavy drinker. I didn’t like the way alcohol tasted, and that is a big destroyer of your vocal cords. I did smoke cigarettes. I smoked for 25 years, but I also stopped smoking 25 years ago.
.So all the things that you know would hurt your voice, I stopped doing. It sounds too simple to be true, but the simpler things usually work. It’s the hard things that don’t work. People say, “How do you do that? How do you not talk?” I say, “Easily. I just keep my mouth shut.” Even my singers on the road, they’ll come into our cars to go to the next gig, they say, “Good morning,” they’re talking loud, and I just wave my hand. They go, “She’s on voice rest.”
So now, I guess were you that disciplined from the start, did you turn down opportunities to go to the party after the session with other musicians? Did you prohibit yourself?
Yes. I turned down a lot of gigs, a lot of going out to parties and the whole, come on we’re all going out to have a drink. Well, I didn’t really drink, so we had to go to some parties, like now, we have to go to this one. You know what I’m saying? But as far as while we were working, we didn’t really go out. I went to church on Sundays, that was it. When I was working, I was working and I was taking care of my voice. We got invited to a lot of parties, because that’s what entertainers do. They party, party, party and you see them the next day and they have no voice. That was a really good deterrent for me.
Who did you see that happen to?
Well, it would probably be a lot more that I saw actually later in life when I was working on Broadway, doing eight shows a week. I think I missed in three years, three shows.
Where everybody else wouldn’t come in because they didn’t have any voice. It was always something because every night they were always going out. I would say, “Okay, you won’t have no voice tomorrow.”
Earlier, you were talking about, “He’s a Rebel” being made into a bigger deal than it was. I think in the movie 23 Feet From Stardom even, it made it seem like you weren’t aware that it would be credited to the Crystals. But you knew that from the get-go?
No. I knew that from the jump. I was hired as the background singer to sing that song. I said, I didn’t make a big deal about it because I didn’t like the song.
That was the deal. I said, “What’s so great about this song? I don’t like it, but I’m going to sing it because he’s paying me $3,000.”
All the songs that I really loved, did nothing. So I just stopped trying to say what is and what it ain’t and just let it handle itself.
Right. Well, did you love, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” when you first heard that? I bet you did.
When I first heard it, we were recording the Christmas album, and then Ellie and Jeff had written this song. They were a little leery of putting out a brand new Christmas song. It wasn’t like “Marshmallow World” or “Silent Night” or any of those. This was brand spanking new, and I was like, I don’t know about doing a song that’s not already Christmas. But Phil was determined. He said, “It’s a great song, you’ve got to hear it.” They actually played the song for me over the phone.
From New York. It wasn’t nothin’ on it, it was just a demo. Ellie singing and Jeff playing. So it was a demo, so you really couldn’t feel what it was all about. But once I heard the song, I said, “Wow, this is great.” I thought from the time I heard it, and I really heard it good before I recorded it. I thought it was going to be a great song.
Yeah. I think the rumor out there was that Ronnie was going to sing that one initially, but she couldn’t bring it quite the way you could or is that just-
I don’t know where that came from. I have no idea. I didn’t know that until I started hearing people ask me that question, “Wasn’t this song written for Ronnie?” I don’t know, maybe it was. I listened to it on the telephone and we went in and recorded it, so. I don’t know unless they said they were going to write a song for her, and that was it. That’s the only way I can figure that’s how that started ‘cause I never heard it from Phil or heard it from Ellie or Jeff.
Right. It’s the danger of that Wikipedia website.
That’s right. A lot of that stuff is—I even tried to correct stuff on it but people are going to believe what they want to believe, and I said, “Listen, let them write what they want to write. Let people believe it, it ain’t hurting me.”
Yeah. So I remember the last time we spoke, when we spoke about, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home,) you were recording in the dead of summer, right?
Yeah. It was the heatwave going on. It was in August, it was about 103, 105 degrees. It was crazy.
Here we are, in the recording studio recording Christmas songs.
What would you do to get in the mood?
Well, Phil made it so cold that we actually had to keep sweaters on in the room. It was so cold.
It didn’t take long to really get into the mood of singing Christmas songs because they’re so joyful. Christmas songs are so full of life. Those songs when you talk about Christmas, you think about life, and when we start singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home,) it can be during a time when a loved one is far away, or away for Christmas, or away from home, in the war or whatever. That song means something to everybody that hears it. So you get really joyful when you’re singing it also. You would have thought it was Christmas in that recording studio ‘cause every time we would finish doing one of the songs, everybody would be on a high. “Wow, that was great,” and when we got ready to do “Christmas Baby,” well, you want to talk about joy, joy, joy and then think about that that song was recorded over 50 years ago.
Well, tell me about getting in the right zone to feel like Christmas, but how about the right headspace emotionally and to really bring that out. Because that’s maybe one of the most convincing deliveries of the 20th century, in that song right there. Where you’re just belting it out, I get goosebumps, everyone I know gets goosebumps. Do you still get goosebumps when you hear it and when you sing it?
I do, and I wish I could sing it all year, but I tell my audience all the time, “If I sang it all year, you guys wouldn’t feel what you do when you hear me sing it at Christmas time.” Then they finally say, “Okay.”
Then when I sing it at Christmas time, I have so much joy singing that song. Okay, number one, it was written for me, and number two was it’s still today one of the biggest selling Christmas songs on the planet. I mean all over the world. Which is amazing to me, that I produced something with a producer, and with singers, and instruments and made a song that great. Only great songs last that long, and then, this is a Christmas song, so you have to wait until November. Maybe a few songs start in October. Some people say they just play it all year long. Even their children know that song.
Yeah. I mean, you go to Spotify, that’s 32 million streams, and that’s a contemporary thing. That’s not something that’s been around forever.
Right, exactly. So I can really get into that song because I really do enjoy singing it.
Do you remember well, the recording experience?
Of that song? Yeah. More than I do any other song.
Tell me about it.
Because we all learned it at the same time. The arranger had arranged the song because we had to get it ready for the album, and Phil wanted to put the album out—we did it in August—he wanted to put it out in early October, November. So he was pressed to get all the songs done on that one. I remember it took hours to do it because Phil wanted it to be perfect.
I remember the last take of that session, Leon Russell was on piano. I don’t know if you can really hear like I hear, how he’s playing that piano. The last take of the night, he was playing like he was playing a concerto, like it was some big orchestrated number, and he was just, I mean, he was like zoned. He was gone. He played so much at the end of the record. Even when Bill said “Okay, take,” everybody was still playing. They didn’t stop. Leon, actually I don’t know if he did by accident, or he was just fooling around, but played himself off of the piano.
Wow. That’s awesome.
I can’t say it, “Phil, that’s it. I don’t think we can do it no better than this.” Phil had a habit of back then of keeping the talk buttons on. So we could always hear him, what he was saying or what we were saying. That the last take we knew, everybody in that room knew that was the take. It was amazing.
I remember when we talked before you mentioned something about John F. Kennedy being assassinated, was the record delayed, the release delayed because of that?
There was a delay for a whole year.
A whole year?
Phil didn’t put it out till next Christmas.
Like you say, it’s a Christmas song, it can’t come out until Christmas.
That was the year he was assassinated. Everybody was in a slump, and nobody wanted to be joyful or be put in a good mood, so Phil just decided to wait until the following year to put it out. We had to wait on it, and in May, Phil gave me a copy of it, the whole record. So he gave me a copy of it, and promised that I wouldn’t let anybody hear, or let anybody listen to it. Which I did. I mean, people in my house who you know couldn’t do anything about it, “listen to this song” kind of things. I couldn’t wait to have that record put out, and then to find out. Over 50 years later, that song is still one of the largest selling Christmas songs, and then to make it great, a lot of people have recorded that song.
That lets you know how great a song is. Big stars don’t record nobody else’s songs unless they’re great.
What’s your favorite cover version of it?
I think it’s actually Mariah Carey because it sounds just like my version. It really does. I don’t mean that she sounds like me, I was saying that it sounds my version, and her version sounds almost just alike. Matter of fact, it sounds so much alike, her fans think she is the original recorder of that song.
When I heard that, I went, “Oh, come on, Mariah, you got your own Christmas song.” Let me have mine.
So let’s talk a little bit about, in the movie 20 Feet from Stardom, which I saw since we spoke last, a lot was made about the difficulty with Phil Spector, and how you’re set to begin your solo career. Explain the details of that again. He bought out your contract?
I was saying, when my contract was over with Phil, I went and started recording and signed a contract with Philadelphia International. His lawyer and my lawyer, Phil Spector’s lawyer, and Philly International with us, had the same lawyer. They sold my contract back to Phil Spector.
Now, did he do that as a power play just to keep you under contract?
That’s the only thing I can think. I can’t think of no other reason.
That is heartbreaking.
I know it’s so heartbreaking when people see 20 Feet from Stardom.
I think people actually get mad and cry.
Yeah. I was in tears. It’s not fair.
That’s exactly how I felt too. I just said that you know what, my recording days are over. You got it. I’m going back to background singing because I’m not going to go for this for another four or five years. In all the time I was assigned to him, I recorded one song, and I didn’t even like the song. I thought it was a mess. It was called, “Lord, If You’re a Woman.” I think that’s the last, yeah, I know that was the last song I recorded for him. He was acting such a fool in the recording session. A lot of his friends were there. Cher was in the studio, some of the Beatles were in the studio, and he was just determined just to make me sing over, and over, and over again, which was something I never had to do for Philip because I knew the song when I went in, I had rehearsed it with myself, I tracked that song.
So I was ready for every session. So I know he was just trying to show off. So what I did after a couple hours, I said this is crazy. He would stop me, he would just push a button, “Stop. I don’t like that, do it again.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to do what you want me to do.” He kept it up for about an hour, two hours. So I finally just took my earphones off my ears, put them on the chair, got my coat and walked out.
I didn’t see Phil anymore for 20 some odd years later, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they invited me to come. That was it, I wasn’t having it. So you know what? I told Phil, “Phil, you didn’t make my career, I had one before I met you, and I was happy singing background.” So he couldn’t stop me from singing background even though he tried.
“Legally, you can’t sing background,” I said really? I said, “Okay, stop me.” Then I still had just as much. I was making just as much money, if not more, singing background because as a backup singer, you get up, you go to work, you work for five or six hours, you come back home, sleep in your own bed, you have to buy no clothes, no make up, none of that stuff you have to do when you’re out on the road.
So I was happy to go back to background. I think he really thought that I was going to like, okay, I’ll sing for you because I’m so desperate. I’ve never been in my life, a desperate person to do anything. I would love to have a big smash record. But it’s not a lifelong, “Oh, my God, if I don’t have it, I will die.” I’ve never had that kind of desire ever. I wanted to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but if I don’t get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, life goes on.
That’s the way I’ve always felt and I think that angered him. That I didn’t feel like he was responsible for my success. I was a successful background singer before I met him. So when I moved to New York, I would sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” every year on the David Letterman Show. The NBC executives said they had gotten a phone call from Phil Spector saying that he was going to sue the show if they kept letting me sing that song on the show. All they said was, “Well, sue us.”
Because he knew that they have a right, they pay a certain amount of money, television stations every year into BMI, or whatever that union is to do songs.
It doesn’t say what song, you just say songs. They have an amount of money they have to pay every year for it. I guess Phil thought they were going to get scared or whatever, but they didn’t even blink. Then I did that show for 28 years.
Yeah. That’s amazing.
So I’m having all those things, he used to put on a little dance and things when I tried to do things, but it never panned out.
It never happened, nobody ever said, “We’re not going to use you because Phil is going to be too busy doing that. I said well, you know what, I was working before I met him, I can work now.
Why was Phil the way he was, do you have any idea why he was just such—
I have no idea, all I can think of is ego. He was 20 years old when he had his first two number one records. But that would make anybody bigger than they think they are. He was always a wheel in, a dealer, people are actually afraid of him. I probably was one of the only people who wasn’t afraid of him.
Why weren’t you?
I don’t know. I just felt, well, what could he do? He could kill me, is that all? It wasn’t like I just didn’t have a fear toward him because I knew him. I knew he was a big mouth, and that he wasn’t really going to go through with anything he’s threatening. People that threaten you a lot of times, they just have a big mouth. Plus Phil needed me at that time. He didn’t have Ronnie, he didn’t have the Righteous Brothers, he didn’t have all those people yet, I was the only one who actually sang, and gave him two number one records.
So why are you going to kill somebody you love? That’s your bread and butter. Then when I saw which way he was going, I knew he was coming to an end. I just didn’t know when. He went to Europe, and became friends with the Beatles, he was by then as they say, “He thinks he’s all that.” And he was all that at the time. So those are just little things I just didn’t stress. I prayed about it, and I wasn’t going to worry about it. I know I’m being protected by God, and Phil is just a big, big mouth. I think that bothered him, that I wasn’t afraid of him.
So he would do things behind the scene. He never did anything to my face. Everything was done by somebody saying that “Phil said.” He never came to me. Now, we might’ve come to blows probably coming into my face to say stuff like that.
It seems like you’ve come to a place where you are very honest with yourself and with others about your relationship with him where you’re still able to see the good things, but you are well aware of the horrible things with him.
Yeah, most definitely because I even tell my audience when I’m really into the show, and singing these songs. Here I am, at the age that I am, and I sang these songs in 1961, and ‘62, and here we are, I’m on stage, and you all are paying to come see me. I’m singing these songs to you because they’re great songs because if it wasn’t for Phil Spector, I wouldn’t have ever recorded these songs.
A lot of the rock and roll groups like Bruce Springsteen, all of those guys that are really into rock and roll, they idolize Phil Spector. They love these songs. So because of that, it’s because of the songs, the way I delivered the songs. They still love these songs today. So I don’t worry about what Phil thinks he can do. I know what I can do, and I can be at peace. Where he is not at no peace right now.
Yeah, not much he can do from prison, so.
I don’t think so.
One thing that really got me in the 20 Feet from Stardom movie was that anecdote about you cleaning a house and hearing your song. I guess, I just really need to hear a little bit more about that, that’s insane.
Well, that came from a story that really happened when I was out on the road. I was really tired of being out on the road. I worked with Dionne Warwick for 10 years, and I was out there with Tom Jones, and Elvis and I really was tired. I really wanted to go home and be with my family. Then I tried to get back into doing background work, which was all gone by then. People were bringing their own singers into their sessions, or they used their own musicians to sing for them. So the background work that was there when I left was all gone and plus the other singers that I started in the business had taken over the business. I’m not one to call and say, “Hey, well, I started you in the business, and you need to give me a hand.” I just said, “Hey, what will be, will be.” When I couldn’t find anything to do, I just started doing housework.
The reason I started doing housework was because it is the one job you could get and you could get money right away. I made $50 a day. If I worked for six days a week, I had a little pocket change. I could feed myself, feed my kids. When you are in those positions, you seem like you are in it for so long. I think it’s because of how you feel, the world is clinging on you, and you don’t have any way to get out. I was cleaning this lady’s bathroom and it was during the holiday season, and I was taking on more jobs so I could have a little more money for the kids for Christmas. I heard “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” playing on her radio, in her house.
Which was amazing to me, you know, that I would hear that song while I was doing what I was doing. From that day to this, I don’t know how I’m going to do it Lord, but I’m going to get out there and I’m going to sing some way, somehow. I did, and the work didn’t come right away. Still had a lot of downtime and a lot of disappointment and things that were going on. I called my friend Lou Adler and I told him I needed a little help. Everybody needs a little help at one time or another but the people around me had no idea I was going through this.
“Why didn’t you call? Why didn’t you say something?” I said, “Well, I figured if I had to call you I would, and that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m calling you.”
He had me call his accountant and just tell him whatever I needed. He didn’t put a number on it, I just told him what I needed. He said, “Don’t worry about paying me back.”
That’s great, and deserved.
Yeah, and that’s what put me on my feet. It gave me a little wiggle as we used to say, some wiggle room.
Right. When you heard it, did you just break down and cry, or did you do the rest of the day?
You know what? I did as much as cry and it made me feel strong.
That’s awesome. Did you leave right then and there for the day?
No, no, no. I went through the whole day. I finished my job and I told the lady I was working for that I wouldn’t be back. While on that, she didn’t know who I was either. You have to know that. And then she did want to know why. I said, “Well, I just have something else to do, I am sorry, and this is all the notice I can give you, I’m leaving today.” They can’t sue you, they can’t do nothing. You got no contract, nothing.
I told her I was leaving that day and I didn’t come back. I called Lou and I told him that I just needed a helping hand. He gave me enough money where I could go find a little apartment to be in. All that stuff builds your strength up, your ego. “I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.”
I had a girl that was so into me, and she had just come back from a cruise ship vacation, and I said, “Do they have talent on cruise ships?” She said, “Yeah, but they really ain’t that good.”
I’d say, “Well, where do you go to get on a ship?”
I found out the ship docked. It was the Carnival Cruise Line docked in San Pedro, California. So I went down there with all my wares, looking the best I could look. I never walked around with my head hung down, I was not having a pity party.
I still had my Mercedes, which was paid for. So I didn’t need to catch the bus. I only needed enough money for gas. Back in those days, gas was only like $0.30 per gallon. You could fill up your tank for like three or four dollars. So I drove down to San Pedro with my pictures, and my songs, and my records, and everything.
The first thing that guy said was, “You’re Darlene Love, right?’ I said, “Yes.” She said, “Why do you want to work on my ship?” I said, “Because I need a job.” I’ve never been ashamed. I’m saying work is work. I wasn’t ashamed of it. I was not ashamed to be doing housework. I know it was something I had to do until the next good thing came along. I was not going to sit and just rot and let the world go by. I’m always a believer, and you gotta get up and do, and the Lord will help you. If you do what you’re supposed to do, He will do what He is supposed to do, and there was no reason to go down to that ship, because nobody has ever gotten on a cruise ship like that.
Did you do it?
Yeah, I did it. They hired me right on the spot.
Nice. How long did you do that for?
Off and on, I did it for about three years.
Right, that’s great.
What would happen every time passengers would come on the ship and see me there, they wouldn’t be amazed that they had that kind of talent on the ship. I think they thought that kind of talent was on the ship all the time. So a lot of people recognize me. I had pictures. They signed pictures, and then the cruise ship said, “Oh, we’ve got a winner right here!”
Because I was rehearsing one day like an audition rehearsal with the band, as I didn’t have a band, but I had my music. The owner of Carnival Cruise Line was sitting in the rehearsal room with his wife. During the rehearsal, he called one of the guys over and he said, “That’s Darlene Love, right? So why does she want to work on our ship?” They said, “Because she said she needed a job,” and he said, “You better hire her right now!”
Off and on, I’ve worked for about a couple of years. Then I started getting calls to work from New York. They wanted me to come and work, and do shows when I found that I could really perform, and do a show. Actually, my husband and I have been married for 34 years. I met him on the cruise ship.
That’s awesome. That’s great.
Yeah, he was the chief steward.
I dragged him off the ship. I said, “Come on, go with me.”
The love boat.
The love boat.
So then like I said, we spoke before 20 Feet from Stardom and before the Rock Hall of Fame, did 20 Feet from Stardom help or was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before that?
No, I got in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
I had already done a Lethal Weapon movie, and I was really riding high working. I started doing the David Letterman Show, and that was the start that gave me a lot of work. That was the beginning of me. I started doing Christmas tours because of the David Letterman Show. People would see me sing and they would see that I was still a great voice. First they started off doing before Christmas shows, and they were just either here in New York or New Jersey. Now it’s somewhere between 20 and 30.
That’s great. That’s terrific.
Yeah. So I’m doing what I love to do, pleasing people and taking care of myself physically, so I can do it.