Rock and Roll Book Club: Darlene Love, 'an official voice of the day of the Lord's birth,' tells her story

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Darlene Love performs at a Christmas tree lighting in New York City, 2010.
Darlene Love performs at a Christmas tree lighting in New York City, 2010. (Andy Kropa/Getty Images)

Count on an experienced performer like Darlene Love to save the hits for the end. That's precisely what she does in her 1998 memoir My Name Is Love (buy now), which concludes with a list of the major songs she's performed on: "More hits than Elvis and the Beatles combined," she notes, imagining the narration over an infomercial about her life.

Just the highlights include "Chain Gang" (Sam Cooke, 1959), "He's a Rebel" (credited to the Crystals, 1962), "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" (Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, 1962), "Johnny Angel" (Shelley Fabares, 1962), "Monster Mash" (Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt Kickers, 1962), "Da Doo Ron Ron" (credited to the Crystals, 1962), "Be My Baby" (the Ronettes, 1963), "In My Room" (the Beach Boys, 1963), "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss)" (Betty Everett, 1964), "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" (Righteous Brothers, 1964), "Unchained Melody" (Righteous Brothers, 1964), "River Deep - Mountain High" (Ike and Tina Turner, 1966), and "If I Can Dream" (Elvis Presley, 1968). Oh, and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," from 1963 — under her own name.

That's one of multiple songs she sang on A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector, now acknowledged as one of the greatest albums in pop history, but one that was understandably overshadowed on its day of release: Nov. 22, 1963. As Love notes, the LP was never meant just to be an offhand holiday release; it's Spector's Pet Sounds, the only real album-length statement by the iconic producer. In addition to singing lead and backup on numerous tracks, Love created the album's vocal arrangements and collaborated in the song selection.

She would end up singing the album's signature track, a song by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry that — in Love's telling — he couldn't trust to his protegé and paramour Ronnie Spector. "Ronnie didn't have enough circuits to handle the high-voltage performance that Phil wanted," writes Love. "It turned out the record I'd been waiting to make with Phil in the year I'd known him. This song was even more powerful than 'He's a Rebel,' and this time it would have my name on it."

The earlier hit, speciously credited to the Crystals on the theory that they had greater name recognition, established Love in the firmament of Spector's stable of stars, though he never really wanted any star to sign but himself. Although he was rapidly cracking up, and was never a generous collaborator, everyone who sweated it out in his dingy Gold Star studio understood that until the British invaded, Spector had his finger firmly on the zeitgeist. Produced to sound huge on tiny radios, Spector's singles were monumental expressions of the headiness of baby-boom youth.

Even Love, who understandably resented Ronnie Spector's marquee role at Gold Star despite the latter's inferior voice, acknowledges that critic Dave Marsh hit the nail on the head when he wrote that in "Be My Baby," Phil Spector "built a rock-and-roll cathedral" for the object of his affection. Love further credits Ronnie Spector with understanding that what she lacked in vocal power, she could make up for as an actor, completely embodying her "Be My Baby" character.

If the music still sounds heady, Love always kept her feet on the ground. She grew up as a "PK" (preacher's kid), one of five in a Southern California family where by the time she was working the sock-hop circuit with her early vocal group the Blossoms, she was living the kind of life "that teenagers would only later know from Beach Boys songs, except with black people." Her powerful gifts were apparent to all, and the fact that she never became a full-fledged headlining star of the first caliber is a mystery that seems to haunt her.

Should she have pushed harder? How, where, and when? Could she have got a better break? Certainly, at any of several turns. Was it simply too late when, around age 40, she resolved to quit singing backup and make a full-throated go of it as a solo star? Maybe...but look at how the '80s went for Tina and Aretha. Why couldn't that have been Darlene? Why couldn't she have had the career of Cher, who she met as a teenager at Phil Spector's studio and who seemed unpromisingly tied to the producer's gofer Sonny Bono?

Love received some belated recognition 15 years after penning her memoir, when 20 Feet From Stardom won an Oscar for its depiction of the poignant lot of the likes of Love and Judith Hill, more than pulling their musical weight yet literally standing in the shadows. Reading the memoir's accounts of Love's touring years, readers may wonder how many people who went to see the Righteous Brothers, or Tom Jones, or Dionne Warwick, or Cher realized that one of the world's most beloved voices was sharing a backup mic?

Say this about being 20 feet from stardom: you get some great stories out of it, and no one's there to impose a filter when you feel like telling them. In My Name Is Love, we learn about Tom Jones's erotic foot rubs (and the foursome who the Blossoms watched break a giant glass table at one of his infamous parties), about Dionne Warwick's dirty mouth (Love's preschool-age son learned a few new words when he joined the tour), and Tina Turner's backstage brushoff (Love's theory is that Tina didn't appreciate her rival's barn-burning take on "River Deep" during an Off-Broadway revue).

Along the way we also learn about the ups and downs of the singer's personal life (if you're going to be Mr. Darlene Love, getting jealous of Marvin Gaye is not going to work out well for you), as well as about even more professional achievements — for example, playing Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon franchise. (She was touched that Joe Pesci, a DJ before turning to acting, could sing "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" by heart.

She also writes candidly about her intimate relationship with Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers; the two became so close that they hesitated to hook up and spoil the friendship, but once they did it was wonderful (until it wasn't). In a fascinating passage, Love recalls working with Elvis on the famous 1968 "comeback special"; she saw and heard his genuine reverence for Black music, yet at the same time learned that he couldn't consummate his attraction to Love.

"I remembered how Elvis felt about gospel music," she writes, "and his story about standing outside black churches afraid to go in, and I realized this was just another threshold he couldn't cross. If he did, he just wouldn't be able to explain it to all the conflicting voices in his head."

Today, Love has earned a measure of recognition she might have thought, in 1998, she'd never achieve. The documentary raised her profile, and she now routinely tours to packed houses — like the one I saw her with, at the Ordway in 2016. "Hate is really too hard to carry around with you," she said that night, referring to Phil Spector — who by then was imprisoned for murder. She wasn't asking us to forgive him; she seemed to be giving herself permission to embrace that part of her history, and her legacy.

In the memoir, her take on Spector doesn't veer too far from the conventional wisdom: he exploited his artists, he surrounded himself by sycophants to cover his insecurities, he was dangerously (ultimately, we now know, deadly) unstable. For all that, the man had a golden ear, including an ear for talent. It was Spector who turned Darlene Wright into Darlene Love, inspired by the name of gospel singer Dorothy Love.

He credited her early hits to the Crystals, he gave "Be My Baby" to Ronnie...but when it came to the greatest song on his only true album, Spector couldn't deny that it had to go to Darlene Love, and be credited as such. "The best Christmas songs, like the best love songs," Love writes, "are about loss."

The Wrecking Crew threw themselves into the song in a series of all-night sessions, with pianist Leon Russell playing himself "right off the bench and onto the floor." The track was so hot, Spector had Greenwich write non-seasonal lyrics for "Johnny (Please Come Home)," but in the end, he realized it had to be a Christmas song. "For once," writes Love, "Phil showed some principles." When the singer's bright red wig fell off, everyone agreed: that was, so to speak, a wrap.

By the time she published My Name Is Love, the author was already 12 years into what would become one of TV's most beloved holiday traditions: her annual appearance on David Letterman's show to sing her Christmas hit. The tradition would continue until 2014, when Letterman retired. It helped to make the song one of the most recognizable holiday songs of the rock era, a must-play for generations every December.

Thinking back to a career-spanning concert shortly before she published her book, Love remembers, "When I sang 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' and realized that I had become, with all the Christmas songs I'd introduced over the years, an official voice of the day of the Lord's birth, I thanked Him for that opportunity."

With that important thank-you signed, sealed, and delivered, the rest of us can do our part and thank Ms. Love.

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