She was starstruck when she met Elvis, but as time wore on, Darlene Love and Presley bonded over gospel music. That’s where both singers, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Queen of Rock and Soul, got their starts and developed their lifelong love of music. And for 80-year-old Love, that life has been blessed with a career spanning over six decades.
“I started at 16 and when we started getting sessions with people like Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, it was like ‘Are you kidding?’” she said in a recent interview.
Eventually, though, whenever you were looking for Elvis, you’d just find the Blossoms, Love’s group.
“They’d be calling us to work, and we’d be off somewhere with Elvis and his guitar. He loved gospel music, but he didn’t get a chance to sing it or be around gospel singers. He found out about my background and that was our connection. He just enjoyed the idea of being himself and being able to sing gospel songs.”
After a show — her “Love for the Holidays” tour typically entails performances every weekend starting around Halloween, with Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center a stop this weekend — she listens to a genre different from the pop she performs.
“The music I put on is gospel music, old gospel music … The Caravan gospel singers, Sam Cooke, when he was singing with the Soul Stirrers, Aretha Franklin, back in those days. That’s the music I listen to most, that’s what’s on my iPod.”
It’s music from her childhood. Raised in the Pentecostal Church, Darlene Wright was brought up in a religion that deemed secular music of the devil. Her initial performances, beyond the church choir, were with a gospel group.
She joined the Blossoms and the group became popular as backup singers. “Everybody wanted to use the Blossoms,” she explained, recounting the serendipitous meeting that charted the course of her career for well over a decade, meeting music icon and infamous producer Phil Spector, who changed her name from Darlene Wright to Darlene Love.
“We were working for his partner and he was looking for a singer for this song … nobody would believe “He’s a Rebel” would be a hit. It became a number one song.”
Other hits followed, including, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the latter recorded in 1963 and a holiday staple to this day.
She once described the legendary — and notoriously controlling — producer as “slick,” explaining that Spector used any method possible to promote his artists. “He put instrumentals on the B side of our records, to make sure the deejays played the side he wanted them to play,” Love recalled. “It helped the record, it helped Phil Spector, but it hurt us in the long run because when we’d go to gigs, people thought we were musicians.”
Spector also did what he could to hide his artists’ race; his goal was to create a racially indistinct sound. Spector wanted to sell his groups as pop stars, not soul singers.
“You didn’t see pictures of us at first,” Love said.
And in her hometown of South Los Angeles, her pastor father was confronted about his daughter singing Satan’s secular music “once we were on TV.” Parishioners looked askance when they saw Love on the quintessential ’60s music program, “Shindig,” but the Rev. Wright would turn the tables on them, asking what they were doing watching it.
“Shindig” was an early turn in front of the camera, but it wasn’t the only one. Among the acting credits for the multifaceted octogenarian is the recurring role as Roger Murtaugh’s wife Trish in the Lethal Weapon movies. She performed on Broadway in “Grease,” and was in the Oscar-winning documentary “25 Feet From Stardom.”
But music was always at center stage, even if Love wasn’t. She performed backup for a pantheon of music legends — The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Elvis, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Jones, and Sonny and Cher. She sang on Frank Sinatra’s recording of “That’s Life.” She sang backup for Dionne Warwick for 10 years.
“I learned so much from Dionne. I had hit records the same time she did,” Love pointed out. She wasn’t credited on her hit records. “When I decided to have my solo career, that was hard in the beginning because all my hits were under the name of the Crystals. That’s because of Phil Spector. I had to prove I did have career in the ’60s and that people would come and see me, because that’s what it’s all about,” she explained.
In 1993, Love sued Spector for past royalties and was awarded $250,000.
“I was the only one that sued him and won … that never happened before, especially to him,” she said.
Named one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Singers, Love looks to another chance meeting as the launchpad for her next career phase.
“I did a show that Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen came to see, and he always from the first time he met me said, ‘I want to record you’ and I said ‘OK.’” Van Zandt said she’d have to come to New York. The pair became and stayed friends, “I tell him, ‘You are the reason I live in New York.’”
It was 30 years before Van Zandt and Love went into the studio together to record the song he wrote, “All Alone on Christmas,” for the movie “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Later, the pair collaborated on what Love considers her best rock and roll album, “Introducing Darlene Love.”
“By then, I had been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’d done a show with Bruce Spingsteen at the Garden and people wondered, ‘Who is Darlene Love? Who recorded “He’s a Rebel,” who recorded all those hit songs?’”
Her life path had its low points. Love tells of cleaning houses when her solo endeavor stalled. Still, she said, “I kept my mind where I was trying to go. My mind, my heart and my spirit, was staying strong in what I believed.”
Once other entertainers in the industry learned hers was the voice behind an array of hits, encouragement flowed. Elton John, she recalled, “sent me flowers, I don’t know how they got them through the door.” He and stars like Stevie Wonder would call telling her to stay strong.
A legend herself to music insiders, Love sang with constellations of musical stars — Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, Bobby Darin.
Who’s left? Who would she like to sing with now?
“Oh, Adele. Without doubt,” she said. “I would love to sing with her. I just love the whole thing about her, how she comes on stage, how she attacks songs. I would love to work with her.”
Reflecting on the changes to the industry over the course of her six decade-plus career, Love noted that few young people today would know who recording labels like Capital Records even are. She credits “the rappers” with the seismic transformation that moved the power away from record companies like Spector’s Philles Records.
“They produce their own records, sell their own records, distribute their own records … they make all their own money,” she observed. Applauding the change, she affirmed, “Now, it’s the entertainer’s time.”
Between now and the end of December this year, it’s Darlene Love’s time. Her Love for the Holidays tour has 10 shows booked, including the one in Westhampton Beach this Saturday night.
Darlene love performs at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, November 20, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $81 to $101 at whbpac.org. The theater is at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach.