By David DeRocco
Darlene Love began her career while still in high school, recording for legendary producer Phil Spector in a little-known girl group called The Blossoms. It’s ironic then in 2015, over half a century into her hard-earned Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career, that her life as a solo artist is just now beginning to fully blossom.
September 18th marked the release of Introducing Darlene Love, the first collection of secular songs Love’s released in over 30 years. The album is part of a resurgence of interest in the singer that began with her appearance in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, which cast a long-overdue spotlight on the hit-making contributions of backup vocalists like Love. The new album is just the latest milestone in a career comeback that has its roots in a mid-80s meeting with E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who showed up at one of Love’s gigs promising to help revive a stalled career that had her working as a maid. Now, 35 years later, Van Zandt has finally delivered on his promise by not only producing the album, but also by enlisting the talents of superstar writers like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello to craft new songs for Love.
“Those people who wrote all those wonderful songs for me, they’ve been pulling for me to get my due, to be who they think I should be,” said Love appreciatively. “Bruce, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, they all have a song on my new album. These are people who have always wanted to write for me but who have never had the chance.”
The results are brilliant; the 14 tracks on Introducing Darlene Love are the sonic equivalent of a Back To The Future movie, with Love’s voice acting as the delightful DeLorean transporting listeners to an era untouched by the evils of AutoTune, a time when singers could sing and rock and roll music was jubilant and jangly. A great deal of credit has to go to Van Zandt, a Phil Spector fan whose reverence for both the music and the mastery of Love’s talent is clearly evident. While Spector and Van Zandt are each responsible for a hugely transformative moment in her career, Love says the experience recording for each producer was vastly different.
“They were totally completely different because when I had first gone into the studio I had just met Phil Spector through his partner. The Blossoms were the first Black background group to record in the studio and I went in to do that (first) record as a background singer and I got paid as a background singer. It was fun, it was thrilling; we went on to sign with Phil Spector and record many more records even though it wasn’t that great, because he put the records out under the Crystals name even after I signed with him. The great part of it was I was young and silly, I didn’t know the business, I did things I was not supposed to do but was having fun doing it. Ended up, here we are about 50 years later with things working out for me. I have a career today because of those records. But the difference between then and almost 50 years later with Steve Van Zandt was we went in the studio knowing these were going to be Darlene Love records with a whole brand new attitude, and to come out with some good material that was rewarding for me and also for Stevie Van Zandt.”
Despite lending her powerhouse vocals to Spector’s Wall of Sound classics including “He’s A Rebel,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Today I Met the Boy I’m Going to Marry,” Love is full of praise for the way Van Zandt has captured her voice on Introducing Darlene Love. Vocal production on new songs like “Forbidden Nights,” “Love Kept Us Fooling Around” and her formidable cover of Ike and Tina’s “River Deep Mountain High” perfectly showcase the richness, strength and versatility of Love’s singing.
“I didn’t think people were really hearing the real Darlene Love when I was recording for Phil Spector,” said Love, who is rated #84 on Rolling Stone’s list of all-time vocal greats. “They only got to hear what Darlene Love sounded like then they saw her in person because of the way Phil Spector produced records. People who hear me in person are very surprised and say ‘you have a lot of power in your voice.’ Fortunately Stevie Van Zandt has captured that on this album. I sound exactly like the way I sound. What you’re going to hear on stage is what you’re hearing on the record.”
It’s almost strange that Love is feeling “heard” for the first time considering the number of songs she’s lent her voice to, backing up a list of legends that includes Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Bill Medley, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Sonny and Cher, John Phillips, Frank Sinatra and more. It may come as a surprise to fans to hear Love is also etched into musical history for providing background vocals on one of the most popular novelty hits of all time, the Bobby “Boris” Pickett classic “Monster Mash.”
“Well, I’m sure (people) don’t know that the Blossoms also did the background vocals on “Basketball Jones” for Cheech and Chong,” laughed Love. “Because we were the producers’ dream background singers we could go in and do anything. I mean, we did Johnny Rivers Live at the Whiskey singing in the studio. All those things were fun. Whatever they wanted us to do we could go in and sound that way.”
When it comes to the sounds made by today’s female vocalists, Love expresses admiration for Brit sensation Adele, who she calls a “powerhouse who is clearly working hard on her craft.” As for those singers whose “talents” are heavily reliant on Auto-Tuned vocals, Love says they’re simply reflections of the times, adding every star in the studio is eventually measured by what they can do on stage.
“Everything changes, and everything has changed from when I first started doing recording. Everything was live. We were all young and very enthusiastic about recording. Today it’s the same thing but they have a little more challenge because today everything is done in the studio. They make the artist sing 50 times and they pull from each one of those takes and make a record. You can work magic in a studio, but what is it like when they go out on the road? That’s the hard part. Thank God I sound exactly like I sound live as I do when I’m on record.”
See Darlene Love at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines Saturday November 28th. Tickets are $62.00. For information visit https://www.firstontariopac.ca/Online/.