Darlene Love On Phil Spector, Christmas, And How Hate Gives You Wrinkles
Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 18, 2011
The weeks leading up to the Television Critics Association press tour every summer are a barrage of communications and press releases, of pitches and promises and offers to talk to this person and that person about this project and that one.
This year, the words I managed to pick out during those weeks were “Darlene Love.”
Tonight, PBS begins running its special Women Who Rock, inspired by an exhibit at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, which looks at women in popular music, from Bessie Smith to Pink and Beyonce and Adele. It will bring you Mavis Staples singing “The Weight” with Cyndi Lauper, it will bring you a blistering performance of “It’s A Man’s World” by Christina Aguilera, and it spends some time with the remarkable, raucous Darlene Love, who came to press tour to talk about it and sat down with me. (I tried not to burst into tears of joy, but I will not lie: I have listened to Darlene Love for many years, and if you opened up my circuitry, you’d find that much of me is wired to dance to this music. It seems a fair thing to disclose. If you have Spotify, you can check out this short playlist for an idea of what I’m talking about.)
The biggest success of Darlene Love’s hitmaking career — which she describes as having run from 1962 to 1964 — was credited to someone else. She sang lead on “He’s A Rebel,” which became a #1 hit, but which super-producer Phil Spector released under the name of The Crystals, a group he produced that she wasn’t part of. She knew he planned to make it a Crystals record even though she recorded the lead as a session singer, but it was meant to be a one-shot deal. “It was supposed to happen that once,” she told me when we talked, “and not again.”
She later recorded “He’s Sure The Boy I Love” with Spector, who told her yes, this one would be released under her own name. And then, in her car, Love heard on the radio that there was a new release from The Crystals. Surprised by that because she typically worked as a backing vocalist on Crystals records and hadn’t lately, she kept listening. And the new Crystals record was her very own voice singing “He’s Sure The Boy I Love.”
“I mean, I stopped dead in the car and went, ‘I don’t believe this,’” she says. “I turned my car around and went back to the office. It was like, ‘You know what, Phil? I don’t get it. What the hell is going on?’ I busted into his office — the secretary, ‘Darlene, wait a minute, wait a minute, he’s in a meeting.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’” Spector explained to her that he thought the song would have a better chance for success if he released it as a Crystals record — because “He’s A Rebel” was by then a hit for them. “And I said, ‘Yeah, in my voice. And so it just seemed logical to you that we just put another one out with my voice under their name.’”
That wasn’t all — Love also sang lead on records credited to Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans (a group she was at least part of), including the infectious, careening “Not Too Young To Get Married.” Spector did eventually release records under her name, including “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “A Fine Fine Boy.” The latter led to what she says is the only conflict she ever had in the studio with Spector, over the song’s spoken line, “He’s a fine, fine, super-fine boy.” After hearing a gum-chomping Spector tell her again and again in an exaggerated voice what he wanted the line to sound like, she got blunt, according to her own account.
“I said, ‘What’s the matter, it’s not black enough for you? Or should I put some gum in my mouth while I say it?’” They eventually reached agreement, but when she recently heard the original tapes from the studio, she was struck by the sharp conflict. “I just couldn’t say it black enough for him,” she repeats. “I said, ‘Maybe you need to come in here and do it yourself, or find somebody blacker than me to say it, ’cause I can’t get it that way.’”
She’s gotten around since then. She’s been in Hairspray on Broadway and she played Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies. But if you see Darlene Love on television now, it’s more than likely because of her very long relationship with David Letterman’s show, which began in 1986 when he was on NBC and continued after he moved to CBS. For 25 years now, she has sung “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” every holiday season — every year except 2007, during the writers’ strike that took the show off the air. (That’s not the only thing she’s done on the show, either — in May 2007, she served up a version of “River Deep, Mountain High” when she was 68 years old that will blow you out of your shoes. Good luck watching it only once.)
Speaking of Christmas, I simply could not help asking her about the much-loved Spector-produced Christmas compilation A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, released in 1963, which introduced her rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the Ronettes’ iconic “Sleigh Ride,” and others. It also features, however, Spector himself speaking soothingly about how much he enjoyed making the record over a track of “Silent Night.” For everyone with whom I’ve ever discussed the record, it’s a bizarre, discordant moment — why is a producer suddenly talking to me about how glad he is that we shared this time together? I just had to ask her: What’s with that weird business where he starts … talking?
She doesn’t really know either. And she didn’t know when the were cutting the record. “At first, he tells me we’ll all sing ‘Silent Night.’ And we went in there, recorded, ‘Si-i-lent night,’ really cute. Then when the record came out, he was on it. We was like, ‘What the …?’” She says it all goes back to how Spector saw himself and his artists. “He’s also that type of person that — even though he’s not on any of the sessions except [as] the producer, he wanted people to know he is the boss.”
I told her that for me, especially given what came later — you know, Spector going to prison for killing actress Lana Clarkson — I find his sudden appearance on a Christmas album kind of … creepy. She paused. “Just don’t listen to that part,” she said dryly.
But talking about Spector with her was surprising. I must admit that I expected to find her holding more of a grudge; she’d certainly be entitled. Denied credit, denied a chunk of royalties until she won a lawsuit, she still expresses mostly gratitude — as she did when she was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and said, “I am so thankful for the genius of Phil Spector, for his recognition of my talent to be the main voice of his Wall of Sound.” I acknowledged to her that she’s just not as angry as I feel like I’d be.
For one thing, as she pointed out, these aren’t fresh incidents: “I had a lot of years to get un-angry,” she says. But it’s also something of a matter of principle. “I have no reason to hate him,” she says, “and I never did, because I always found that hate makes you ugly. Makes you have wrinkles. Which I don’t have.” Here, she laughed. “But you know what? That has a whole lot to do with your insides. When you hate people, it not only makes you hate that person, it gives that vibe off for everything around you. I really do believe that. So I really did try hard not to dislike him and always be the good guy, and say what I say about him and nothing bad. ‘Cause it doesn’t help.”
Women Who Rock premieres on PBS stations tonight. Check your local listings. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]