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She's a Rebel

A white dude on a motorcycle.


That’s the first visual correlation a whole generation of listeners had with the voice of Darlene Love. Indeed, the picture sleeve accompanying the 45 single of “He’s A Rebel” reflected nothing of the woman singing the song. In fact, even the name of the group on the sleeve—“The Crystals”—was not accurate. While the real Crystals were on tour, producer Phil Spector recorded The Blossoms on the track with Darlene Love singing lead. It would not be the last time. After that song’s chart-topping success in summer 1962, Darlene Love fronted “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals and “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts” by Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans. Her voice was simultaneously ubiquitous and anonymous.


Fifty years later, rock and roll history has been rectified. The woman who belted out those hits, as well as her own properly credited “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home”  is now receiving an honor that is rightly hers: an induction to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


The honor arrives at a particularly auspicious time. While Love will be inducted to the Hall of Fame on 14 March, PBS will air The Concert of Love throughout March. Available on CD and DVD, the concert was filmed at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, New Jersey and features Darlene Love giving the audience a veritable history of rock and roll. Much of that history is also captured on The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love, a new compilation of Love’s work with Phil Spector as both a solo artist and the “phantom” vocalist on hits by The Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans. The collection heralds the long overdue restoration of the Philles Records catalog, which will be re-released through a joint venture between Sony’s Legacy Recordings and EMI Music Publishing later in 2011.


Of course, the career of Darlene Love transcends her legendary recordings with Phil Spector. With The Blossoms, she appeared in the historic T.A.M.I. Show (1964), was a weekly guest on Shindig!, and backed Elvis Presley on Elvis, his 1968 “Comeback Special”.  Her voice has ignited Broadway stages a number of times, including appearances in Grease, Hairspray, and Leader of the Pack, the musical based on the life of Ellie Greenwich, the late songwriter who penned many of the hits that featured Love as lead vocalist. As viewers of the Late Show With David Letterman can attest, Darlene Love has appeared on the show every year for the past 20 years during December to serenade viewers with the song she immortalized in 1963, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”.


Reflecting on her five-decade career, Darlene Love sounds as excited now as she was walking into Gold Star Studios to record “He’s A Rebel”. Despite all of the obstacles Darlene Love has endured, which she candidly addressed in her autobiography My Name Is Love (1998), she’s retained a vivacity and effervescence that’s as engaging on record as it is in concert. When introducing Darlene Love at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert in 2009, Bruce Springsteen said it perfectly: Darlene Love is a “one woman Wall of Sound”.


+++

There’s so much to congratulate you about—the induction, the new CD, the concert special. I guess the best place to start would be, where were you when you found out about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction?


[laughs] I was on my way to Atlantic City to do a job and I was in this limousine that was longer than my house! I was wondering why they chose such a long car. Terry Stewart from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called me and he said, “Well, welcome to the family.” I said, “Who’s this?” He said, “It’s Terry.” I thought for a few minutes and then I started screaming. It was unbelievable. My husband was the only person in there with me. That’s how I actually found out.


The same month as the induction, The Concert of Love special is airing on PBS. What can viewers expect to see and hear?


There are some songs that I had never done before. My fans wanted to hear my old songs and so we got together with the producer and decided to do a concert that congregated all of the songs I recorded over the years. It really came out fantastic. We did it at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, New Jersey. It was a lot of fun and we put a lot of effort and energy into it. People are really appreciating what we did.


Now of course you do “River Deep-Mountain High” in the set ...


Yes, of course. I still think of it as mine even though Phil [Spector] gave it to Tina [Turner].


Has the meaning of that song changed for you over the years?


Not really. I’ve always had that song in my show. Very rarely do they put out a song today that is an uptempo song that is so great. Every time I sing that song—I did it in a Broadway show [Leader of the Pack] and I do it as a part of my show—I tell the people when I’m getting ready to sing it, “That’s my song even though Tina recorded it first!” [laughs]


It’s amazing. We’re in 2011 and it’s almost 50 years since “He’s A Rebel” went to number one on the pop charts. Tell me about having a number one record with your voice but not your name on it.


It wasn’t so bad because when I did “He’s A Rebel” for Phil Spector, I did it as a back-up singer. It wasn’t supposed to be under my name. Even though it was a number one record and wasn’t under my name, I didn’t really feel that bad. It was later when Phil Spector was recording me and he said it was my song and he put it out under The Crystals name. That’s when I really started feeling bad.


We all know what the Wall of Sound sounded like on those recordings, but what did it look like?


It’s an old studio. You have to figure this is 1962. It was just a studio that was in town off of Santa Monica Boulevard. It was everything that Phil Spector needed. It wasn’t a huge place but he got all those people in there at one time. All of those musicians: the piano players, percussion, drums. It was amazing when you would walk in the studio. I knew most of the musicians because I had been a background singer so we would go, “Here we go again”—all of us in this room that only holds ten!


In the interview you gave for The Very Best of Darlene Love, you’re quoted as saying said that when you first worked with Phil Spector in 1962, he didn’t want people to know you were black ...


Right. Phil Spector didn’t want people to know we were black because he had a pop sound and, back in those days, there was really a no getting-together of the white radio stations and the black radio stations because the Top 40 was totally white. Then there were the rhythm and blues stations, where they played all of the black singers. We didn’t sound black so Phil didn’t tell people. He didn’t say we were black. He didn’t say we were white. He gave them our albums and they played them.


The image that a lot of people have of Phil Spector is of this mad studio genius. What were your impressions of him?


In the beginning, I just thought he was this little man who was trying to be successful. The biggest thing about Phil was that he was more interested in making himself a star than he was with his artists. I thought that was very unusual. Every time you saw Phil, he was dressed in a suit and tie. I always thought of him as one of these producers who knew exactly what he wanted. He knew exactly what he wanted the musicians to play, which was wonderful. It was towards the end of my relationship with Phil that I thought he was a nut, that he didn’t know what he wanted, that he was going crazy and trying to kill us. He taught me how to sing a song with just the melody. “Don’t deviate. This is the melody and this is what I want you to sing.” In the years to come, I learned how to sing [other] people’s songs. You never know what the melody sounds like a lot of times when you hear the singers sing their hits and change their songs. Then you hear the original melody and you go, “Wow. They really deviated from the melody!” I love a song that has a beautiful melody and Phil did teach me how to sing the melody of a song. I really am grateful for that to this day.


I know you recorded a gospel album in 1998 [Unconditional Love]. If you were given an unlimited budget and complete creative control, what kind of album would you want to make in 2011?


It would sound like my roots. It would sound like what I do on stage. A lot of times, that’s hard to capture: what you sound like in person versus what you sound like on record. If I had total control, I would do a lot of the old songs, not only my songs, but Sam Cooke songs, Luther Vandross, melody songs. That’s what I would really do if I had an opportunity to do a record. “You want to go to the studio? Here’s the money. Go in there. Hire the best musicians. Hire the best writers. Go in there and pick your own songs.” There’s a song that I sing in my show that’s from Hairspray, “I Know Where I’ve Been”. It has an unbelievable message. It has an unbelievable melody line. I would do songs like that.


I had the opportunity to see you at Joe’s Pub in New York in 2004 and you did an incredible rendition of “At Last”.


It’s such a great song. There’s nothing you can do to improve on it. It’s never going to be better than what the original “At Last” was but you do your own take on it and stay with the melody. My whole thing when I sing that song is, “yes, at last I have made it!” That’s why you hear it different when I’m singing it. I’m singing it the way Etta did it, but I’m giving it a totally new perspective and twist on it because of my life. You know what I’m saying?


Yes, of course. It definitely came across. I just remember being completely transfixed when you sang that song because you put every ounce of yourself into it. You’ve been on the Broadway stage a number of times. What is your defining Broadway moment?


Well one of my favorite performances on Broadway was because it was something that occurred in my life personally—Hairspray. It was about a fat white girl who wanted to dance with black dancers. I went through that when I did the television show Shindig! in 1964 and 1965. They did not want a black group on that television show. They wanted the television show but they did not want us because we were black. It was going to be a national show, it wasn’t going to be local. The producer said, “If you don’t want my girls, then you don’t want me.” Every night, when I did Hairspray, it was exactly the same thing. I just lived my life over every night. That’s why I put all that I had into “I Know Where I’ve Been” every night.


In the CD booklet, there’s a great photo of you and The Blossoms singing with Marvin Gaye at The T.A.M.I. Show (1964). That concert has been called the very best rock concert movie that was ever made. How would you describe the whole experience of performing in it?


I’m always happy to be a part of history. When you’re a part of history, you live forever. The T.A.M.I. Show will live forever because now it’s brand new. We did that 40-odd years ago and people are really starting to see it now. I was a part of history when I recorded that show. Back in that day, people didn’t really know yet who James Brown was. It was the first time he had ever performed nationally in front of black and white audiences. People were so astounded by his show that they didn’t want to let him off the stage. People were applauding. He’d come back on. James could perform for hours. The Rolling Stones were supposed to come on right after James and they said, “Uh-uh. We ain’t going on after him.” They had to have an intermission so people could calm down and The Rolling Stones could come on the stage! It was amazing.


When you look at that footage, there’s nothing like it.


And there never will be.


It really is a defining moment in history, that entire show. From now until the induction ceremony, what do you have planned? How are you going to spend the next couple of weeks?


I had dinner with Bette Midler last night and we laughed all the way through dinner. I don’t know how much we ate but we laughed and had a good time. She’ll be inducting me. She asked, “Is there anything that you don’t want me to get into?” I said, “Girl, I’m an open book. You can say whatever you want!” I’m really just trying to get my nerves ready before standing out there in front of all my peers that I adore and have worked for all these years. They’re sending out little e-mails saying try to keep your speeches short. I said, “Okay I’ll cry for five minutes!”


When did you first get to know Bette? How did you come into each other’s lives?


I met her through Marc Shaiman, he played piano for her. When Al Gore was running for President, she asked me to come and sing with her on stage. I was like, “Wow! Sure.” I’d been working with her off and on for about 15 years. She always puts me in something that’s huge. She’s wonderful.


All these years later, what do you share in common with the woman singing “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Going to Marry?”


I still have a lot in common with that person. It’s amazing. I love being married. I’ve been married three times. My third husband and I have been together for 27 years ...


Congratulations!


Thank you. It means a lot to me, the sanctity of marriage. It talks about two people trying to get along because it’s a 24/7 job. It’s something you work on every day, having respect for one another, and that song tells that. It’s still a personal song for me, even today.


I know that song holds a special place for so many people who have you in the fabric of their lives. That’s a very powerful thing.


It really is. It’s very powerful. I really do not take it for granted, either. It’s a wonderful part of my life.

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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