20 Feet from Stardom
Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear
If the fascinating—and often frustrating—history of background singers in the music industry were a great American novel, Darlene Love would undoubtedly be its heroine. For decades she was, ironically, the unsung hero to dozens of number one records for everyone from Dionne Warwick to Elvis Presley to Sonny and Cher, a nuanced supporting voice as crucial to a song’s arrangement as its instruments.
A key brick that held together Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound, Ms. Love began her career in the early ‘50s as a member of the Blossoms, a little known but industrious backing group whose pitch-perfect harmonies transformed singles into sensations. When Spector recruited the Blossoms to lend their vocals to a track called “He’s a Rebel” for popular girl group the Crystals, he quickly developed an affinity for the velvety strength and agility of Love’s register and began to record the Blossoms—with Love in the lead—on several more songs. But Spector’s business sense was as shrewd as his ear for talent, and he chose to keep the Crystals’ momentum on the charts going by denying Love credit for her contributions. Love, opting to keep her dignity, cut ties with Spector in pursuit of a more fulfilling solo career; her audacity, however, would prove no match for Spector’s spite, and after a steady struggle to make it on her own—she was, in essence, recognizable voice without a recognizable name—she’d find herself stuck on the outskirts of a swiftly changing industry landscape.
After a relatively idle period in the ‘70s (including a low point where she cleaned houses to make ends meet), Love was determined to make a comeback, but soon began to feel the burden of the near-impossibility of breaking into the industry as a “new” artist. As if the climb weren’t steep enough, background singers had become a thing of the past and any singing work at all was scarce. But a chance encounter in the mid-‘80s with Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt would persuade her to swap the West Coast for the East in a risky bid for a resurgence. Soon Love was hustling overtime to put a new face to an old voice, performing sold out shows at New York City’s top nightclubs, appearing on David Letterman to sing her seasonal classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, even landing a supporting acting role in the Lethal Weapon franchise as Danny Glover’s wife. Over the next decade, she’d make countless soundtrack contributions, hit the Broadway stage and, most poignantly, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, where she sang with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at Madison Square Garden (Love on lead, the Boss on backup).
PopMatters sat down with Ms. Love as part of our Performer Spotlight on the women of 20 Feet from Stardom, a new film by seasoned music documentarian Morgan Neville (Johnny Cash’s America, Troubadours) that shines a long overdue spotlight on the background singers who quite literally shaped the sound of American music for half a century.
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The singers profiled in 20 Feet from Stardom unanimously praise you as a pioneer in the music industry. In fact, when I spoke with Merry Clayton the first thing she said to me was that you taught her everything she knows.
[laughs] Yep, that’s part of it! But really, it’s so humbling and wonderful when you hear these incredible women say such things. You know, the whole reason this project even started was because two of my dear friends, [producer] Lou Adler and Dick [Richard] Donner, who directed the Lethal Weapon movies, called me up and said that their friend Gil Friesen [former A&M Records president], told them he wanted to make a movie about background singers and they said “Well, then you have to be in touch with Darlene Love”. So they called me to give me a heads up, to say I should expect his call, because they knew they wanted to do the film but they really didn’t know who to be in touch with or anything.
So, did you suggest the other singers to them?
There was collaboration between Lou and me. Lou had worked with a lot of great singers and background singers over the years, but I told him a lot of the main people to go to, like The Waters and other people in California and that’s how it started. Once the ball got rolling, though, I was surprised by how many ended up being in the movie.
I imagine there could have been even more singers featured given how far reaching this story is and how many decades it spans.
Oh yes, as I understand it, there were a whole lot more people filmed and interviewed. But they had to cut it down. That’s where Morgan Neville came in and he did an unbelievably excellent job shaping it into a cohesive story.
One of the most heartbreaking, but ultimately triumphant, moments in the film is when you discuss cleaning houses in Beverly Hills to make ends meet and then hearing yourself sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio which, of course, prompted you to work your way back to the top. How does the experience of hearing yourself on the radio during a low time compare to when you’re enjoying success?
Well, anytime you get the chance to hear yourself on the radio, it’s always magic. If you have a hit record of course they play it more and more and that feels terrific. Today they are playing our records more and more than they ever have, which is truly amazing. During the time I was kind of down and out and I was cleaning house because I couldn’t find a job singing and I heard “Christmas” on the radio that was more than a feeling—it was a big turning point for me. It was then that I made a decision to say, “Okay, I am going to be singing for the rest of my life. This is what I love to do. I know it is going to be hard but I am able to do it, and I will.” I told myself with the help of God, I can do it. And I never looked back.
What was that crucial first step back?
I had to put a show together because I wasn’t a back up singer anymore and I wasn’t with a group anymore and I had a hard time finding a job because I was not a Crystal. Promoters wanted to say “Formerly of the Crystals, yadda yadda”, and I had to say, “But I am not a Crystal, I never was a Crystal, and even though I had recorded Crystals songs I was still never actually a Crystal!” [The Crystals’ success] was really the making of Phil Spector. And this was a problem I ran into a lot when I tried to find jobs because no one had ever seen me work anywhere as a solo artist. They had seen me as a backup singer out on the road, they had seen me as a Blossom, but it was very, very hard and then one day working in Los Angeles I did a show at Lou Adler’s club and he invited a lot of his entertainer friends to come and see the show. Two of them were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt.
After the show, I got a chance to meet them and Steve Van Zandt said to me, “You have to move to New York” and I said, “But honey I don’t know anybody in New York! How am I gonna get a job?” And I think for a long time people thought I was a figment of Phil Spector’s imagination because they knew The Crystals, they knew The Ronettes, they knew Bob B. Sox and the Blue Jeans, but had never had met Darlene Love. So Steve said, “If I get you a job will you come?” So he did, he got me a job working at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, and then he got me a job at the Bottom Line. I always worked the Bottom Line. I became a staple. And here we are 30 years later, and I am still living in New York City.
Why such fabrication on Phil Spector’s part? Why this borrowing of a voice, separating the music from the person making it?
Spector already had the group the Crystals and they already had a few hit records, Top 10, Top 20, Top 30 records. So he figured it was easier to break another song under the name Crystals rather than break it under a newcomer’s name. There was no other reason, except he liked my voice and he liked the way I sounded, and he figured “I guess let’s just make you a Crystal”. The problem with that was I did not want to be a Crystal, I wanted to be Darlene Love. And when we were in the studio he was promising me every time it was going to be a Darlene Love record and when it came out, it came out under the Crystals. Eventually he started putting records out under my name but the funny part is that the records didn’t do as well as when I was singing under the Crystals. Same voice, but they just weren’t selling like the Crystals did.
It was a rocky path to be sure, but given the narrative of your story, it seems like it couldn’t have really gone any other way.
Absolutely. And I met a whole lot of people coming up along that way, met so many people who were supportive of me. I worked with Dionne Warwick, did shows with Bette Midler, and then I did the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Springsteen at the Garden. It was all important stuff because you want people to know you can work, you can sing, and you can still look good! [laughs] And I started doing the Letterman show in 1986 because when I was doing a show at the Bottom Line, a played called Leader of the Pack and Paul Shaffer was playing Phil Spector and he talked David Letterman into coming down to see the show.
Well, when I met Letterman he told me he thought “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” was the greatest Christmas song he ever heard and he wanted me to be on his show to sing it. And the work just flooded from there. During the holiday season I had more work than I could handle. Which was fine, don’t get me wrong! And so ever since it’s all been a roller coaster but you know roller coasters go up and then they go down, and then they go up again. The idea is not to stay down too long.
Well, you’re definitely at another high right now with this incredible film.
Yes, and it tells the story so well. Morgan really put it together beautifully. And to have musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Sting and the Rolling Stones and Bette Midler actually on camera praising their background singers is more than any of us ever expected.
You’ve worked with countless singers over the past 50-something years. Anyone you’re itching to sing alongside?
Barbra Streisand and Bruno Mars. I would love to work with those two. I’ve always wanted to work with Barbra Streisand because she’s worked with some of the best background singers in the world who are friends of mine, worked with them in concert or on movie soundtracks, and I always say “Now, where was I? Where was I when she was hiring people to work with her?” And Bruno Mars, I just love the way he sings and the kind of music he sings. But you know there’s always time if you ain’t getting too old, and I’m fine with that because I ain’t getting old, honey! [laughs]
20 Feet from Stardom is now playing in theaters.