Darlene Love is one of those artists who took much too long to gain fame on her own terms. The first half of her career is so closely intertwined with Phil Spector that she was in danger of becoming a permanent footnote in the history of R&B. Happily, by the 1980s, she had squirmed out from under Spector’s shadow and become a genuine star on her own.
Gospel music was the main soundtrack of Darlene Love’s childhood. Born Darlene Wright in 1941, she was the daughter of a minister in Los Angeles. The allure of popular music in her teens expanded her range; in high school she sang with a doo-wop group called the Echoes.
In 1958, she joined a girl group called the Blossoms, replacing Nanette Williams, who left to start a family. Spector heard the Blossoms in 1962 and invited them into the studio. Love’s big break happened by accident: on the day “He’s a Rebel” was supposed to be recorded, Spector’s usual group, the Crystals, couldn’t make it to the session. Spector had the Blossoms do it instead (although the Crystals got the credit), and assigned Darlene Wright to sing lead. Can you imagine that song sung by anyone else?
Soon Spector renamed her Darlene Love, and she became a force on his label, Philles Records. But he did not treat her with the professional respect she was earning. The Crystals were once again credited for her recording of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” Despite the unfair treatment, Love and Spector were a hit-maker singles machine, churning out songs like “Wait Til’ My Bobby Gets Home.”
Among the many projects to which Spector assigned Love was the group Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. The male singer, Bobby Sheen, was considered the star, with Love and Fanita James (a fellow member of the Blossoms) singing backup. But it was Love’s voice that made the group shine.
Their only album was a four-track EP called Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, recorded in 1962. The EP was named after the song the group recorded for Disney’s animated film Song of the South, and this version became a hit single. Love sang lead on the title track as well as on “My Heart Beat a Little Faster,” by Ellie Greenwich, best known for the Crystals hits “And Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Love’s soulful but perfectly controlled voice drenched the song with a gospel vibe.
The Blossoms continued to perform throughout the 1960s. One of the their highest-profile moments was their appearance on Elvis Presley’s comeback TV special, Elvis, in 1968. After a few more years working mainly as a backup singer, including with the famed Ronettes, Love stepped away from the music business to raise her kids.
But she was not finished! In a comeback that rivaled that of the King himself, Love became – and remains to this day – a beloved solo star.
She dipped her toe back in the water in 1981, playing small rooms in Los Angeles. To her amazement, audiences remembered her fondly, and the gigs kept pouring in, all over the country and then the world. But her most significant venue was The Bottom Line in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she put together a couple of nostalgic, autobiographical solo shows. They led to an annual invitation to sing the 1963 Phil Spector hit “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on David Letterman’s TV show.
As Love became a household name, it made sense to start recording new material. Her first solo album was Paint Another Picture, released in 1988. It’s mostly synthpop-meets-R&B, in the rather vacuous style of the times, similar to Whitney Houston or the Pointer Sisters’ biggest late-’80s hits. However, there are some nice horn arrangements by Darrell Leonard and a musical jewel at the end, Love’s rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Rather than carry another solo release on her shoulders, Love instead chose a duo project with Lani Groves, an R&B singer who had worked with Stevie Wonder in the 1970s. Bringing It Home, released on Shanachie Records in 1992, is not a typical duet album: it contains very few duets. Mostly the two singers take turns singing solo tracks.
One of Love’s contributions is a cover of The Beatles’ “Let It Be.” There’s some solid musical architecture in this arrangement of Lennon/McCartney standard, which grows from voice and acoustic piano to a Phil Spector-sized “wall of sound,” complete with backup singers, Hammond organ, and electric guitar. And, of course, Love sings her heart out.
It was hardly unexpected that Love should return to her earliest musical roots by making a gospel album, 1998’s Unconditional Love. As her producer she chose Edwin Hawkins, who was only one year her junior and well known as a gospel musician and arranger. Importantly, he was associated with the so-called urban contemporary gospel sound, which had developed in the 1960s.
For the album, Hawkins arranged his own composition, “If You Ever Need Him (You Need Him Now),” with an R&B groove that represents one branch of urban contemporary gospel.
As a sign of her universal impact on the music industry, Love was honored with a unique multi-artist project in 2015. Rather than fellow singers performing songs that had made Love famous, this was a much cleverer idea: songwriters who had been influenced by her wrote songs for Love to sing. Introducing Darlene Love, on Columbia Records, boasted new compositions by some top names, including Steve Van Zandt, Joan Jett, and Bruce Springsteen.
One of the highlights is Elvis Costello’s “Forbidden Nights.” Costello often borrows musical tropes from the 1960s in his songs, so this was the ideal milieu for him. It’s not hard to imagine Phil Spector wanting one of his girl groups to record this number, with Love singing lead. This time, though, she gets her name in lights.
Darlene Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. It should have happened long before that, but like her career in general, she eventually got what she so richly deserved.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Wes Washington.