Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1941, Darlene Love began performing as a backup singer for artists including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra after being discovered by producer Phil Spector in 1962. Despite her success as a backup performer, however, she struggled to gain fame for her solo endeavors.
Born Darlene Wright on July 26, 1941, in Los Angeles, California, Darlene Love began performing at a very early age. The daughter of a minister and one of five siblings, Love first began singing in her church choir.
Love grew up in South Central Los Angeles long before the racial tension, crime and violence for which the area later became infamous had taken over the community. Love later remembered the Los Angeles of her childhood as "a city that existed mostly in people's imaginations…. But for us, Los Angeles had nothing to do with movie stars or stubbly, hard-drinking gumshoes trying to piece together broken dreams after hours. For us, Los Angeles was contained in about 20 blocks, bookended on one side by our projects and playgrounds and on the other by church."
When her father received an offer to lead his own church in San Antonio, the family moved to Texas, where Love first discovered the power of her voice. The family relocated back to California in 1956; soon after, Love—still in high school at the time—was invited to join a girl group called The Blossoms. The trio performed locally and also sang in backup sessions for the likes of Sam Cooke and Bobby Day. Even greater success in the music industry waited just around the corner.
The Girl Group Sound
In 1962, Love caught the ear of groundbreaking producer Phil Spector, who immediately recognized the immense potential in her voice and brought her into his new direction for 1960s music: the "girl group sound." One of Spector's biographers remembers Love's impact on the producer: "She had a peculiarly young voice, which made it suitable for the songs Spector liked best—the ones dealing with adolescent emotional experiences. However, unlike most of the kids around, she was also a solidly professional singer with exemplary technique, control and flexibility. She had real power and genuine dynamic range…. In a word, Darlene was a godsend."
Through the rest of the 1960s, Love performed in a wide variety of venues, recording with The Blossoms and as a solo artist, while also singing backup for the likes of Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick, The Beach Boys, and many, many more. As Love later recalled, "One time I had to make a list of all the people I've worked for ... The list was unreal, with over 200 famous people we had actually backed up over 15 years."
Despite her impressive resume, Love never quite attained the level of stardom she sought. Instead she became the decade's most sought-after session singer, providing backup vocals for some of the era's greatest hits: "River Deep, Mountain High" by Tina Turner, "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love" by The Crystals, "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers and many more. Through it all, Love remained a mainstay of The Blossoms' ever-changing lineup, but the group never became a household name.
Perhaps one reason why Love never attained individual fame could be found in the adaptable nature of her talent; she had a rare ability to match the voicing and style of whatever artist she was backing. "We didn't try to change the artists' sounds," she said. "We tried to sound exactly like they did. Background singers who are any good have to be great imitators."
The strange story of "He's a Rebel" is perhaps the most poignant example of how Love lost her chance at stardom. The song was meant to be performed by The Crystals and backed by The Blossoms, but The Crystals were out of town at the time the song was ready to be recorded. Spector did not want any other artists to beat him to the punch, so he had Love and The Blossoms record the entire song. He then released the single under The Crystals, hoping to capitalize on that act's wider reputation. The record shot up the charts, peaking at No. 11; no one was the wiser that The Crystals' big new hit had really been sung by a completely different group. Love remains, paradoxically, one of the most recognizable yet anonymous voices of the 1960s.
By 1963, Love grew frustrated with giving her beautiful voice away under other artists' names and convinced Spector to release a spate of singles, including "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry," "A Fine, Fine Boy" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." But the huge demand for her backup singing kept her too preoccupied to aggressively pursue a solo effort. At times she also encountered almost ridiculously bad luck. Her catchy single "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" was released just two weeks before the John F. Kennedy assassination and then virtually disappeared from the airwaves, as only somber music was allowed on the radio that holiday season. Undaunted, Love continued to promote the song, and it eventually became almost synonymous with holiday music. In recent years, she has performed it every year on Late Night With David Letterman. "It's so wonderful," she says, "to have people come up to me and tell me they do not feel it's the holidays until they have heard me sing 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).'
The Blossoms continued to record throughout the 1960s, appearing weekly on a television show called Shindig! on which they performed covers of the big hits of the day. The Blossoms eventually released their only album, Shockwave, in 1972. The record, a compilation of all the group's best-known songs from the 1960s, included only one track—"Son-In-Law" (1961) —that had cracked the Top 100 on its initial release, and Shockwave too failed to chart.
In the 1970s, as musical tastes evolved away from the 1960s girl group sound, Love's career lagged. Her biggest song of the era was 1975's "Lord, If You're a Woman," recorded with Phil Spector, but it did not chart.
By 1981, despite her decades-long career, Love was forced to clean houses in Beverly Hills to make ends meet. Deciding that she couldn't stay in the shadows, Love relaunched her music career at the age of 40 by performing shows around her native Los Angeles. In 1984, she married Alton Allison; together they would eventually have three sons. In the same year, she first took her talent to the stage by starring in Leader of the Pack, a musical based on the songs and life of songwriter Ellie Greenwich. Love also appeared in all three Lethal Weapon movies. And in 1988 she finally released her first solo album, Paint Another Picture, under her own name.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Despite her many near misses with superstardom, Love does not look back on her life with sadness. "I had my home, my family," she says. "Session work let you do the music and leave." In the 1990s, she released a gospel record, Unconditional Love, that brought her back to her roots in church music.
In 2011, Love finally received the recognition she long deserved when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "What a voice," said Bette Midler, who gave Love's induction speech. "What an unquenchable spirit, what a journey, and what a great, great artist… No voice drove me crazier than Darlene Love's. From the moment I experienced the powerhouse that is Darlene I was a goner ... Her long and remarkable career has spanned 50 years and has been touched by both dark and light. She has been robbed of royalties but never of self-respect, and yet she lives without a trace of bitterness. She keeps on singing because singing is what brings her joy. She sung her way home into our hearts and right into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has endured; she has prevailed."
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