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Darlene Love reflects on the highs and lows of her 'first 80 years': 'Hate is too heavy a burden to carry'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·15 min read

As evidenced by the title of her upcoming birthday concert at New York’s City Winery, “Darlene Love: The First 80 Years,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and 20 Feet From Stardom Grammy-winner shows no signs of slowing down. 

Love has reinvented herself dozens of times and pushed past multiple career obstacles since her days as a background singer with the Blossoms, when she first met notorious record producer Phil Spector in 1962 and lent her impeccable vocals to some of his most enduring and influential recordings. And while she didn’t always get the credit she deserved, she now looks back on a life well-lived and an incredible body of work. She even cites her most recent solo album, 2015’s Steven Van Zandt-produced Introducing Darlene Love (which featured songs written by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb, Linda Perry, Desmond Child, Joan Jett, Michael Des Barres, and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil), as her best. And there will hopefully be many more concerts and recordings to come.

The most successful period of Love's illustrious career was of course the early to mid-‘60s, when she was working with Spector — but the biggest hit on which she sang lead, the No. 1 “He's a Rebel,” was credited to another artist, Spector’s girl group the Crystals. The producer promised that another song she recorded with him, “He's Sure the Boy I Love,” would be released as her official debut solo single, but it too was billed as a Crystals single (which she only discovered when she heard a radio DJ back-announce it). Other songs Love recorded were credited to groups like Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, or she was relegated to backup-singer status despite doing most of the vocal heavy lifting. 

Using his control of the copyrights, Spector later blocked Love from performing the songs she made famous, including the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”; Love eventually sued him for unpaid royalties in 1993 and won a $250,000 settlement. But Love never lost faith, even at her lowest point when she was working as a maid while still hearing her old songs on the radio, or when she took a job on a cruise ship (an opportunity she actually relished, without hesitation or shame, because she was delighted to be singing for live audiences). And now, at age 80, Love is playing sold-out gigs again.

Ahead of her big birthday show on July 26, Love spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about her “love/hate relationship” with Spector (who died this past January while serving a prison sentence for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson), how she found peace and forgiveness, why she spurned advances from both Elvis Presley and Tom Jones, what she considers to be her greatest career achievement, and the one thing she still wants to accomplish before she retires.

Yahoo Entertainment: Happy birthday! I remember when your autobiography My Name Is Love came out in 1998, you were closing in on your 60th birthday at that time. And you wrote that you had a list of certain goals you’d hoped to accomplish by age 60. So now, when you look back at age 80, what do you consider to be your biggest career accomplishment?

Darlene Love: Well, it's amazing, because back then, I didn't really think about getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And [in 2011], I was inducted, which I think is probably one of the greatest honors that can be given to somebody in our business. It's like a private, exclusive club. Being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame makes me want to actually keep on going, keep on doing what I'm doing.

Since you’re taking stock of your entire career with this milestone birthday show… what would you say is your favorite vocal that you've ever done?

I think as years went by, my voice started getting stronger and stronger, actually. As I started maturing, my voice started maturing. Unfortunately, that wasn't recognized on the album that I did with Stevie Van Zandt a few years ago [Introducing Darlene Love]. I wish more people had heard that. I really do think that's my greatest work that I've done vocally, and that is still one of my favorite albums.

You had a lot of junctures in your career where it seemed like things were coming together for you and you were finally getting your big break and then it would all fall apart. How did you stay so resilient, when your hopes were dashed repeatedly?

It did seem for a while that I really got caught up in disappointments upon disappointments. But then somebody would always come through for me. Like, one of the Righteous Brothers helped me put together a show and a band, or Lou Adler, a very good friend of mine, started helping me getting me in touch with different people. I sang backup for Nancy Sinatra and she let me sing a solo in her show. If it wasn't for my background and history, I don't know if I would have ever made it, because I did backup for Dionne Warwick and Tom Jones and Elvis Presley and all those wonderful people, and they heard in me what I wanted to do and where I was trying to go. And they all lent a hand. But sometimes, it was the wrong hand. I had a lot of deals that fell through. But I always thought, “The next one is coming.” You just have to think like that; you can’t ever have a defeated attitude about it. I still had my health, and that's all you really need.

 Darlene Love in 1962. (Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns)
Darlene Love in 1962. (Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns)

A lot of your legal setbacks were because of Phil Spector. Your relationship with him was complicated and troubled, to say the least. But it seems you weren’t easily intimidated by him.

Yeah, I wasn't intimidated by him because I had a voice already before I met him. I was making a very good living as a backup singer back in those days because of our union, and we were making double scale. That's how great we were as backup singers! So, I wasn't looking to have this big hit record — at first. At that time I had a family, I was married, and I was very comfortable. I wasn't craving attention. And Phil realized that, so he knew he couldn't intimidate me. So, we always had one of those love/hate relationships. As time went on, he realized it wasn't about him giving me a hit record, so the biggest thing he could do was try to put a foot in front of me, to keep me from moving ahead. And he tried — and he tried hard. He kept up with what I was doing every step of the way, even after I moved to New York. When I was singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the David Letterman show, about two or three years after I started singing it, he called NBC and tried to talk to the producers, saying, “Shut it down. You're not allowed to let Darlene sing that song. If you keep letting her sing that song, I'm going to sue you!” And they said, “OK then, so sue us!” His attitude was, “I made her who she is. I gave her her name.” But you know, it was still me! He didn't give me life! So, I learned not to be bothered by him. I just told myself he is who he is, and I am who I am too. And I can still make a very good living at what I do.

You don't seem particularly bitter. And a lot people in your shoes would be, to be honest.

Well, it's funny. Bette Midler is one of my good friends and she inducted me into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And one of her statements was, “Darlene lives without a trace of bitterness. I wonder what that’s like!” But I had to get past it, you know what I'm saying? Hate is too heavy a burden to carry. I'd rather try love than try hate. Hate is not doing you any good. So, that's what I always had in the back of my mind. And I had faith, to believe that if I keep on doing what I'm doing, and if I really want it, God will give me the desires of my heart.

You actually acknowledged Phil in your Hall of Fame acceptance speech, saying, “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 don't know when you last spoke with him, because obviously he spent his final years in jail. Did you two ever have any conversations where you had some kind of closure?

Not really. Right before I took him to court, he tried to do a piecemeal — he sent his manager to talk to me and offer me $25,000 to sign a deal that said I would never sue Phil Spector, that I would never try to make movies that he didn’t have a part of in, et cetera. Really silly. “You want to give me $25,000? Why don't make it a couple of million, and then maybe I can think about it!” I did write him one letter when he first went to prison to say I was sorry that his life was ending like this: “I can only wish you the best. I hope all is well with you.” I also remember I said, “I don't want to be the one that said I told you so, but remember the days when you had the guns and you were acting foolish and silly? I kept warning you, one of these days, somebody's going to get hurt. Because guns don't shoot people, people shoot people.” And that was so long before he went to prison for killing someone. I could already see that happening, because of how he was acting.

Did you have any firsthand experiences with guns with him?

One time at a recording session, I got to the session at Gold Star and everybody was coming out of the studio. I said, “What's going on? What's happened?” They said, “Phil’s in there with guns and he's playing with them! He's going to shoot somebody someday!” And I just turned right around and went back home. And then after a little while, I guess Phil wondered where I was. He used to call me Doll, so he was like, “What happened to Doll? Where is she?” They said, “She went home. She's not coming in there with you acting a fool with guns.” He was irate and he phoned me at home: “Doll, what's up? We were supposed to record tonight!” I said, “Phil, I'm not going to be around you with no guns. When you've put the guns away — and by that, I mean far away from you, like where you can't go back and get them — then I'll come in to work. But not until then.” Why put myself in that position? What am I going to do, go in there to see what he's doing? I'd be the one to get shot!

Were you ever scared?

No, I wasn't really afraid that he was going to do something to me. I really do believe Phil Spector cared for me. He cared for my talent. I know that, because I’d hear things from the engineer that Phil would say about me — really great and honoring things. So, I never thought I was in any danger at any time. … And the biggest reason for that was I really do believe he did respect me and knew where I stood.

You two made some iconic music together that has stood the test of time, but of course now his legacy is forever tainted. How do you feel that, for better or worse, your names will always be linked in pop history? It’s all part of the separating-art-from-artist debate, as well as cancel culture.

Yeah, people dismiss the music for other reasons, but not for the talent. There are great songs that you liked at one time, but now they've fallen from grace, so to speak. But what does that got to do with the music? Phil Spector songs are going to be around forever. … I'm not saying what he did was right by no stretch of the imagination, but it's still great music. Why should I stop liking his music? Can you imagine if we go back to when music was first created, the symphonies? This [#MeToo] stuff has been going on for years; it doesn't just start with rock ‘n’ roll. We're just more alert about it now. Whatever happened, the music is going to live on forever. No matter who did it, if it's great songs. … Someone falls from grace, so nobody likes their music anymore? I am not going to be the one to think like that.

You mentioned Elvis, so I definitely want to ask about him too, because I understand he had the hots for you.

Yeah, that was interesting! We had a relationship — not a romantic relationship — because of gospel music. When we did his ‘68 Comeback special, he heard that I was there and that I was a gospel singer and I knew the songs, so he would go get his guitar and we would sing together. I found out that was his favorite kind of music — gospel music. And then we did a movie with him, Change of Habit, and were breaking for lunch and I passed by Elvis's trailer and his door was open. He said, “Hey, Darlene!” I said, “Hey, Elvis, I’m off to have lunch,” and he said, “No, come here!” So I went in and he said, “You know… I really do like you.” And I really got nervous, because it's Elvis Presley, and what am I going to do? Am I going to turn him down? But yes, that is exactly what I did. Nothing happened. I didn't give him no room, no space, for nothing to happen. It was a good decision for me to make. And we became very, very good friends after that.

Didn’t he say he wanted to be with a Black woman, or something like that?

He said he had never been with a Black woman before. And I told him, “And you won't be with this one!” That’s what I said. [laughs]

Were you offended by that comment?

No. Nope. Not at all. There’s a whole lot of men like that, just they won’t say it. That was not the first time I'd heard that before. It just happened to be Elvis Presley.

Another famous heartthrob who propositioned you, who you also turned down, was Tom Jones.

Oh, yeah. That was a no-brainer too. Him on the road? We were on tour with Tom Jones for two years, and they used to have these wild parties. And they asked us how come the Blossoms never came to their parties. We said, “Because y'all crazy. We hear about all the things y'all be doing. We ain't coming to your parties!” And he said, “Well, we don't be doing nothing. Why don't y'all come over?” So we went one night, and they were very nice. Everybody was drinking and just laughing, dancing, having a good time. Eventually we said, “Well, thanks, guys. We're going to bed. See you tomorrow.” And then Tom said, “OK, bring in the [other] ladies! The Blossoms are leaving!” So, that was a very good decision for me, to not get intimate with Tom Jones, because of all his ladies — all kinds, all colors, everything, it didn't matter. I wasn't going to be counted among the many.

Ha! So, of all the people you've sang for, who was the one that you liked working with the most?

Actually, Luther Vandross — not just because of his name, but because he loved background. You know, before he became a star, he was a backup singer himself. His sessions were always so much fun. He had probably the greatest background singers there ever were at that time, and everybody was such good friends. So, when we got together to do Luther's sessions, we knew we were going to have fun. We would laugh and talk and carry on. It was a dream come true for me to work with him.

So, I began this interview by asking about the list of goals you’d set out to accomplish by age 60. Now that you're about to have this big 80th birthday celebration, what is still on your list now?

On my “bucket list,” as they say, I have scratched off almost every one of those. The only thing I would really like to do is maybe have one more good record. I've been talking to Stevie, and we might be going back in the studio, to try to do a couple of songs and see what we can come up with. I would really like to have that under my own name. I would like my name to be on a No. 1 record — as Darlene Love, not the Crystals, not someone else. But if that doesn't happen, that's fine.

Darlene Love at 79. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for American Heart Association )
Darlene Love at 79. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for American Heart Association )

The above interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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