Darlene Love is one of the greatest singers of all time, but many of the hit songs she performed on weren't actually released under Love's name.
As a background singer in the 1960s, Love's voice could be heard on tracks by Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Dione Warwick and Aretha Franklin. She also sang the No. 1 hit "He's A Rebel" for Phil Spector, a record that the eccentric producer wound up crediting to The Crystals. (Love also provided lead vocals for "He's Sure The Boy I Love," another song that Spector gave to The Crystals.)
"Nobody put the camera on the background singers who were singing," Love told HuffPost Entertainment. "It was on Stevie Wonder. It was on Elton John. It was on whoever was the lead singer out front. We were 20 feet from stardom."
A funny thing about that turn of phrase: Love, a Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2011, is part of a new documentary called "Twenty Feet From Stardom." Directed by Morgan Neville, the 2013 Sundance Film Festival debut has become the highest grossing doc of the year since its release in June, and the film is already being mentioned as a possible Oscar contender. "Twenty Feet From Stardom" puts a focus on background singers like Love, Merry Clayton (who sang on "Gimme Shelter") and others who made their careers performing away from center stage.
With "Twenty Feet From Stardom" continuing to expand to theaters around the U.S., HuffPost Entertainment spoke with the 72-year-old Love -- who, before now, might have been best known for the holiday staple "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and her supporting role in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise -- about the film, her career comeback and whether she regrets working with Phil Spector.
How did you get involved with this film?
Who came to me first was Gil Friesen, the producer. It was very funny: two friends of mine, Lou Adler, a record producer, and Dick Donner, who did the "Lethal Weapon" movies, called me and said, "This friend of ours is going to call you, Darlene. You be nice and talk to him." You know, over the years as entertainers, you get called for a whole lot of things. A lot of them don't pan out, and you use all your time and energy. When Gil called me, all he said was that he had an idea to do a story about background singers, but he didn't know where to go or what to do. What Lou and Dick told him was that if he was going to do a documentary about background singers, he'd have to call me, because I, with the group The Blossoms, was one of the first black background singers in the business. I think we did our first session in 1958. There were no black background singers, there were only white singers. They weren't even called background singers; they were just called singers. I don't know who gave us the name "background singers," but I think that came about when The Blossoms started doing background.
Does being called a background singer have a negative connotation for you?
No, it is very positive. Because anything in the background is always good. You like the background in movies. You look at the fun part of the movies, but your eye catches what's going on behind it. That's the reason why that term came up. We were part of the background. They never even talked about the band in those days.
Plus, as the film states, the background singers are the ones who usually performed the song's hook.
Exactly! If you listen to most songs, most people will not sing the words of the lead singer. They will sing the hook. The hook is what makes the record sell. Everybody can sing that hook, even if they can't sing [laughs].
Was there any competition between you and other background singers?
No! Because we were the first. Nobody knew how to get into background sessions but us. We had to tell them how to do it. We actually started the trend of putting background singers together. One other group was The Waters, who are in the movie, and we started them in the business, along with my sister, Edna Wright, Clydie King and Venetta Fields.
What happened was that The Blossoms got so big, that we couldn't handle it all. One time -- it was the only time we did this -- we did five sessions in one day. That almost wiped us out. It was a three-hour session for each session. To sing like that was almost impossible. But we were silly, we were having fun and, half the time, it was just great going to work for all these people. It was like, "Wow, we can make a living doing this!" The first year was very slow, but then about a year later then it really started to pick up. After that, it was like whoever was doing a session wanted The Blossoms on their record. They would wait for us. If we didn't have room, they would ask for our earliest date. We'd say, "Well, we can do you next week." That's the way it went for 10 years. It was very lucrative, believe me! We got $22.50 per hour back in those days. I think we finally caught up to that price [laughs]. But back in 1959, $22.50 an hour? Are you kidding?
There's a section in the film where you discuss hitting hard times, working as a maid in California in the early 1980s and then hearing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the radio. Next thing, you're performing the song for David Letterman, a tradition that still stands today. How did you make that leap?
That all started in California when I was having a lot of financial problems. I decided to go on the road -- and the road was great, but I got tired of being away from home. I came back home and tried to find session work, but session work was totally nil by then. I couldn't find any work. When I tried to perform again, it was also tough. See, I was never part of The Crystals; Phil Spector just used me like he used anybody else. I just sang their songs. I had no control over that. It wasn't my job to tell Phil Spector what to do [laughs]. How could I? So, by then, because there wasn't any work for me, I decided, "Well, I've got to do something. I have two children, I have to take care of me, I have to find some money." So I started doing day work. It was the only thing I knew that could give me a job right away to start bringing the cash in. I was making $100 a day, which is a nice little sum of money to keep gas in your car.
So I was cleaning this one lady's house in Beverly Hills and I heard "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the radio. I said, "That's me singing that. This is ridiculous! People are playing my records. If they want to play my records that means people still want to hear me." I quit that job and decided to go to work. I had never called on any of my friends to give me a helping hand, but at that time I did. I called Lou Adler and told him I needed a little financial help to get back on my feet. I also called Dionne Warwick, and she helped me. It was just to get going again; just to give me a little push. Because you need financial help, I don't care which way you go.
Then what happened?
I did a show at the Roxy, Lou Adler let me use his agent to do a show. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt were at the show, along with many of Lou Adler's other friends. After the show, Steve Van Zandt said, "You should come to New York and work." I said, "I don't know anyone from New York. If you get me a job, I'll come." And he did! He got me a job at the Peppermint Lounge and the Bottom Line. That really started the ball rolling. It was 1982 or 1983.
We ended up doing the show "Leader of the Pack" at the Bottom Line. Paul Shaffer played Phil Spector in that play. So, David Letterman came down to see the show, and one night on his show, Dave said to Paul, "That Christmas song the girl does in the play you're in is the greatest Christmas song I've ever heard. We need to get her on our show." It was just one coincidence after another! I started doing the first Christmas show in 1986; this year will be the 27th year I've done that show. I was just on his show a couple of months ago doing "Lean On Me." Every now and then they let me sneak in another song. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," however, is the song. And that's how all of that came about.
Going back to Phil Spector, it's amazing to me that you didn't officially belong to The Crystals despite recording what might be their best song, "He's Sure The Boy I Love."
Of course, in his own manner, he put it out under The Crystals' name. His excuse was that I just had "He's a Rebel" [ed. note: despite being sung by Love, that song was also credited to The Crystals]. He wanted the same voice with the same sound. He didn't want to try a new name at that point. We didn't have a leg to stand on. We didn't have any money to fight him with lawyers.
What do you remember about recording "He's Sure The Boy I Love," which you thought was going to be a Darlene Love record?
All of the sessions we did with Phil Specter were fantastic. You always looked forward to going into his sessions. Because you never knew what was going to happen. He had the best musicians in California. We lived in his studio for three or four years. What I didn't even realize until many, many years later, was how that entire phase of my career didn't last more than four or five years. It wasn't too long at all. But it seemed like it because we were in the studio so much. It was like my home away from home. That's how I was making a living, because a lot of times we didn't even do other session work.
You just worked for Phil.
He would always want me there for when they were getting the right key, the right tempo. He would say, "OK, doll. Sing along with the band." I was not just in the studio to record with The Blossoms or the other singers; I was there with him when there wasn't anybody else around but the band.
Looking back, how do you view those Phil Spector years?
In the end, it was positive. Because a lot of positive things happened with me from recording those records. I got inducted into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame, I ended up doing my show in New York so much that most people thought I was from New York. That was positive enough for me to even get a role in the "Lethal Weapon" movies. Had I not been in New York working, had I not moved here from California ... fate is always there to meet you, wherever you are. That's what happened in years to come. It started in 1982 and then it just right on going, right up until today.
Do you still enjoy performing live?
Oh lord, yes! I wouldn't trade anything for it. I love performing live. Because of your audience. When somebody pays to see you, they're coming because they love what you do. They're the fans. What's great is that they bring other people with them and then those people become fans. My dream is to be able to go all over the country, and now that the movie is out, that looks like what's going to happen. I want Darlene Love to perform in Atlanta, in Detroit, in Chicago; all of those places where I miss out because people don't really know me as a performer. There have been people who come from those towns to New York and wonder when I'm going to come to where they are. I know that's what the movie is going to do.
"Twenty Feet From Stardom" is the type of movie that could wind up in the Oscar conversation later this year. Have you given any thought to that?
They're making me very nervous. We went to a luncheon the other day and it was all people abuzz about the Oscar and how we might get a nod for the Academy Award. It is one of those kind of movies. It's a great movie. I've never seen so many people talk about a movie! That's the thing: people, when they leave the theater, they're refreshed. They feel like they have a new lease on life.
If it does get an Oscar nomination, maybe you could perform on the Oscar telecast.
That would be the ultimate. Never say never! Fate has been very good to me. I've been in the right place at the right time for the last 20 years. For one thing, it would give a lot of people the chance to see me. "Wow, that's Darlene Love. She really can sing! And she looks good."
This interview has been edited and condensed.