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HES A REBEL: THE DARLENE LOVE STORY

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MIKE WESTFALL

 

Darlene Love is a genuine American musical icon. With her powerful singing leads, she began her career in 1959 during the glory days of rock & roll girl groups. Over the last fifty years she has worked with America’s top entertainers and has become a legitimate entertainment success in music, television, movies and Broadway. Her story is about the struggle of a uniquely gifted and popular black woman of faith who reached the pinnacle of the entertainment business while overcoming tremendous obstacles.

Mike Westfall: Darlene, it is a pleasure for me to welcome you to this interview. We have had some very interesting conversations about your life and career, and I have always been one of your biggest fans.

You are a professing Christian. Your father was a Pentecostal minister, and you sang in the church choir. Could you give us a little background about your life as a young girl?

Darlene Love: They called us PK’s, or Pastors Kids. We were very conservative. When your father was the pastor, you were part of the choir and part of the church. You grew up that way, and it became part of your life.

I had no formal music education. Our father made it easy for us. Thank God for our father, because he let us go to the movies and let us participate in school functions. He let me sing in the school glee club and other singing groups, which gave me a start in singing pop music.

We would go to other churches and sing in their choirs as well. It was a lot of fun, because we grew up with the old Gospel singers like The Clara Ward Singers, The Caravans and James Cleveland. I saw Sam Cook sing Gospel with the Soulsters before he became a pop star.

MW: Your first Gospel album was released by Harmony Records and called “Unconditional love”. Would you talk about your faith and the gospel music you sing?

DL: I have always loved Gospel music. Gospel music is really at the heart of most black singers, because most black singers have come up in church. It might have been Pentecostal, Baptist or Catholic. I have been taught that it is not about being religious. Religion doesn’t have anything to do with your love for Christ. It is a relationship with Christ, and that is how I look at it. He wants to have a one-on-one with me, and that is what I have with the Lord. Gospel songs are in my show, because I love the Lord. When I sing, I want to sing under what we call the anointing, and I want to reach a heart or touch a person.

MW: You joined your first rock & roll singing group, The Blossoms, in 1959 in Hawthorne, California. What did your folks think of their daughter getting involved with this rock & roll music?

DL: At first, they didn’t want me to be in rock & roll. I was singing at my girlfriend’s wedding at our church. The Blossoms were part of the wedding party. They heard me sing and asked me to join their group. Once I became a member, they asked me to sing lead. They were older so my mother and father met with their parents, and everyone got to know each other. Everywhere I went there were chaperones. Back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the world wasn’t as fast as it is today, and we were happy to be chaperoned.

MW: When you began recording America was still segregated. How much prejudice did black entertainers face?

DL: You couldn’t help but run into these issues. When we started the television show Shindig in 1964, it was going national, and the broadcasting company loved the show, but they said they had one problem. They didn’t love The Blossoms. They told the producer The Blossoms were black, and because the show was going national, it would be in everybody’s house. They said people wouldn’t watch this show if you have black people in it.

Shindig’s creator and producer Jack Good told them if you don’t want The Blossoms, then you can’t have my show. They were scared to lose the show because it was a really great show, especially in 1964. The broadcasting company decided to take the show. It was a huge hit, and the rest is history.

This is how directors and producers thought back in those days. Oh Lord, there is somebody black on television, and there isn’t going to be anybody watching. Are they crazy! This is good! People are going to watch it. That was a big one for us.

Back then, black entertainers did what they called a chitlin circuit. You know what chitins are? I don’t even eat chitlins!

We would go and work all the dumps with nothing but black entertainers. Black people came to see those shows …not white people. Back in the early 1960’s, I didn’t do the Dick Clark caravan shows. I didn’t get to the place where I had to do segregated shows, accept for when we did the chitlin circuit.

I did my first show in 1962. It was the Murray the Kay Show, and the entertainers were both black and white, because it was here in Brooklyn, New York. After that, I came back home and continued being a back up singer. I said, Oh Lord, this is not for me, because these people out here on the road are crazy. There was no sleep, because they stayed up all night partying and carrying on.

I experienced the slap in your face prejudice early in my life.

You would go to a hotel, and they wouldn’t wait on you. A clerk would say could I help you to the white people and ignore me. The white people would say excuse me; I think she was first. Going in restaurants where they wouldn’t serve you was another prejudice; you had to learn to deal with it.

I lived in San Antonio, Texas from 1951 until 1955, and it was still very segregated. You just didn’t go where you were not supposed to go. We had a movie theater where white people went in the front door, but we had to go around to a back black entrance. You would get on an elevator and go up where you looked way down at the people who were downstairs watching. Prejudice is stupid to me. You had separate water fountains for whites and blacks with the water coming from the same pipe.

They didn’t play any of our black music on pop stations. We actually had our own radio station, which we called rhythm and blues. Phil Spector managed to get our records played on pop stations, because we didn’t sound black. “He’s a Rebel” didn’t sound like a black group. We didn’t sound like Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas or the Supremes. Phil Spector was very smart. He never put our pictures out on anything. He didn’t want the disk jockeys to know we were black.

MW: You not only sang lead, but you also sang back up on records like “Johnny Angel”, “Monster Mash”, “The Shoop Shoop Song”, “Goodbye Cruel World”, “Rockin Robin”, “Chain Gang” and so many more. Could you mention a few of the other records you sang back up for?

DL: There were so many but to just mention a few, I worked with the Beach Boys and did “In My Room”, also “Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha” with Sam Cook and “For Your Love” with Ed Townsend. I worked a lot with Jan & Dean and the Mama’s and the Papa’s to help make their sound fuller. I sang with Luther Vandross on his first number one pop record, which was “The Power of Love”, and was also on many of Aretha Franklin’s and Tom Jones’ records. I did the 1968 comeback special with Elvis Presley. I was very close to Elvis, because he liked Gospel. I ended up doing the 1969 movie with him called “Change of Habit”.

MW: You worked and traveled with many top entertainers, including Dionne Warwick, Sam Cook, Cher, The Righteous Brothers, Marvin Gaye, The Shirelles, etc. Do you have any special stories to share?

DL: One of my favorites was with Nancy Sinatra, who I worked with for two years. In the show were the Osmond Brothers and Mac Davis. Nancy was such a humble person and a sweetheart. We met her father, Frank Sinatra, while rehearsing in Las Vegas. Her father would come to our rehearsal and he would stand off in the corner and listen to us and go “you girls make my girl sound good”! That’s one of my favorite stories.

Another was about Tom Jones, who loved the ladies and the younger, the better. We didn’t hang out at any of Tom Jones’ parties. We had heard all the stories about his parties and would never go. The Blossoms always stayed in connecting rooms so we could watch one another. One night we heard this knock at our door, and I answered the door, and it was Tom Jones and one of his bodyguards. I said what do you want, and he said we came down to see why you guys never come to our parties. I told him, “Honey, because we were told your parties are way out, and we don’t want to be bothered with that foolishness”. They said it was all a joke and we should go to his parties, so we did.

We started going to their parties. They were really nice, with everyone just sitting around talking and relaxing after the show. And then we would say, OK goodnight, we will see you, and someone would say OK bring on the girls. The Blossoms are leaving. So that became the joke, OK, the girls are leaving so lets have a little fun.

MW: You worked with some of the top rock & roll songwriters of that era, including Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. What are your thoughts about the songs back then?

DL: I think the music they wrote was very innocent, to the point that they didn’t say what they really meant. You had to figure out what they were really saying, because they didn’t want the music to be distasteful. We called it bubblegum music.

You know, I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still, Da Doo Ron Ron , Da Doo Ron Ron, now what does that mean? You have to kind of figure out what we are singing about. You know, I met this guy, Honey, and baby listen here! But you don’t say that in the song. You just let the people figure out what we were singing about. Compared to the music they have today, they say that and more.

MW: I grew up during the 1950’s and early 1960’s and went to a little high school in Montrose, Michigan, which was typical of every other high school across America. It was impossible to attend a school dance or turn on a transistor radio back then and not hear a Darlene Love or Phil Spector song.

DL: People could both sing and dance with those records. Radio listening back then was really great. Today, I listen to Gospel and pop rock. I don’t want that other stuff going in my ears. There is nothing romantic about it. What are these kids today going to look back on and say, I remember that song; I was doing such and such when that song came out, like we did in the past?

MW: You soon caught the attention of Phil Specter and almost immediately began recording the most popular records of that 1962-1963, era including enormous hits like “He’s A Rebel”, written by Gene Pitney,” Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home”,Today I Met The Boy I’m Going To Marry”,” The Da Doo Ron Ron”,He’s Sure The Boy I Love”,Why do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts?”, “Not To Young To Get Married”, Christmas( “Baby Please Come Home”) and many others. In 1993, you recorded the huge hit “All Alone On Christmas”, for the hit movie “Home Alone II”. These were enormously successful commercial songs. How did they change your life?

DL: They didn’t change my life for several years. One reason was because when I did “He’s A Rebel”, I did it under the name of the Crystals. Nobody knew it was Darlene Love except Phil Spector, the musicians and the promoters. So that didn’t change my life at all. When it came time for the Crystals next hit, Phil called me in, and we went in to do the “Da Doo Ron Ron”. I said well you have had one hit on me under the name of the Crystals, I didn’t get nothing from that and neither did the Crystals, because the Crystals weren’t even on it.

I said, I have to have a contract. It is totally ridiculous for me to keep singing for you and not have a contract. So we signed a contract. When we went in to do the “Da Doo Ron Ron” , Phil got upset with me, and I got upset with him so we parted ways, and I left the studio . A couple of months went by and he wanted to put this record out. I had already started recording the “Da Doo Ron Ron”. We had done a few takes on it, and we had already done the background on it. Because he got upset, he flew in La La Brooks, the lead singer of the Crystals, and put her voice in over mine. So I didn’t get credit for the “Da Doo Ron Ron” either. So, of course, that didn’t change my life at all.

And then here comes “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”, and Phil Spector says, this is going to be your first record. I said OK, and that is when he changed my name from Darlene Wright to Darlene Love. He said it was after one of his favorite Gospel singers, Dorothy Love Coates.

So we recorded “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”. We went on our way with the record done and going to be out in the next couple of weeks. I’m driving down the street listening to the radio, and the DJ says here is the latest release by the Crystals. And I thought wow; Phil went back to New York and recorded the Crystals! He hadn’t gone back from California to record in New York since we did “He’s A Rebel”. Of course, the record that came on the radio was “here is the latest by the Crystals”, and it was “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”. I had a fit! I figured this was going to be my record, and, of course, all the records that were number one records were by the Crystals. The Darlene Love records never went higher then top twenty. So their records were much bigger then mine, even though it was the same voice.

My voice doesn’t sound nothing like the Crystals. If you listen to “Uptown”, which the Crystals did, the “He’s A Rebel” lead doesn’t sound anything like theirs. The “Da Doo Ron Ron” sounds a little like La La because her voice is over mine, and Phil brought our voices together just enough to mix it, but you hear me in all the background. The Crystals never had another record after “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”. Then Phil started with the Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, The Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, and then he got involved with the Beatles.

MW: Many artists of the early rock & roll era have declared that unscrupulous record producers took financial advantage of them. In 1997 a jury awarded you several hundred thousand dollars for back royalties from Phil Spector. Could you explain?

DL: Phil Spector’s whole thing about not paying me royalties was because he said I didn’t have a contract with him, and I wasn’t a singer with his record company. Fanita James, who was one of the Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, found the old contract buried in a closet. My lawyer had it blown up poster size and said if we were not under contract would you please tell me what this is? That was all they had to show the jury. They knew Spector was lying.

Now here we are in 2009 and, since I sued Phil Spector, I get my royalties. We can only go back seven years, so I still couldn’t get all the royalties that I should have gotten, but over the last two years I have gotten 60-70 thousand dollars in royalties. That is the kind of money I am generating now. What in the world did Phil Spector generate? It was millions! Definitely! His records are as big today money wise as Beyonces or Mariah Carey’s

MW: Phil Spector would say that Darlene Love is one of the best singers on the planet. He became very rich with the wall of sound and symphony for kids technique. He worked with and produced many groups and artists including the Ronettes, Ike & Tina Turner, Dion DiMucci and many others. He had over 25 top 40 hits between 1960 and 1965, many of which were done with you doing the lead.

He produced John Lennon’s “Imagine” album, which offered “Get back”,The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be”, Ben E. Kings “Stand By Me” and co-wrote and produced the song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” for the Righteous Brothers, which has been identified as the song with the most air play in the 20th century. Having been a key singer with Spector, could you give our readers some insight into some of his legendary recording techniques?

DL: Phil Spector was a recording genius. He was the first producer to start overdubbing. Everybody back in those recording days was only mono. Everyone went into the studio together, and we did everything at the same time. Spector was one of the first who did the music first, then the background singers and then he would put my lead on.

Another thing that made him great was that he knew exactly what he wanted. When we went into the studio to sing, he would tell even the background singers how he wanted them to sing. He did the same thing with the lead singing. He would say, “Darlene I want you to sing a certain way so stay on my melody. Don’t deviate”.

The lead part of the song is the melody, and working with Spector made me a melody singer. I was taught how to sing melody, and I got a lot of work because of that.

MW: Spector had a reputation for flashing guns. Among others, the Ramones accused him of brandishing a gun at his home, and singer Leonard Cohen called him a madman out of control. Stories were told of guests at his mansion complaining of being locked in. He was accused of drunken rages, and his ex-wives and children said he abused them. Spector himself admitted that he had bipolar issues and had “devils that fight inside me”.

In April of 2009, Spector was sentenced to prison for a term of 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson in his infamous 30 room mansion in Alhambra, California. You worked with him and are friends of Ronnie Specter, who was one of his four wives and the lead singer of the Ronettes. The Ronettes had chart busting songs including “Be My Baby”, “The Best Part of Breakin’ Up”, “Walking in the Rain”, “Baby I Love You” and others. Was Spector what these people say he was?

DL: That is exactly what he was. Ronnie Spector told me that Phil told her that before I let you leave me, I will kill you and put you downstairs in a glass coffin, so I can come down and look at you every day.

Phil always had guns at the sessions and at his houses. One day I had to go up to his house to rehearse. It was nighttime, and I had to drive up to this big mausoleum-looking place. I walked up to get to his door, and I hear all this arguing back and forth between Phil and his personal assistant saying, Phil put that gun down your going to hurt somebody. Phil heard me outside, opened the door and said come in. I said you have got to be out of your mind. I’m not coming in that house with you and that gun… are you crazy? Guns don’t kill; people kill! He said oh, come on in, Doll. Doll is what he always called me. I said come on in Doll nothing! I headed back to my car and was ready to leave, so he took the guns and gave them to his personal assistant. I then went in and rehearsed with him and told him, “Phil you need to stop pulling guns on people, one of these days you are going to hurt somebody”. Even in the recording studio he used to pull guns out, not aiming at anybody, but acting stupid.

MW: Spector was known for being self-absorbed. He is well known for his personal, unfair verbal attacks against people like Tina Turner. Did everything have to revolve around him?

DL: People don’t understand how big this man was and how his mind was working. He produced The Righteous Brothers who had the most requested song on the radio. When we were recording “Hes A Rebel”, the “Da Doo Run Run” and all those songs they were about a minute and a half long. Let me tell you something. The Righteous Brothers’ “Lost That Lovin Feelin” was over three minutes long, and the song was so great they just let the record play. Since then record producers have been putting out records for over three minutes.

Phil Spector wanted to be better then his artists. He was the first record producer who was trying to make a name for himself and wasn’t willing to help others. That was his problem. I didn’t find that out until many years later. Some of his artists got a little bigger then him, but he soon brought them down. It wasn’t only me he wouldn’t pay. Others including the Righteous Brothers and Tina Turner had problems with him.

MW: There was a time when you left your career. You disappeared from the music scene, fell on hard times and then made an incredible comeback with starring roles on Broadway in musicals like “GREASE”, “LEADER OF THE PACK” and Motormouth Maybelle in “HAIRSPRAY”. You also appeared in movies like “LETHAL WEAPON”, where you played Danny Glover’s wife, headlined worldwide concert tours and recorded your 1993 Christmas mega-hit “All Alone On Christmas” for “HOME ALONE II”. Could you explain?

DL: In 1981, I had been on the road with Dionne Warwick for ten years and decided to leave and come back home. I was just tired of traveling. I wanted to do sessions again. I had two boys at the time. I missed them, and they missed me. When I came home, I found there was no work for me here. All the recording sessions had dried up, other people had taken our places and bands were now in–house. They were singing their own background and didn’t need background singers. They wanted me to come back on the road, but that was not what I really wanted to do.

That’s the reason I fell on hard times. I didn’t have any work. I couldn’t get unemployment, because you don’t get unemployment for working with people like Dionne Warwick and Tom Jones. I had no money coming in, two children and nobody else to depend on, so I started doing day work . I said I know I can make it. I am still alive, I am still healthy, I will not have to stay down here long.

I did house work and did whatever it took. My girlfriend had a cleaners, and I worked for her 4-5 hours a day . She was paying me $100 a week, which was nothing. It only covered gas money and bought us some groceries. I did day work for about a year.

It is amazing, I never turn my back on God, and how I know God is always with me is that one day I was cleaning this ladies house during the Christmas holidays, and my song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” came over the radio.

I said, you know Lord this is a sign, and this is not what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to be singing.

From that day until this day, I have never turned back. I said I am going to sing, if I have to sing on the corner. I started working on cruise ships. I started working everywhere I could just to sing. It is amazing, once you start doing things, then more things come. If you are sitting at home having a pity party feeling sorry for yourself, that is what is going to happen to your life.

I always had a habit of looking good everytime I went out. I never looked like an old dragged out woman, my hair was done, I had on my make-up, I had on nice clean cloths and I always looked like I wasn’t in need. So nobody really knew what I was going through until I wrote that book, My name is Love…The Darlene Love Story in 1998.

I went back to Dionne Warwick, and my very good friend producer Lou Adler, who was married to singer and actress Shelly Fabares. Those are the two people I told that I needed a helping hand, and I will pay you back. Lou Adler asked me how much I wanted, Dionne Warwick gave me $5000. I paid her back, and Lou Adler wouldn’t take his back. He said that with all you have done for me and Herb Alpert, no that’s nothing. Because of those two people giving me a helping hand, it got me through.

I did a show at Lou Adler’s club in California. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt came to the show. Steve Van Zandt asked me if I had ever worked in New York, and I told him no. He said you need to come to New York and work. I said if you get me there, I will work there.

Steve Van Zandt introduced me to Allan Pepper who owns the club in New York called The Bottom Line. I came to New York to play “Leader Of The Pack” and never went back home, and that was 25 years ago.

I played in “HAIRSPRAY”. I got LETHAL WEAPONS” because I lived in New York and was very visible. If I had lived in California, I never would have gotten that movie. There are a lot of clubs you can work in here. One of the casting directors saw me in a play at The Bottom Line, and called my agent and asked if I would be interested in working in movies, and I said yes, who ain’t! They hired me, and I worked in all 4 Lethal Weapons and from there it just escalated.

I am very busy. Last night I did a show for the mayor of New York. We have concerts coming up in New Jersey, Connecticut and San Francisco. I am also working on Christmas concerts. I am careful which shows I do because if you do oldies shows, they keep you in that category and never let you out. I only do the special ones and have done the PBS oldies-but-goodies shows in Pennsylvania and was even the host on one of them.

MW: With your 1963 Christmas hit, “Baby Please Come Home”, your 1993 Christmas mega-hit “All Alone On Christmas” and your long running Christmas holiday appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman”, you have become a Christmas favorite. Could you explain?

DL: This will be the 24th year with Letterman coming up. If people forget me all year, they remember me at Christmas. Because I am a Christian, how funny is it that Christmas music is what I really do now? Which is great. I work all over the country at Christmas time.

MW: From our conversations, I know that you have a heart for helping others and are especially concerned about Americans going hungry. What are some of your concerns?

DL: When you have a relationship with Christ, you want to do something for your fellow man, and he will lead you and guide you in things you should be doing. Many churches and organizations around this country are trying to feed our hungry people. There are hungry children who go to bed every night with no food. It breaks my heart, and I have a deep compassion for the hungry so I support organizations such as Feed The Children. To those who can’t help financially, they can go down to the soup kitchen and help serve them. There is always something you can do, if you have compassion. My husband has a snack machine business. If the food in his machines gets outdated and is still good, he gives the food to the pantry to help feed the poor rather then throw it away.

MW: Darlene, in conclusion I want to thank you for your gracious and fascinating interview. Your music and career have uplifted and touched the lives of millions of people. What would you change, and do you have any final insights for our readers?

DL: I have had a really great career. The only thing I would change is that I would start out as a solo singer and stay a solo singer. It was hard to turn from a group to become a solo act. I have worked hard to keep up the way I look and sound. It takes work and caring about your body. I go to the gym 5 days a week, try to eat right and I keep my spiritual life as clean as possible. I have been able to do many things with the help of God to be successful.

Some say if you are not 16, you cannot be in this business. One of my pet peeves is if older artists still have the talent and still look good, then they should be able to do exactly what Beyonce is doing. Talented older artists should not have to fight ten times harder then younger artists for work. We made the way for them. That is one of my biggest issues with show business from music, movies, TV and Broadway, although Broadway is a little more respectful of people over 40.

MW: Darlene has endured throughout her incredible life to achieve the American dream. As a testament to her musical legacy, her music continues to be aired daily on radios today, fifty years after she recorded it. She has been much more then a key rock & roll singer, TV star, Broadway artist and successful movie actress. Darlene is all of those things, but most importantly she is an articulate, friendly, funny and caring lady of unwavering faith in God.

Mike Westfall

American Conservatives

http://michaelwestfall.tripod.com/index.html


 


 

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