September 17, 2015
Darlene Love (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Darlene Love remembers the moment clearly.
One of pop music's most prolific backup vocalists, Love was onstage at last year's Academy Awards helping to accept the documentary prize for "20 Feet From Stardom," director Morgan Neville's loving homage to the singers whose oft-unheralded work can transform a tune into an anthem. Neville had said his bit and had stepped aside to make room for his film's subject.
"And, as I always do, I just bowed my head and said, 'Lord, give me something,'" recalled Love, who contributed to dozens of songs over the last half-century, including the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and Frank Sinatra's "That's Life." Then she looked up at the Oscars audience and tore into a fierce a cappella rendition of the gospel standard "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
"Everybody in the room, they were just startled," she said, visibly delighted by the memory. "I could hear thousands of people mumbling: 'What is she doing?'" She laughed. "But once I got into it, they all came with me."
A year later, Love, now 74, is hoping people will come with her again as she releases "Introducing Darlene Love," her first album of original pop songs since 1988 — and the first ever, she says, to provide a sense of the woman behind the microphone.
Due Friday, the record was produced by Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, who solicited material from some of Love's high-profile admirers, including his boss, Elvis Costello and Jimmy Webb.
Though Van Zandt admits the album's title is something of a joke, it's also an honest statement of intent: In the early '60s, Love sang lead on several of the decade's indelible hits — "He's a Rebel," "He's Sure the Boy I Love" — but reaped little reward after producer Phil Spector issued them as singles by his group the Crystals. "Introducing," then, is meant to connect the name with the voice.
"I told Steven, 'It's like you rebirthed me,'" Love said Tuesday in Los Angeles, where she'd come for a performance that night at downtown's Grammy Museum and for two shows this weekend at the Whisky a Go Go. "Now I want the world to know who I am."
Their collaboration was a long time coming. An L.A. native who learned to sing in church, Love worked steadily throughout the '60s and '70s but saw her background jobs dry up by the early '80s. That's when she started cleaning houses and, as she recounts in "20 Feet from Stardom," heard her song "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" — another of her collaborations with Spector — playing on the radio one day while at work in Beverly Hills.
Spurred to action, Love asked her friend Lou Adler if he could book her to sing, which he did at the Roxy, his club on Sunset Boulevard. Among his invited guests were Springsteen and Van Zandt, who watched with amazement as Love did Springsteen's song "Hungry Heart."
"They were so overwhelmed by how great it was that they came backstage and we talked," Love said. Van Zandt urged her to come to New York. "I said, 'If you get me a job, I'll come.' And he did."
Love soon had moved to New York and was performing regularly at clubs such as the Bottom Line, where Springsteen famously broke out. She and Van Zandt stayed in touch but grew apart professionally as he toured with the E Street Band and later became involved in television, and she worked on Broadway and acted in the "Lethal Weapon" movies.
Love also appeared on David Letterman's late-night show every holiday season to sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," a gig she credits with keeping her in the public eye through last December, when Letterman did his final holiday episode before retiring in May.
"If they didn't see me any other time, they'd see me then and say, 'Wow, Darlene still looks good! And she can still sing "Christmas Baby"!' " said Love.
Finally, after promising for years to produce a record for her — and with fresh motivation in the success of "20 Feet From Stardom" — Van Zandt got down to work with Love last year.
Experienced singers like Glen Campbell and Tom Jones have earned acclaim in recent years with hushed, contemplative albums that emphasize a wizened-elder vibe. But Van Zandt knew he didn't want to take that approach. Those records, he said, depend on our knowledge of the singers' entire careers; they're meaningful because of the comparison to their previous work.
"In this case, I literally felt like we were introducing Darlene Love to the world," he said. "Sure, we all know the early singles, but what else is there?"
Instead of stripped down, he went big, arranging the songs in his trademark garage-soul style with strings, horns and layered guitars. And instead of quiet, he went loud, pushing Love to sing at maximum intensity, a level he knew she could still reach from catching her club shows "at least twice a year."
"I didn't want anything casual on this record," said the producer, who will accompany the singer and her band at the Whisky. "It had to be life or death in every song."
Love called Van Zandt "a raving maniac" in the studio. "He loves that F-word," she said, laughing. "I told him, 'Steven, I'm gonna pray for your mouth.'"
Yet his process clearly drove Love to dig deep, as in "Night Closing In," a pungent romantic drama written by Springsteen, and especially "Marvelous," a stately gospel number by Walter Hawkins in which she shows off the full range of her voice.
In an email Bette Midler said Love's singing "only gets better with age," and that certainly seemed true at the Grammy Museum, where she performed "Marvelous" even more impressively than she did on the record, leading several members of the politely attentive crowd to leap to their feet.
"When people come and see me, I want them to experience joy," she said. "I don't do any sad songs in my show. It's to lift the spirit."
Asked what he'd like to see "Introducing" accomplish, Van Zandt said he hopes stars from the "modern pop world — Beyoncé and Taylor Swift and Kanye West — get a chance to hear this record and turn their audiences on to it.
"After all the dues Darlene has paid, I think that would be a wonderful thank you," he said. A couple of Grammy nominations wouldn't hurt either, he added, a goal in which he may be helped by Columbia Records. The major label, which is releasing "Introducing" in partnership with Van Zandt's Wicked Cool Records, has gained traction recently with late-career projects by Barbra Streisand and the unlikely duo of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.
Love, who lives with her husband in New Jersey, said she's leaving the politicking to Van Zandt and Columbia. Her primary job, as she sees it, is to take care of the instrument that once benefited others but now stands to benefit Darlene Love.
"Next year, I'll be 75, and I still have what God has given me," she said. "I want to be around to do what I do as long as I can."
Where: Whisky a Go Go, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Sunday