The following is written by Ryan Marshall and it appears in this week’s edition of 72 Hours. If you dig, you can follow him on Twitter here. Enjoy!
You’ve heard plenty Darlene Love’s songs, even if you don’t know it.
One of the most renowned studio and backup singers of the 1960s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s voice can be heard filling out some of the decade’s biggest hits, from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You” to “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals, and Johnny Rivers’ “The Tracks of My Tears,” as well as songs by the Beach Boys, Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley, among many others.
Love, 76, will appear at the Weinberg Center for the Arts on Oct. 6.
In a recent conversation, Love talked about her career mixing amongst some of music’s biggest stars.
The daughter of a minister, Love grew up in Los Angeles and Texas, singing in the choirs at her father’s churches.
“Mostly all of my singing was in church, for quite a while,” she said.
While she was in high school, she joined a girl group called the Blossoms, and they began touring the circuit for black performers in the segregated musical world of the 1950s and ‘60s.
There, she met performers such as Cooke, a 16-year-old Aretha Franklin and a young Patti LaBelle.
“We all kind of came up at the same time, just in different areas,” she said of the performers who would often stay at the same boarding houses as they traveled around the country.
“You had the secular world who was doing one thing, that were black, and you had the gospel singers, who were black — they all hung out, for lack of a better word, together,” she said. “One would just go to a church and sing and one would go to a theater and sing. But we were all friends with one another, the gospel groups and the secular groups, back in those days.”
Love’s and the Blossoms’ careers really took off when they met legendary music producer Phil Spector in 1961, and he began to use them in constructing his famous Wall of Sound musical style.
Love got a front row seat to watch Spector’s process as he revolutionized the sound of rock music.
“I probably [saw] more than anybody because I was always there,” she said. “He’d call me in to see if the tempos were right, or I’d sing along with the band when they were learning the songs to make sure it was the right tempo and the right key. Where none of the other singers were around as much as I was because they only came in when it was time for them to put their voices on.”
Along with the Blossoms, Spector’s sound included working with the famous group of Los Angeles session players known as the Wrecking Crew, which included drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Glen Campbell and keyboardist Leon Russell among its various members.
There was a close-knit mood around the studio, she said. “We became a great family and great friends, because nobody was a star yet.”
Perhaps the greatest hunger for stardom was from the man behind the mixing panel, in a time when music producers were an anonymous bunch.
“Phil wanted people to know,” Love said. “His main thing was not so much making his artists famous as it was making himself famous. And that was really the difference.”
It was while working with Spector that Love met his assistant, Sonny Bono, and Bono’s then-unknown girlfriend, Cherilyn Sarkisian.
Love and Cher would go on to sing backup vocals together on a number of hits that Spector produced.
While Sonny and Cher would go on to be a powerhouse performing combo in both music and TV, Love knew Bono as a figure behind the scenes.
“He wasn’t a performer at all. He didn’t become a performer until he left Phil and started doing his own thing. He really started recording Cher. He wasn’t an artist yet at all. And neither was Cher. Sonny took Cher and made her a star.”
In the early ‘60s, when race was still a powerful dividing line in music and radio, Love said Spector was careful to keep his musicians’ identities concealed by the homogenous mix of the recording studio.
“Phil was really kind of slick,” she said. “He didn’t let on that we were black. Because we didn’t really sound black. We were pop singers. Phil didn’t even put our pictures out that we were black. He wanted to go on the white stations. We were probably one of the first black acts to cross over, because they didn’t really know we were black.”
That race-neutral approach meant the L.A. musicians didn’t mix with the other titan of U.S. ‘60s pop music, Detroit’s Motown Records.
“We had totally no interaction with any of the groups on Motown, even though we wanted to. But Phil was an entity unto himself. He had Philles Records, and Berry Gordy had Motown,” Love said. “I think Phil probably knew more about them than we did. They put out a record that was a hit, Phil wanted to put out a record too that was a hit.”
And where the L.A. sound was racially indistinct, Motown was “truly a black sound,” Love said.
As her success with Spector and other legendary producers like Lou Adler grew, Love worked with an even higher-profile mix of stars.
The Beach Boys were a lot of fun, she said, and Brian Wilson and some of the other band members used to come and watch some of Spector’s sessions.
She remembered the “very intimidating” experience of singing with Elvis. “He was a huge star. I had heard about Elvis for years. There was nobody like Elvis in the business, at that time.”
They ended up performing on Elvis’ 1968 comeback special and in the 1969 film “Change of Habit,” Elvis’ last movie role.
Sinatra was funny and always wanted to be a part of whatever was going on. “His personality was stunning, amazing,” Love said.
She remembers his charisma, the presence that great performers carry with them.
“We’d be rehearsing around the piano and he’d come in the room, and we knew something unusual had happened, because you could feel the air, like something is getting ready to happen. And it was Frank Sinatra coming into the room.”
As the ‘60s moved into the 1970s, Love began to take fewer recording dates as the lifestyle got to be too hectic.
She did appear, along with the other Blossoms and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, as a cheerleader in the 1973 Cheech and Chong song “Basketball Jones,” produced by her friend Lou Adler.
She also toured with singer Dionne Warwick, along with Warwick’s aunt, noted gospel singer Cissy Houston.
That’s where she first met Houston’s precocious 9-year-old daughter Whitney. “The first time she opened her mouth, it was like, ‘Uh oh, child, just sit back and watch it.’ But even with that, we had no idea she would become the superstar that she was,” Love recalled.
During her time backing Warwick, Love thought that it was time to try her luck as a headliner.
“It was after that that I decided, you know what, I’m almost 40 years old. I’m either going to make a break and start doing my own thing, or I’m just going to do background for the rest of my life. And that’s when we made the switch.”
She also did some acting, including as Danny Glover’s wife in the four “Lethal Weapon” movies.
People at her Frederick show will hear some “golden oldies,” Love said, as well as some songs from her 2015 collaboration with Steve Van Zandt, and a collection of Marvin Gaye songs.
Her backup singers will also do a few numbers. (“Listen, I’m 76. I can’t do 90 minutes by myself,” she said.)
Love does 30 to 40 shows a year and doesn’t regret her decision to move from the background to center stage.
“I knew that’s not where I wanted to stay. I wanted to be an entertainer, I wanted to be able to be out in the front,” she said. “I felt that there was something more in me that I needed to express, and I couldn’t do that as a background singer doing records. Even though it was a great career for me. But that’s not all I wanted.”