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2011 Hall of Fame: Darlene Love: Scaling the Wall of Sound

The Hall of Fame salutes a voice that graced a hundred hits

March 11, 2011

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

Darlene Love is in no hurry to return to earth. Ever since the singer found out she was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, she's been "flying on cloud nine," she says. "I'll probably be here until after the dinner."

Bette Midler will induct Love, who will be honored on March 14, alongside fellow performers Tom Waits, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Alice Cooper.

For many Love champions, like Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, her voice ushered them into rock 'n' roll. Although she was seldom credited under her own name by producer Phil Spector, Love's voice can be heard on such early rock 'n' roll classics as the Crystals' "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love." As part of the Blossoms and as a solo artist, Love appeared as a backing vocalist on a staggering number of soul and pop hits, including "Baby I Need Your Loving," "The Tracks of My Tears," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," and "Johnny Angel." She recorded with everyone from Elvis Presley to Tom Jones. Love also released such hits under her own name as "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry," "A Fine, Fine Boy" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which she has performed on the "Late Show With David Letterman" every holiday season for the past 24 years. She also sings backgrounds on another seasonal classic: Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Cryptkickers' "Monster Mash."

After a fallow period in the '70s, her comeback began at New York nightclub The Bottom Line in the jukebox musical "Leader of the Pack." That was followed by stints on Broadway in "Hairspray" and "Grease." She introduced herself to a new generation of fans when she appeared as Danny Glover's ever-patient, sharp-as-a-tack wife in the "Lethal Weapon" movies.

Also: View the Hall of Fame Inductees Gallery

Sony Music recently released "The Sound of Love," which is the first multilabel comprehensive collection of her work. Her "The Concert of Love" airs on PBS starting this month.

An ebullient Love talked to MSN about working with James Dean, artists on her recording wish list and, of course, Phil Spector.

MSN Music: How did you find out that you were in the Class of 2011?

Darlene Love: I was on my way to a job in Atlantic City. The phone rang, [my friend Terry Stewart] said, "Welcome to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame family!" I started screaming. I said to my husband, "Lord, let me stop. The driver keeps looking back at us wondering, 'Is he back here killing her, or is she killing him?'" I said, "It's OK, I just got some good news."

You were a sophomore in high school the first time you went into the studio. What do you remember about that day?

One of the first seasons I had, believe it or not, was with Jimmy Dean. He was recording for RCA/Victor. So you can imagine, here I was 17 years old and going into the studio to work with a movie star. He was very friendly, very nervous. It was his first session. We had on really nice dresses and stockings and heels. Our hair was done. And then we found out years later that you can come to work in your jeans.

Did you think James Dean could sing?

I thought he was all right.

The Blossoms were on "Shindig!" in the mid-'60s, despite the fact the producers didn't want you. Was that the most blatant case of racism that you faced?

Yes, it was, because they flat-out told us, "You cannot use these black singers." They just flat told us to our faces. [Show creator] Jack Good stood up for us and said, "It's either my girls, or we're taking them somewhere else." Evidently, [he] saw something in us that we would be able to overcome what they were throwing at us. No one on the show was nasty, it was the producers who ... were just afraid to do a national television show with black people on it that was going to be on every week.

Is it painful for you to talk about Phil Spector?

No, it isn't painful at all.... My thing with Phil was I adored him, I loved him for what he was doing. He didn't even realize at the time, even though he was not trying to make me famous he was trying to make himself famous that he was making me famous along with him ... I haven't had a hit record since the '60s. My career is bigger today than it ever was.

Did he ever apologize to you for not putting your name on the Crystals' records or not admitting you were under contract to his label, Philles?

Heck no (laughs). I never expected it. He's just not that type of person. I didn't sue him [in 1997] because I needed my money; I sued him because I wanted him and everybody else to know I was signed to his label. [Editor's note: In December 2010, Love and some other artists who participated in the producer's sessions refiled a suit against Spector for nonpayment of royalties].

When you recorded "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" with the Righteous Brothers, could you tell it was a hit?

Phil was the only person to ever say, "This is going to be a hit record" about a song and he was right. But with "Feeling," I had that feeling. It was magic. We did the tracks first, then the backgrounds, then the guys put their voices on it. [Righteous Brother] Bobby Hatfield was so funny. He was like, "While [Righteous Brother] Bill [Medley] is doing all this singing, what am I going to be doing?" and Phil said, "Running all the way to the bank."

What about Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come?"

It's one of those songs that's a rebirth. It came from the depth of his soul because he was a gospel singer, too, and the gospel world really put him down for singing secular music. I want to sing that for the president of the United States one of these days.

In the '70s your career took a bit of a dive, so much so that you worked as a housecleaner, right?

I housecleaned, that's right. I can do that real good. Next to singing, I can clean a house.... I still had a 1968 Mercedes, which was paid for. I would say, "I can't park my car in front of this lady's house; she won't hire me," so I would park the car around the corner and walk to her house.

I decided to quit because "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" came on the radio and I was cleaning this lady's bathroom and I looked in the mirror and it was just like the mirror spoke back at me saying, "This is not what you're supposed to be doing. You're supposed to be singing," and from that day to this day, I never turned around.

What's the update on the biopic based on your 1998 autobiography?

Phil would not give us permission to use the music in the movie, and you can't do a movie about Darlene Love and not have those songs. When he got incarcerated, he leased his music to EMI and Sony Records, so now we can use the music. We have a screenwriter, we're still tweaking the script and now we're looking for a director. ... The three main characters are going to be [Love's ex-boyfriend] Bill Medley, myself and Phil Spector.

Would you like to go back into the studio and make some more music?

Oh, I would. I would like to do some duets with people like Bruce Springsteen or Elton John, or Paul Shaffer playing for me, or Bette Midler or Cher singing with me. I think we could really make some great rock 'n' roll records.

It sounds like it's a really good time to be you.

I really feel that. I'm at peace with myself, I'm healthy, I've been married 27 years, my kids are grown. I'm at the place right now where I'm really surprised I'm still here doing what I'm doing. I really just can't explain the word happy, but you look it up in the dictionary and you see my face.

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard Magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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