For over half a century, her voice has become synonymous with the holiday season.
This Saturday, Darlene Love presents “Love for the Holidays” to benefit Wolf Trap.
“This is my time of the year that I’m usually bouncing from one theater to the other, from city to city, from state to state doing my Christmas shows,” Love told WTOP. “This year was like, ‘What are we going to do, guys?’ … My agent said, ‘Why don’t we do a virtual Christmas show?’ … We’ll have a director, lights, costumes, the whole thing.”
The 14-hour shoot was filmed at Sony Hall in New York City. Wolf Trap will stream it for 48 hours with a portion benefiting the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.
“Everybody will be able to see it at one time,” Love said. “Those of you who can get together to see my Christmas shows can do it in the privacy of their own homes.”
It was a long journey for Love to become dubbed “The Christmas Queen.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1941, she grew up singing in the church choir.
“My father was a minister,” Love said. “We were in the church from morning to night. … We always did a program for our services on Christmas where we sung all of the Christmas songs. Never did I ever dream my life would take a turn and I started singing secular music and singing all of those Christmas songs for a record producer.”
She was discovered by Phil Spector as part of the doo-wop group The Blossoms.
“As a backup singer with The Blossoms … I worked with Phil Spector’s partner Lester Still,” Love said. “He said his partner was coming to California and wanted to record. … So I said, ‘Sure.’ … We went into the studio along with what they call now the Wrecking Crew, that band that Phil used for everything, and we recorded ‘He’s a Rebel.'”
Her vocals landed on countless hits: The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and The Crystals’ “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” which was supposed to be Love’s solo debut.
“It was supposed to be my record and Phil changed his mind at the last minute,” Love said. “Now, The Crystals’ first record, ‘He’s a Rebel,’ I knew was going to be theirs, I didn’t like the song anyway and I said, ‘It probably won’t sell more than one copy anyway, so I’ll do it if you pay me.’ Here we are! Who knew 50-some-plus years later?”
She finally got her own spotlight for “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in 1963.
“We didn’t know what Phil was doing when he said he was going to do a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas album,” Love said. “You had Bing Crosby and all those guys singing ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ very beautiful, but then Phil Spector was going to make them all rock ‘n’ roll songs. … Everybody sat around with their mouths wide open.”
Soon, she was invited to sing the song every year on “The Late Show with David Letterman” at the urging of band leader Paul Shaffer, who played Spector in the Broadway musical “Leader of the Pack,” in which Love played herself on stage.
“He invited David down to see the show one night, and the next night, David said to Paul, ‘We need to get that girl down here on my show to sing that Christmas song,'” Love said. “Every year for 29 years I sung that one song on the Letterman show. … We made a deal with them: ‘I won’t sing this song for anybody else. I’ll do it here first.'”
She also famously played Danny Glover’s wife in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise.
“The agent of the casting director for that movie was a Darlene Love fan,” Love said. “He said, ‘Would you do a movie with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson?’ … They wanted a Black actress who was not that famous, one that’s always in the same movies and you see them every time in a movie. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
In 2001, she was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Bette Midler during a ceremony where she memorably performed with Bruce Springsteen.
“I knew he was coming, but I didn’t know when,” Love said. “I knew he was going to play in ‘Zippity Doo Dah,’ he loves that guitar solo, but that guitar just sat there all night. When I got on the stage, Bruce appeared and started playing and I went, ‘This is way over my head, guys!’ … The night I was inducted … I was crying so hard.”
She even took the Oscar stage to celebrate a win for the documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013), which brilliantly chronicled the work of backup singers like herself.
“That was such an honor,” Love said. “[Filmmaker Morgan Neville] was watching a show and he saw a girl singing background and he said, ‘I wonder what their story is?’ It’s amazing how things like that happen. It ended up winning an Academy Award also and winning a Grammy. … Those are things that you can’t even wish for.”