Early life & Career
Darlene Love was born Darlene Wright on July 26, 1941 in Los Angeles, California to Ellen Maddox and Reverend Joe Wright. She grew up in South Los Angeles, long before the racial tension, crime and violence for which the area later became infamous had taken over the community.
Love later remembered the Los Angeles of her childhood as “a city that existed mostly in people’s imaginations…. But for us, Los Angeles had nothing to do with movie stars or stubbly, hard-drinking gumshoes trying to piece together broken dreams after hours. For us, Los Angeles was contained in about 20 blocks, bookended on one side by our projects and playgrounds and on the other by church.”
Love began singing with her local church choir in Hawthorne, California. In 1957, while still in high school, she also sang with the Echoes, a mixed gender doo-wop group. She was then invited to join a little-known girl group called the Blossoms, who in 1962 began working with producer Phil Spector.
With her powerful voice she was soon a highly sought-after vocalist and managed to work with many of the legends of 1950s and 1960s rock and soul, including Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Bill Medley, the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones and Sonny and Cher.
Darlene and the Blossoms sang backup for Sharon Marie (Esparza) as well as John Phillips‘ solo album John, Wolfking of L.A., recorded in 1969. They also appeared on Johnny Rivers‘ hits, including “Poor Side of Town” “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “The Tracks of My Tears”.
The single “He’s a Rebel” was hurriedly released by Spector in November 1962 by having the Blossoms record the track in order to get his version of the Gene Pitney song onto the market before that of Vikki Carr. The single “He’s a Rebel” was credited to the Crystals but actually featured Love singing lead for the first time on a Phil Spector recording.
The ghost release of this single came as a total surprise to the Crystals who were an experienced and much traveled girl harmony group in their own right, but they were nevertheless required to perform and promote the new single on television and on tour as if it were their own.
With the Blossoms, Love contributed backing vocals behind many of the biggest hits of the 1960s including the Ronettes‘ “Be My Baby”, Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel”, Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, Frank Sinatra’s version of “That’s Life” and the Crystals‘ “Da Doo Ron Ron”.
As a solo artist, Love also contributed backing vocals to the Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You”.
She was also part of a trio called Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, who recorded Spector’s version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, an Oscar-winning song from the 1946 Walt Disney film Song of the South, which got into the Top 10 in 1963. The Blossoms landed a weekly part on Shindig!, one of the top music shows of the era. They were part of the highly acclaimed Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, which aired on NBC.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is a song recorded by Love for the 1963 holiday compilation album, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. The song was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich along with Phil Spector, with the intention of being sung by Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes.
According to Love, Ronnie Spector was not able to put as much emotion into the song as needed. Instead, Love was brought into the studio to record the song, which became a big success over time and one of Love’s signature tunes.
Into the 1970s Love continued to work as a backup singer before taking a break in order to raise a family. In 1973 she recorded vocals as a cheerleader along with Michelle Phillips, for the Cheech & Chong single “Basketball Jones“, which peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Love returned to music in the early 1980s and to an appreciative audience she thought might have long since forgotten her. She had been performing at venues like the Roxy in Los Angeles and it was a conversation with Steven Van Zandt that greased the wheels for her to go to New York and begin performing there in 1982, at places like The Bottom Line.
She also sang “OOO Wee Baby” in the 1980 movie The Idolmaker. Along with performing in small venues, Love worked as a maid in Beverly Hills. One day while she was cleaning one of these homes, she heard her song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio. She took this as a sign that she needed to change her life and go back to singing.
In the mid-1980s she portrayed herself in the Tony Award-nominated jukebox musical Leader of the Pack, which featured the iconic rock and roll songs written by Ellie Greenwich, many of them for Love. The showstopping number of that show, “River Deep – Mountain High“, had been recorded by Phil Spector with Ike & Tina Turner and had been less than the success they had expected.
Leader of the Pack commenced as a revue at the Greenwich Village nightclub The Bottom Line, as did the later show about Love’s life, Portrait of a Singer, which never made the move uptown.
Portrait included covers of “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Don’t Make Me Over“, as well as “River Deep, Mountain High” and original music from some of the instrumental writers of early rock and roll, including Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Love contributed a cover of the Hollywood Argyles song “AlleyOop” to the soundtrack of the 1984 film Bachelor Party.
In 1986, Love’s second chance came when she was asked to sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on David Letterman’s Christmas show. This became a yearly tradition.
In 1987 Love sang backup for U2‘s remake of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)“. In 1990 she released the album Paint Another Picture, which included an update of her old hit “He’s Sure the Man I Love”, by Mann and Weill, as well as a ballad written especially for her, “I’ve Never Been the Same,” by Judy Wieder. The album did not make the US charts.
In 1990 Cher invited Love and her sister Edna Wright as her background vocalists for the Heart of Stone tour. Love released a minor single in 1992 with “All Alone on Christmas“, written and composed by Steven Van Zandt, which was included on the Home Alone 2: Lost in New York soundtrack. Love also contributed vocals to the soundtrack of the film Jingle All the Way.
Love recorded a duet with Bette Midler on the latter’s 2014 studio release album “It’s the Girls!”, a collection of songs paying tribute to girl groups. The two singers performed “He’s Sure the Boy I Love“, a track credited to the Crystals although actually recorded by Love, Fanita James of the Blossoms, and other studio session singers.
Love’s most recent album Introducing Darlene Love was released on September 18, 2015 on Steve Van Zandt’s label, Wicked Cool Records. There are 10 songs on this album, including singles and features by Van Zandt, two new songs by Bruce Springsteen and covers of Joan Jett and Elvis Costello songs, among others.
“Forbidden Nights”, the first track, is one of the more successful songs on this album. It is a song that Elvis Costello previously produced for an unfinished Broadway musical.
In the late 1980s and 1990s Love also began an acting career, playing Trish Murtaugh, the wife of Danny Glover’s character, in the four Lethal Weapon movies. She has held many star roles in various Broadway productions.
She acted and sang in Grease, in the short-lived musical adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie and starred as Motormouth Maybelle in Broadway’s Hairspray from August 2005 till April 2008. She later reprised the role in the Hollywood Bowl production of the show in 2011.
Love appears in the documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 86th Academy Awards. 20 Feet from Stardom also won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Music Film, with the award being presented to the featured artists as well as the production crew.
In the film, Love revealed that she had signed with Spector as a solo artist after the success of “He’s a Rebel” and had recorded “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” with the impression it would be released as her first single as a solo artist. However, Spector instead used Love’s recording and released it as the newest single for the Crystals without informing Love. She only learned of the switch when she heard a DJ on the radio announce that the single was “the newest Crystals record“.
In 2019 she appeared in the Netflix original movie Holiday Rush.
Love performed the song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” each year on the last pre-Christmas episode of Late Night with David Letterman (NBC, 1986–92) and the Late Show with David Letterman (CBS, 1993–2015). Her final Christmas appearance was on December 19, 2014, nine days after the official announcement of the show’s finale in May 2015.
Letterman has stated that the annual performance is his favorite part of Christmas. Due to the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, Love was unable to perform on the Letterman show in 2007 and a repeat of her 2006 performance was shown instead. She was also the musical guest on Late Show with David Letterman on May 7, 2007, performing “River Deep-Mountain High.”
She was a special guest on the December 17, 2005, broadcast of Saturday Night Live, singing “White Christmas” with the SNL band and providing the vocals for a Robert Smigel cartoon entitled “Christmastime for the Jews.“
Love performed with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band in November 2009 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden.
With the ending of the Letterman show, Love has performed “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the ABC morning show The View each December since 2015. She has usually performed the song as a duet, being joined by Patti LaBelle in 2016, Fantasia in 2017, and Bryan Adams in 2018.
Awards & other accomplishments
In 1995 Love won the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Love alongside Rob Hoerburger, editor and writer for the New York Times, wrote her autobiography titled My Name Is Love, published in 1998. In the memoir, she writes about her life in the music industry, her years of struggle and her present projects.
On December 15, 2010 it was announced that Love had been chosen for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On March 14, 2011 Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a speech by Bette Midler.
Midler said “she changed my view of the world, listening to those songs, you had to dance, you had to move, you had to keep looking for the rebel boy.” Near tears, Love noted that she will turn 70 later this year, and thanked Spector “for recognizing my talent and making me the main voice in his Wall of Sound.” Her speech elicited a standing ovation. Later, she sang “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” with Springsteen providing a guitar solo.
In August 2014 the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) announced that it is producing a biopic for the big screen based on Love’s life, starring singing icon Toni Braxton.
In 2015 Love was featured in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly. In the music section of the magazine, it introduced Love’s five decades of musical accomplishments such as different solos and albums.
Love provided the inaugural performance to christen the opening of the Clermont Performing Arts Center in Clermont, Florida on September 26, 2015.