Darlene Love’s was the unmistakable voice cutting through Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, although she was uncredited on her biggest hit, “He’s a Rebel,” by the Crystals. A vocalist with the Blossoms and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, Love also released some solo recordings, including one that would become her signature, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” in 1963. Hearing it on the radio decades later sparked Love’s late-career solo comeback (documented in the 2013 film “20 Feet From Stardom”).
It was aided by Love’s increasingly elaborate holiday performances of that Christmas anthem for nearly three decades on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” Letterman is off the air, but Love, 75, is still singing that classic song on TV – she did on “New Girl” on Tuesday and was set to on “The View” on Friday. In a recent interview, Love spoke about her career and how she keeps her voice strong.
Q: Last year was the first year you did not sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on “Late Night” after how many years on Letterman?
A: Twenty-nine years. David really did it up, I guess because they knew it was going to be the last year. They had the band in tuxedos, and all the singers were in red dresses, and everybody was really dressed up. Plus they had me singing on top of a piano. They must really think I’m good.
Q: What was it like last year not to plan for that?
A: Well, you know, everybody was busy thinking: “What are we going to do? And who are we going to do it for?” Nothing came up right away, so we didn’t plan for it. We usually plan our tour around the time we know we’re going to do David Letterman, so we’d have shows in New York or maybe in Philadelphia – close enough to get back home for it. It was very weird we didn’t have to be in this area at Christmastime. But time goes on. This will be the second year we are doing it on “The View.”
Q: What was it like performing daytime on “The View”?
A: It was great, because I know Whoopi very well. She’s a friend of mine. And I’ve done a lot of shows on that network over the years, and usually people keep the same crew, the same cameramen. … So you know everybody, and they actually welcome you with open arms: “We’re glad you’re here, to do the song on our show, for a change.”
When I made the decision once I was doing it on David’s show to make it a yearly thing, just to do that song on David’s show … they thought I meant I was never going to sing that song again (after he retired). Why would I do that? It’s part of my Christmas show, so why would I never do that song again?
No, I said I’d never do it for one network again. It would be like, whoever calls first, that’s who gets the rights for me to do the song on that show.
Q: You tell the story about how you heard that song when you were cleaning toilets and it jolted you into returning seriously to music.
A: Yeah, to get back into the music business. Because it had gotten harder then. I had started just doing background for everyone else. I wasn’t out doing a solo career, and what happened is that once I was kind of down and out, I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I was cleaning houses and that record came on the radio. So it always means a whole lot to me when I sing it. It really catapulted my career all over again.
Q: Your career began in the Blossoms, which was one of the first groups to be known as background singers.
A: I know we were the first black background group. Because mostly, the people that were doing sessions, they weren’t groups. They just hired a soprano, alto and tenor or whatever. But we were literally a group doing background. They knew the sound they were going to get every time they hired us.
Q: The list of artists you sang background for is so impressive, from Sam Cooke to Frank Sinatra. Who did you learn from most?
A: We worked for Dionne Warwick for 10 years. That was where we had most of our growing up – learning what you do and what you don’t do, how you take care of business, how you how to talk to people, how you deal with people. We worked for Tom Jones for, like, two years, but we weren’t as close to Tom Jones as we were with Dionne. We were at Dionne’s house, our children played together.
Q: What was it like working with Elvis Presley? Did he keep to himself or did he interact with you?
A: You know, he did interact with us, but it had a lot to do with our gospel. Because I came from a gospel background and my father was a minister, so I knew a lot of old hymns of the church, and that’s what Elvis sang. That’s how he interacted with us.
When he got ready to do his (1968 comeback) special, we didn’t know we were actually going to be in the special because we were just singing in the background. But because of us talking to him all the time, and talking to him about gospel and everything, he told the producers, “No, I want the girls in this. I want them to be singing.”
Q: Do you think growing up in the church is what gave you such a strong voice?
A: I think most singers come from a gospel background. We’re used to being in church early in the morning. Sunday school started at 9:30, morning service started at 10 or 11. So we had to be in full voice at that time of the morning. And I think nowadays you don’t have anywhere to go before 1 o’clock – especially to sing.
Those early-morning TV shows that we’ve had to do are a little hard for us, because you have to get up and vocalize, you have to warm your throat up. But in church we never thought about warming our voices up. It was just what we did. It was like going to school. You got prepared to go to church, and when you got there, you sang.
Q: What keeps your voice in shape now?
A: I’ve had to train myself not to talk. I told myself, “Girl, you have to stop talking so much.” Because I’ll laugh and talk like I sing. But I can’t do that when I sing. As a matter of fact, when my children are here and, as we say, clownin,’ so I won’t laugh loud, I put my hand over my mouth to remind myself, “Don’t be laughing loud.” And in the evening, when my show is over, I go to my room and go to bed. I don’t hang out.
I’m not saying that I’m a goody two-shoes. I’m a goody two-shoes because I need to take care of my voice. Anytime you go out, and there’s music playing in a club or whatever, it’s so loud, you have to talk loud. … It’s not like playing a guitar or a piano. You have to take care of it. People who play piano have to take care of their hands. I’m a singer. I have to take care of my voice. It’s all I have.
Darlene Love on Letterman: