No Longer 20 Feet From Stardom
By Bridget Brady
Remember that great 60’s song, “He’s a Rebel,” by The Crystals? I’ve been a fan of that song, and The Crystals, for as long as I can remember. Little did I know, all that time, I was secretly a fan of Darlene Love. From the background to the foreground, Darlene Love is now an Oscar winner, with the incredible documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, the untold true story of the background singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. She was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Next up is even a movie about her life on the Oprah Winfrey network. An amazing journey, ranging from cleaning people’s houses to pay the bills, to working with legends like Elvis Presley, I got the distinct honor of visiting with Darlene and getting even more of her incredible story.
Congratulations on your big Oscar win!! I loved 20 Feet from Stardom!! I thought it was so well done. I wanna' jump right into the nitty-gritty here..."He's a Rebel" isn't a Crystals' song?? They were lip-synching that?? How is that possible, how was that allowed, how did that happen?
That's because of Phil Spector. He had me under contract; he had The Crystals under contract. He wanted to get this song out immediately, and I don't know if he thought maybe my voice was the one to do it, or what, because I had not recorded any solo work yet. I knew his partner Lester Sill. Lester came to Los Angeles and recorded that song with me and my group, The Blossoms. No one knew the difference of who it was. The record just ended up being a number one record. And that's when, as they say, "the crap hit the fan.” Phil Spector was able to do that because he paid me as a background singer to do it, and he owned The Crystals, so he was able to do whatever he wanted to do. Back in those days, they did that. They changed groups and changed names and changed lead singers, so it wasn't unusual back in the 60's.
So you were paid as a session singer, were the actual singer on the album, but it was given to the Crystals as their song?
Right, because [Phil] figured that was his group, and they already had a little success, so he just put it out. The worst part was The Crystals didn't know what was going on. When the record was starting to become a hit, they were out on the road with Gene Pitney, who wrote the song. I talked to Gene, and he said he taught it to the girls back stage at one of the shows they were doing. That's how they learned the song. Phil never even called them and told them that the record was out under their name.
Oh my gosh!! So, do you feel like Phil Spector was good AND bad for you? Do you feel like he ruined your solo career, or was it good that you worked with him for all those years?
It was good that I worked with him, because today I have a career because of all of those songs. The other song that was supposed to be mine was, "He's Sure the Boy I Love.” That was a top 10 record, but he put that out under the name of The Crystals too. But those songs (“He's a Rebel” and “He's Sure the Boy I Love”) and all the songs I did with Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans...and of course the song I did under my own name, have kept me going all these years, and have made me a success. That's why I don't get mad at him. I had a career in spite of Phil Spector.
That's incredible. What would you say was the biggest moment in your life thus far?
Ha-Ha!! That's an easy one, cuz' it's still on my mind. That's the Academy Awards!! I never in my wildest dreams thought that as being a background singer and doing a documentary, that I would be, not only getting an Academy Award, but when the movie came out, so many people gravitated to the movie. And the success of that becoming an Academy Award nominee, then WINNING it was way over the top!! (Hearty laughter) Standing in front of those 40 or 50 million people saying, "Thank you! Thank you fans! Thank you industry for allowing us as background singers to win an Academy Award!” That usually doesn't happen.
Right?! What was it like to work on the film?
It was really great. Unfortunately the gentleman who produced the movie died right after the movie came out. (Gil Friesen, with A&M Records) He was such a wonderful guy. Actually I started out doing this like, "Oh yeah, well, this is cute...who's even gonna' know I did it?" But they did such an unbelievable job. They really dug deep and found out about background singers. It wasn't a hit and miss, they dug deep. They didn't realize they were making an Academy Award winning documentary either. So, it was good all the way around for all of us.
Absolutely! You say in the film, "God gave me a gift, and it's my job to make it a success.” What is your definition of success?
Success is right now. Knowing what I'm doing. I do believe that God has given all of us a gift. It's up to us to USE it.Then He'll help us along the way if we'll use it. Success to me is winning the Academy Award, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just doing what I can do to improve on my talent. The idea that all of these millions of fans are out there is still unbelievable.
Speaking of millions of fans, including myself, what are you doing now? Where can we see you?
I'm in Palm Springs right now doing the closing of "The Fabulous Follies" which has been running for 23 years. I told them, "You really got me at the right time." They've been trying to get me to do this for 10 years. They hired me last year, when nobody knew this was gonna' happen. I have a two month spot here, then after this I'm gone. I'm going to Australia, and who knows where I'll land after that.
What's your biggest regret in life? If you have one.
Well, if I had one regret, I wish I would've started as a solo artist before I started out as a background singer with a girls’ group. Not that I didn't like being a background singer, because I love singing background. But I think if I would've started my career as Darlene Love, and not as a group, I'd be further along. But I'm really happy about what's going on in my life right now, so I don't have any regrets.
Who are your musical influences? Past and present??
Who influenced me back in the day? I came up in a family where my father was a minister, and we could not listen to rock n' roll music, so we listened to people like Michaela Jackson, Marian Anderson, and those were my influences. Today, I have so many people like Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, who not only influenced me, but I think are fantastic, great singers. Those are the people I follow. I'm one of those old souls. I like the old movies and the old movie stars, and the old singers, like BB King. I just love listening to their singing, and their songs.
This might be a hard question, because like you said, you're living it...But now that all this happened, what's your new dream?
I would love to get with the younger talents like Kelly Clarkson, or Bruno Mars, and do a record. I've always thought about winning a Grammy. I've never won one. That's like getting into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I'd love to win a Grammy, but I'd love to win it with one of the younger artists who are out right now. Those two artists are two of the greatest artists singing right now.
If you didn't sing...what other passions do you have in life?
That's really a hard one because I've always sang, since I was 13 years old. But you know what I'd love to do? I'd love to be in a wonderful church, and be the conductor of a choir. Because when I go to churches and see these wonderful conductors and all that they do when it comes to a choir, especially when there are 50 or 100 voices...to control that, to have that sound come out of them, that's something I'd want to do.
You also say in the movie about Merry Clayton, "I don't know why she wasn't a super star. She had the killer instinct." So, what is the "special sauce"?? Why do some people make it, and others don't?
You know what? Everything has to be lined up right. It has to be the right song, the right producer. Nobody had as much as Merry had, and she does have that killer instinct. I don't have that killer instinct. I have it, but not like Merry had it. She said, "I KNOW I should be a star, and why aren't I?" I don't have that in me. I want it...I WANT to be the star, I want to have people like me, but I think it just depends on all the elements lined up in the right place. Bette Midler told me, "You also have to have somebody behind you that believes in you without a doubt." I know managers who put their homes up for sale, just to keep their artists going. You have to have ALL those elements. Being in the right place at the right time is what it is. I never had that. Phil Spector recorded me, but he never pushed me after the events. He didn't want me to be that star. He wanted to be the person who MADE me that star. So, I always had them, but I didn't have someone fully, 100% behind me.
Who's your favorite person that you've ever worked with?
It would have to be Elvis Presley. I worked with him several times. I worked with him on his 1968 come-back special, and I made a cute little movie with him called Change of Habit. I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd work with someone who's that big of a star, so that was amazing to me...that I actually worked with Elvis Presley.
How was Elvis...as a human?
Actually he was such a sweetheart. He was very introverted. But he loved gospel music. I think that was the other key to working with him. When I found out that he loved gospel music, and that's my passion too, we got along great. So, I knew him totally as another person, not as "Elvis Presley" but Elvis the man who loves the same kind of music I love.
If you could give some advice to young singers, what would that be?
You have a passion, and I told you before that God has given everybody a gift. You have to find out what that gift is, first of all, then you have to have a passion for it, then you have to pursue it like nothing else. Like you pursue life, you have to pursue that career that you want.
Would you suggest that up-and-coming singers stay away from doing background singer work, and really focus on their solo career if that's what they most want to do?
No, not necessarily...background got me where I am today. You have to take different roads to get where you're trying to go. You just have to keep that in mind. Stevie Wonder said in our movie, even though Judith Hill was singing with him as a back-up singer; don't forget what your dream is. You have to make a living to become a solo artist, and you're not going to make money as a solo artist if nobody's calling you to work. If someone's calling you to do background, you have to go there too, but you cannot forget what your dream is. There's nothing wrong with being a background singer. Better for me to be doing that, than sitting at home doing nothing.
What would you say was the hardest part of your life?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I think the hardest thing I did was to move to New York City, one of the hardest towns on the planet to be successful. But I did it, and I had a lot of down time, thinking, "Oh Lord, if I don't get money to pay my rent...how am I going to live from day to day?" That was actually the hardest part. Even when I had to do house cleaning, at least I could find something to do when I was in California...but when I moved to New York, where I knew nobody, that was hard. Just me and my husband, trying to make ends meet until we could both become successful.
That was a crazy part of the movie...when you were cleaning someone else's bathroom, and you heard your song come on the radio!! Was there some dramatic license there, or did that really happen?
That is so true! It's a miracle. And it's amazing, that would be the song, or the time in my life that would turn me around. My time of the year is Christmas. I love that time of the year because everybody's in the spirit of giving, without getting anything in return. And that would be the song that would turn my life around. It doesn't get any better than that.
It's almost like it was a message from God, to remind you of who you were.
That's right. Exactly! My grandmother and mother were domestics, so there's nothing wrong with doing that kind of work, that's what kept me alive for almost a year. But then that message came, and it's like, "She made that up!" Baby, I don't think you can make nothing like that up!!
The movie also talked about you being one of the first black women ever in the recording studio. What was that like?
Yes, 1958/59, The Blossoms were a black background group. There weren't any yet. It was all white singers, and they weren't groups. They were singers that were called through AFTRA, our union, and they would say, "We need three or four singers," and they could read music. The Blossoms couldn't read music, but we had fantastic ears, and we were a group. It was really amazing because they didn't even look down on us. They told us, "It would probably help you guys if you'd learn how to read music." And we were like, "uh...well...we'll think about it. I don't know how we'd have time, but if we need to learn to read music, we will." But we never did. That's why it made it so great. We were the first who did it...we didn't realize it at the time. We didn't realize until a couple of years later, we started a movement that we didn't even know we were starting. (Hearty laugh) We ended up getting a lot of other black background singers into the business.
Was there any racial prejudice against you being there, or no?
No. No...Because of the musicians. I don't think they even thought about it. There were white and black musicians. It's just that they weren't used to seeing a group of black ladies doing sessions. Nobody ever felt anyway different. We didn't feel any different until we got ready to do the show "Shindig.” That's when our troubles started. Because it was a network television show and they didn't want three black ladies on that show. And the producer, Jack Good, who was from London said, "Well if you don't want my girls, you can't have my show." And he stood his ground and we ended up singing on his show as regulars. That's when we realized, "Wait a minute...there aren't any black background singers." It was the networks who had a problem with us being on that show. But as far as us being in the studio, nobody knew we were black or white, because we didn't sound black or white, we could sound any way record producers wanted us to sound. There was no back-lash for us singing in the studio.
Thank goodness that producer stood his ground.
Yes! It could've been a lot different if he would've said, I'm gonna' get some white singers, and then my show will be a success. But their show WAS a success, and they kept the black singers.
What's your next adventure?
I've been contacted by the “O” Channel, Oprah Winfrey, and we're going to do my life story; we're going to turn it into a movie. That's really exciting; I can't wait until we get started on that. Talk about going from the background to the front! That's it!!
Darlene’s beautiful spirit, generous honesty, and infectious laugh carried through our entire conversation. She surely left me an even bigger fan than I was before we spoke.