Possessing one of the most instantly recognizable and powerful voices in contemporary pop music, 2011 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love has a performance career that has lasted more than 60 years. From her early days in the vocal group The Blossoms and as one of Phil Spector’s vocalists, which resulted in a string of classic hit singles, to her appearances in the Tony Award-nominated jukebox musical “Leader of the Pack” in the 1980s — who can forget her dynamic performance of “River Deep-Mountain High” — and the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” Love has never been far from earshot. WAG spoke with Love about her music and the holidays in advance of her annual Christmas concerts, which include the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill.
Darlene, do you remember the first Christmas song that you can recall hearing from your childhood?
“Oh, my goodness. It was probably ‘Silent Night.’”
What was the first Christmas song you learned to sing?
“That would be ‘Joy To The World.’”
Do you have an all-time favorite traditional or religious Christmas song that you like to sing?
“I was brought up in church, so we sang a lot of Christmas songs. I think one of the songs that I really love is ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’”
That’s a beautiful song. Do you have an all-time favorite novelty Christmas song that you like to sing?
“Of course, ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).’”
That was an easy one.
“I think I probably sing that one more than any other because I sing it every Christmas now.”
In addition to the great music, Christmas also means that friends and family will be getting together for a feast. Do you have a favorite Christmas tradition?
“Something I’ve done for the last 25 years — no matter where I am — I always tell my agent and my manager, I do not work on Christmas. I don’t work the day before Christmas and I try not to work the day after Christmas. Sometimes you can’t help it, but I try to keep those three days open. We go over to my daughter’s house on Christmas Eve. She lives in Connecticut. We spend the night there. It’s amazing how it’s changed over the years. Now, we don’t have little children anymore. The kids are big. They’re grown.
“It’s hard to keep kids at home during Christmastime. The tradition we love, even if the kids don’t do it, me and my husband and my daughter and her husband, we wake up Christmas morning and we have breakfast and nobody gets to open their presents until after breakfast and after everybody is up.”
That’s a good rule.
“When the kids were little, they used to drive uscrazy, because they went to bed early on Christmas Eve. The adults stayed up late, talking and laughing and reminiscing about old times and ‘here we are again.’ We wouldn’t go to bed before one or two o’clock in the morning. We were still asleep at nine in the morning, but the kids had been up since the crack of dawn.”
Your Christmas show has become an annual event. When did you realize that it would be a yearly occurrence?
“I never did a lot of Christmas shows. I did a few in the New York area, maybe New Jersey, but that’s as far as it got. Once I started doing the ‘Late Show with David Letterman,’ I started getting more calls to do Christmas shows. I did the first David Letterman show in 1986. By the time we got to the ’90s, I was all over the place doing Christmas shows. It dawned on me that nobody else was really doing Christmas shows. Even today, nobody is really doing Christmas shows. What’s great about it is that David Letterman dubbed me ‘The Christmas Queen.’ Now, my calendar is so full from the beginning of November until the 31st of January doing Christmas shows.”
“I have to tell my audiences, ‘Christmas is over. Today’s January the 31st. It’s time to put the Christmas show to sleep.’ I would tell them, ‘If I did ‘Christmas (Baby…)’ all year long, what would you have to look forward to at the end of the year?’ I used to stop doing it the first of January but my audiences have gotten so rowdy about that song, I said, `Okay, one more week’ and then I end up doing it until the end of the month.”
I’m glad you mentioned “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It’s easily your most popular Christmas recording and was co-written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, two songwriters with Jewish backgrounds. Why do you think Jewish songwriters, who don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas, such as Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Mel Tormé and others, were so good at writing Christmas music?
“I think they had those songs in them. Maybe they didn’t believe in Christmas songs because they were Jewish, but I think it was something within them to write them. I ask people all the time, ‘Did you know that the greatest Christmas songs ever written were written by Jewish people?’ I think it was a gift that God put in them. Here we are, still singing these songs at Christmastime. I say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you are when it comes to Christmas.’”
While we’re on the subject, you provided the vocals for the hilarious Robert Smigel “Saturday Night Live” short “Christmastime For the Jews.” Did you ever think you’d live to see the day that you were a Claymation character?
“Never even thought about it. It’s amazing. When we did that song, I asked, ‘Is this going to be offensive?’ When you listen to the words, every word he wrote is true. While we’re having our Christmas in our homes, laughing and talking, they’re out in the streets having a ball.”
I understand that the character of backup singer Darlene Sweet, played by Cynthia Erivo in the movie “Bad Times at the El Royale,” is based on you. Have you seen the movie and what do you think about that character?
“We saw it by accident when me and my husband had our date night. We go to the movies and, even if there’s nothing playing that we know about, we just choose a movie. (Recently), without knowing anything about that movie, we thought it sounded pretty good from the title. We went to see it and I was blown away. I thought, ‘You know what? That’s me.’ My husband reminded me that back in January, my agent was approached about me, not being in the movie, but kind of shaping that character. I’d forgotten all about it. When she started singing ‘He’s A Rebel’, it dawned on me. Darlene Sweet is Darlene Love!”
When I saw you in concert in Fort Lauderdale in early 2018, I recognized one of your backing vocalists as Ula Hedwig, one of Bette Midler’s original Harlettes. As someone whose long history as a backing vocalist was presented in the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” do you feel a responsibility to support other backup singers?
“I did and I do still do that. You don’t find out you’re the first one to do something until many years later. You don’t think about it because it’s a job. We literally found out that (Love’s first group) The Blossoms were the first black background singers on records. We were the first. The singers that you saw in ‘20 Feet from Stardom,’ The Blossoms were responsible for them becoming a part of the background singers. You can’t help them today because singers are bringing in their own (background) singers. It’s becoming a lost art — starting as a background singer. The business has changed so. When we started, people didn’t use background singers. They just used singers. After The Blossoms started, they actually asked for The Blossom (by name). Then to turn around and make a movie about it. I can’t believe all this is happening.”
Darlene Love performs her “Love For The Holidays” show Dec. 5 at Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill. For more, visit paramounthudsonvalley.showare.com.
Love also performs Dec. 21 and 22 at Sony Hall, 235 W. 46th St. in Manhattan. For more, visit sonyhall.com.