All You Need is Love

A setting desert sun, an Evening Under the Stars in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, and the indisputable talents of Darlene Love — what else is there?

By M. M. de Crinis


With one of the most recognizable voices that you might not have recognized as hers, Darlene Love has parlayed decades of session work for big-name artists into a blooming solo career with roots as strong as an oak’s.

As part of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” hit factory, Love flirted heavily with fame since the early 1960s as a lead singer of The Blossoms who sang background for 20th century household names such as Tom Jones, The Righteous Brothers, Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra and Cher (to name only a few). She also established herself as a hit-maker with a handful of her own Billboard classics, including “He’s A Rebel,” “The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” During this time, Love exercised her tremendous instrument without having to do all the heavy lifting that goes with superstar status. And today, she’s flexing those vocal muscles and showing the world why she was one of the most sought-after singers during the Motown era and beyond.

In the last several years, Love has breached the berm separating backup singers from top-billed artists. She was the headliner for the final season of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. She’s achieved the coveted golden triad in music: An Oscar and Grammy for her work in the award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (or what she calls her “music Oscar”). Her double decade stint on the David Letterman Christmas show singing the No. 1 holiday favorite “Christmas Baby Please Come Home” kept her in the game, but her will, faith and inestimable talent has pushed her close to the finish line — even though she’s nowhere near taking her medal and going home.

If folks in their golden years are “seasoned citizens,” as Ms. Love teasingly refers to mature individuals, then she, at 73, is pepper personified. Bold, feisty, and delivering a pop of flavor to everything she does, Darlene Love is finally reaping the benefits of a life devoted to music and a spirit that projects seemingly eternal youth.

In anticipation of her appearance at Evening Under the Stars on May 9 — the year’s major fundraiser for AIDS Assistance Program held annually at O’Donnell Golf Club in Palm Springs — Love graciously took time out of her busy schedule to speak with The Standard about her road to success and the fierce love she feels for her peers, fans, and the industry to which she has devoted her life.

The Standard: Thank you for speaking with us, and congratulations on all of your success, particularly in the last several years with a Grammy and Oscar for 20 Feet from Stardom and, now, a new album. How does it feel to be firmly in the spotlight?
Darlene Love: [Laughs] It’s been amazing. Because, you know, I’ve been at this for about thirty years trying to get on the top of my game. So I’ve been working quite a bit, but what has happened since the Academy Awards is that it has gotten me more recognition. Producers, when they hire you, want to know that you can put butts in the seats. [Laughs] So I have gone from like five-, six-hundred seaters to a thousand, two thousand-room seater now. And I’m doing the same thing! I’m working just as hard for the five-hundred seats as I do for the two-thousand seats. That hasn’t changed. I think what has made me so successful is that I do the same show with the same energy for two hundred people as I would do for two thousand people. The difference level is the energy that the audience gives to you. But other than that, I do almost the same exact show, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

TS: What do you do to stay emotionally, spiritually, and physically fit to perform with the same energy level and passion you have your entire life?
DL: Well, you know, the one thing people always ask singers is, “Aren’t you tired of singing those songs?” You know, “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Do Ron Ron”? I say no, I never really get tired of singing them because every audience is different. And they all want to hear those songs. It’s not like the same people every night. New audiences act and react differently, more or less. So for me, and I don’t know about anybody else, I feel like I’m doing it for the first time for this audience. And I have a lot of faith in God — I’ve had to, because it’s been me and my husband struggling on this road a long time by ourselves. Also, my daughter is an exercise teacher, and I get up every morning and do a 5 a.m. kickboxing class with her. [Laughs]

TS: You are an inspiration!
DL: [Laughs] That’s what all the ladies in the class say. I can tell when my energy is down, when I really have to pull hard to do a show, that I haven’t been working out — which usually is because I’m not home, I’m working. But when I’m home, I’m at every class. That’s what gives me that energy and that strength and that power to do shows.

TS: How about mentally and emotionally?
DL: Mentally I’m always prepared. My sister travels with me and she knows when it’s time for people to get out of my dressing room. You know, “Miss Love needs this time by herself, she’s preparing for her show.” And I do. I do a quiet time for about an hour, if I can. I put on gospel music, and I just calm myself down by listening to that. Everybody that’s in that room with me knows it’s my quiet time; that’s how I kind of stay up on my game. I prepare every night to do my show. I don’t just go to work and say, “OK, I’m ready, let’s go on.” [Laughs] I prepare mentally before every show I do.

TS: How many shows are you doing these days?
DL: Well, my biggest show times over the last five or six years was really Christmastime. From November to January 1st, I am busy, busy, busy.

TS: Lots of people don’t feel like it’s really Christmas until they’ve heard “Christmas Baby Please Come Home.”
DL: Exactly. And that’s what I keep trying to tell my agent. I said, “Listen, you need to tell people I have another show that I do that’s not a Christmas show.” [Laughs] So that’s what we’ve been doing. What’s been so good is that I don’t have to do more than four or five shows a month. And they have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, especially since I was singing “Christmas Baby Please Come Home” on the David Letterman Show. The last time I did that song on David’s show was 2014, because he’s retiring. I did that show for 28 years. I get fan mail, and people say they sit around their television set with the children; it’s a big night for them. They wait to see that Christmas show. Somebody passes you on the street and says, “I’m like David [Letterman]; Christmas doesn’t start until I hear you sing that song.” [Laughs] That’s a great reflection on me, that I’m still doing those songs great — I’m not just sort of doing them, I’m doing them!

TS: How did you continue believing in yourself and your talent, even while it was your voice that helped launch huge careers for other artists?
DL: When I was doing background [singing] during the ’50s and ’60s, I loved it. Because there was no pressure, you know? And the singers would come to us and they would say, “Man, we’re excited to have you doing background on our record.” They were just as excited to have us, as we were to sing on their record. They didn’t treat us like old background singers or an old rag that you threw to the side and the say, “OK, it’s time to sing!” [Laughs] They waited to hear our input. There are a lot of stars that we worked for who wanted to hear what we thought of the background. “What do you hear here? Do you hear oohs here, ahhs here?” You know, let us know what you want. And then there were the ones that came prepared, and they told us what they wanted. So it was always great because it was always a challenge; we’d never know what the artist was going to want. So we had to be prepared, and we also had to be good enough to learn what they want, you know, and then do it well.

TS: Would you say then that being one of the greatest session singers in history, being so versatile and flexible, helped you in your solo career?
DL: Yes, it did, because when I went out on the road and sang background for like Nancy Sinatra or Sammy Davis Junior, they let us open their show. We did like a 15-, 20-minute opening act. Then we’d go change clothes and do background for the show. So I always got a chance to step out. When we worked for Nancy Sinatra, she’d call me up [on the stage] and say, “This is the singingest woman I know.” You know I had to have a lot of nerve to be on the stage with her. [Laughs] Then I would do my little thing and people would really applaud. And I’d be going back to sing background, and she’d say — now the audience would be applauding — she’d say, “Come on girl, come back up here and take another bow.” Those were great opportunities for me to sing in front of thousands of people, you know, for thousands of people to see me, even though it was just this one little step out. Cher did the same thing with me when I worked for her. She’d pull me out of the background, let me come up there and sing with her. It gave me a thrill. It also helped me when I decided to put my shows together.

TS: Last year at the Academy Awards, you received a standing ovation when you sang at your acceptance speech for 20 Feet from Stardom. Did you plan that or was it a spontaneous decision?
DL: It wasn’t a spontaneous that night. But the spontaneous part about it was that I didn’t find out till the night before. [Laughs] They said, “We want you to go up on stage and represent the girls. And I went, “What?” As far as we knew, it was just going to be the producers, because when you do a documentary they only allow the producers to come up on stage. And I said, “Well, what am I going to say? What am I going to do?” And they said, “You’ll think of something to do. You know, you always do.” I’m one of those people who always land on their feet. And then they said, “Maybe you should sing something.” And I said, “Now I know you all have lost it. What am I going to sing in 45 seconds that would make any sense?” But I did what I usually do; I call upon the strength that I need. I just bowed my head and I said, “OK Lord, give me a song.” And then to get the standing ovation, it was like, man, this is out of sight. [Laughs]

TS: It must have felt really empowering to be honored like that by Hollywood A-listers.
DL: It was amazing. I went to all the parties that I could go to, because they wear you out with parties. [Laughs] When you win an Academy Award, you get in to all the A-list parties. We went to every one of the parties…. If there’s another highlight of my career, I can’t think of what it would be. That night was amazing. There are not a million, but a billion people watching you, and you say to yourself, “What am I doing up here? Am I going to make a fool out of myself?” [Laughs] You know, I still think about it. I’ve even dreamed that that happened. And you wake up, and you go, oh yeah, that really did happen. It’s something you just don’t expect… I am so humbled by all of the accolades. You know, I have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Oscar (I call it an Oscar too), and the Grammy is going to make the set complete. Three of them, the highest honors you could get in this business: an Academy Award, a Grammy, and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t know what’s happening next, but I’m going to be ready for it, whatever it is. [Laughs]

TS: You have an album coming out soon, right?
DL: I do. We just finished it. And Steven [Van Zandt] is mixing it right now. I’m so excited, because he said, “Ooh, I found the perfect name for that album.” But he won’t tell me what it is. [Laughs] Everybody in the control room said it’s a masterpiece, and that it’s probably one of the greatest albums they’ve heard in many, many years. Steven put his heart and soul into it. It’s something he’s been thinking about doing for years. When I say years, 20 years, as long as I’ve known him. He would always say, “We’re going to go in the studio one day, Darlene, I’m going to record you.” I’ve never seen anybody work like him, a record producer in a studio, where things just come to him out of the blue. You can just see the wheels turning in his head as he’s listening, you know. So it’s a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. Except for two songs, everything is brand-spanking new. I just hope the world and our fans are ready for it. [Laughs]

TS: When you come to the desert next month to perform at Evening Under the Stars, do you already know what you’re going to do?
DL: We have a regular show that we do that’s very high energy. When we do shows like this, we try to sing songs that people know, that they’re familiar with. The best thing to do is sing a song the audience knows or recognizes, because they get into it with you. And they start singing with you, which is really great.

TS: How big is the band that you travel or perform with?
DL: There are seven musicians and three singers. It’s pretty big. We have gotten to the place now where we don’t have to do a pickup. We used to just take my conductor and my singers, and then we’d pick up the band, you know, on the way or when we get to California. But God has really been blessing us with good jobs, and now we can afford to take the band with us when we go. It’s something I’ve been working toward. It’s really great to be able to take my band and my singers with me.

TS: How does it feel for you to now be the person with the backup singers?
DL: It’s a lot of work. [Laughs] When I was a backup singer, I just showed up and knew what I was supposed to sing. I didn’t have to worry about hotels or airfares or flights or meet and greets — all of those wonderful things. But my singers make it so easy for me, because I was going to have the best singers on the planet behind me. [Laughs]

TS: Having been in the music industry a long time, what is your impression of music today and the industry in general?
DL: Well, all I can say is, it’s their music. We had our turn; they have their turn now. I think people expect more of the new people. Now it’s more of a show-show, you know. It’s not just a performance; it’s a show. So much is involved. People expect to see the smoke and the lights and dancers, and they expect you to take your clothes off and be half naked, and that ain’t our world. [Laughs] … But I’m so appreciative that people still come and see you, you know? They don’t have to. [Laughs] But they do. It actually keeps me humble. I enjoy it so much, and my fans can see that; they can see I am enjoying what I’m doing. You know, I’m not out on that stage going, “Oh God, I got to sing this song one more time. OK, come on, y’all.” No, I enjoy it.

TS: You have so much energy and enthusiasm. And it doesn’t seem like there’s any plan of slowing down soon.
DL: Nope, not for a while, as long as I can do it. Just call me Tony Bennett-ette. [Laughs] If he can do it, I can do it, too.

22nd Annual Evening Under the Stars
May 9, 5:30 p.m.
Performance by Darlene Love, followed by dancing to Nightshift
O’Donnell Golf Club in Palm Springs

Visit for tickets and information.