As a member of The Blossoms, Love was a regular on the seminal '60s era TV show Shindig. But the group made their career as studio support, and backing vocalists for artists like The Crystals, and The Righteous Brothers.
Love's coming to Memphis Monday, August 13th to celebrate 50 years of the '68 Comeback Special. She'll be performing at Graceland's Guest House. Here's what she had to say about being a Blossom and performing with Elvis.
Memphis Flyer: The Blossoms were already a group when you joined up, right?
Darlene Love: I met The Blossoms when I was in the 12th grade, the last year of high school. That's when I say I professionally started singing, because that's when they started paying me. Even if it was only $15 to buy gas for the car. Gasoline was only $0.22 a gallon.The Blossoms were a group already. They were getting ready to record for Capitol Records and needed a replacement right away. They just happened to be in a wedding party, and I was singing. And that's how I met them.
I thought it was something like that. I didn't think y'all had gone to school together.
The Blossoms did go to school together. But I was a little younger than them, and came along behind. They already had a manager and a singing coach. We used to practice everyday like going to school or going to a job. They already had a contract with Capitol Records. And they were getting ready to record. So it was lucky that we met and that I fit in the group. So we went from there to singing back-up. It's like we were thrown into that. Not even really knowing what we were doing. We knew we could sing, but we weren't sure about the session work.
But you start doing that almost right away, right?
We worked our first session I think back in 1958.
I know you guys were trying to make it as recording artists in your own right, but show business is tough and, while I know there were many downsides too, I'm guessing the session work created stability a lot of young artists trying to make it don't have. Is that accurate?
That's very accurate. Because there weren't really any black groups at the time that we're doing this. It was unheard of for them to be doing session work. Most of the sessions were contracted through our unions AFTRA. And most of the people in AFTRA were white singers. They'd call them and put together three or four girls. Once we started getting into it we had to join the union. Thank God! Before, if they needed three singers, they booked three singers. But we already had a sound. So they could depend on us to have the sound they wanted. Therefore, we became bigger than life, in doing session work.
Yes. Those guys in the Wrecking Crew were already doing sessions. We met them through Phil Spector. He gave them the name Wrecking Crew. We were doing work for everybody. We were at sessions all the time together. It was a minimum of a 2-hour session. Most sessions lasted anywhere between two and five hours. But a minimum of 2 hours. So we became very popular as background vocal group. And the Wrecking Crew became famous, and very wealthy for the recording sessions. They could do many more sessions a week than we could, because we had to use our vocal cords. They were using their instruments.
And the voice can wear out pretty quickly when you use it like that.
Hello? I think that's how I really learned how to take care of my voice. After we had a hard day, like a 10-hour day of singing. Sometimes that's what it was. I'd do nothing. No talking, no singing. That's when I found out your vocal cord were like a muscle. And your muscles get sore after a while. So you have to rest them. I learned all that on my own nobody told me. Well I couldn't afford a doctor! I had to learn it all on my own. But it's paid off over the years.
I know you've told it many times, but can we talk just a little bit about how The Blossoms recorded "He's a Rebel," then Phil Spector put it out as a Crystals record?
We had already been doing background work for two or three years before we met Phil. We were working for Lester Sill. Unbeknownst to us, that it was Phil Spector's partner. That's how we met Phil. Because Phil needed someone to sing "He's a Rebel," so they hired me to do it. As Darlene Love and The Blossoms. But that's not the name it came out under. It was credited to the Crystals. It all came out in 20 Feet from Stardom. I know a lot of minds were opened.
You guys knew it was a going to be a Crystals record though, right?
Oh yeah. We didn't go in there to do it as a group. We went in as a session. And I got paid extra for singing the lead on it. We knew it was going to be a Crystals record. It wasn't a surprise. The surprise was when we signed with Phil, [the next record] was supposed to be my record. But he put that one out under the name of the Crystals too. It got a little confusing for everybody back in those days.
You say it wasn't a surprise for you, but it was a surprise for The Crystals.
A big surprise. They were out on the road working and the record was on the charts. They didn't even know the record was out. They were on the road with Gene Pitney who wrote the song. And from what I can understand, I talked to Gene Pitney years and years ago, and he said he'd taught them the song on the road. That's how they learned it.
So they were singing it on the road, just not on the record.
None of the crystals were on any of the records we recorded in California. Like to "Doo Run Run," "Sure the Boy I Love." Their lead singer LaLa Brooks was there to do the singing on the Crystal songs. But the Crystals weren't there to do the background on their sessions. We actually did a lot of those kinds of things, but a lot of those other records weren’t hits.
I'm sure that did get confusing. Especially as you're trying to develop your career.
When I went out, everybody thought Darlene Love was a Crystal. But she was never a Crystal; she just recorded those records with Phil Spector. The Crystals lived in New York. I lived in California. And the Crystals were young girls. I was like 19. They were like 13 and 14.
I knew they were young. I guess I didn't realize they were that young.
Their mothers wouldn't let them fly to California to record. That was one of the big problems. It's well-known today. The Crystals still have a little trouble with it, and I can understand why. They go and do shows today. And they sing "He's a Rebel," and "He's Sure the Boy I Love." I'm sure they gotten to the point where they just don't talk about it anymore. That's water under the bridge.
And, to some extent the public record had been corrected.
The biggest problem I had, when I went out as a solo artist, the producers all wanted to say I was Darlene Love "originally of the Crystals," and I'd said "No no no! You can't say that. I have never been with the Crystals. I had to build a whole new career as Darlene Love. Which took a lot of time and energy. Thank god I was young. There was a time I couldn't even find work. Because the Crystals name is bigger than my name. So of course they could sell tickets on the Crystals, but they couldn't sell tickets on Darlene Love.
I know we're supposed to talk Elvis, but can we talk T.A.M.I. Show first?
We were doing Shindig at the time. And they think the producers of Shindig to let us out for the week to do The T.A.M.I. Show.
I was just talking to director Steve Binder about how intersectional and ahead of its time that show seems to be, conceptually.
It is. You're absolutely right. And it ended up being great, and people love great things. They love to watch wonderful things. It didn't matter to them if it was a male or female singing.
And it still just blows my mind looking at all the talent collected for that thing.
Rock-and-roll was like a stutter at the beginning. Okay here, we go! Oh no we can't! No, now here we go! What they did, they put the right people on The T.A.M.I. Show. My God, the Rolling Stones? Jan and Dean as the emcees? Give me a break, okay? Then, to bust it wide open, they hired James Brown. And he stole the show. I mean the Rolling Stones were going on after James Brown — and they refused to go on at first. They were like, "We're not going on after that!" That was an eye-opener for white people to see James Brown. Before that they didn't know James Brown. James Brown was a black act.
I love the moment when he's exhausted at the edge of the stage and The Blossoms are encouraging him to go back for more.
We were just as excited as the audience. I'd never seen James Brown. I mean, I loved those records. But nobody had ever seen that kind of energy on stage. Not before James Brown. Even Michael Jackson talked about how he stole a little bit of Jackie Wilson, a little bit of James Brown, and Chuck Berry, and I wrapped it all up in Michael Jackson. Then you have, of course, Elvis Presley who came on wiggling and shaking, and they didn't know what to think about that, either. He also took it to a whole other level.
So let's talk about the Comeback. Which, Elvis hated, by the way. Or— the word. He didn't like anybody calling it "the comeback."
I'm sure he didn't. Because it wasn't a comeback. He was getting ready to go to Vegas and he needed something to catapult him into live shows. That was one reason for doing that show. I didn't understand the word either. They call it that now, I guess because they couldn't think of anything else to call it.
Had you ever worked with Elvis before?
No. That was our first time to meet Elvis. But we were in the recording studio, recording all the music. That's where we met Elvis and became friends with him. Especially me, because of my gospel background. Every time he got a moment, he'd go get his guitar and ask, "Do you know this song?" We'd be over in the corner with The Blossoms and Elvis, just having a good time. I think they got a little bit angry with us we're taking all of his time.
And the improv part of the show is inspired by that, and Elvis jamming in his dressing room.
So natural. And they caught that when they did the round circle thing with him the black leather suit. I don't think they realized that was going to be so big. But it was all so natural. And it wasn't planned.
Can you tell me a little bit more about how the improv stuff developed. Not on the show, but in the studio between takes, or dressing room after rehearsal?
What I loved about Elvis: He loved what he called 'the hymns of the church.' Like "Precious Lord Take My Hand." "Amazing Grace." "How Great Thou Art." For us to know those songs, he was like, "Yeah, come on let's do some of those!" He would sing the leads and we’d do the background. He'd go, "Is this key is this alright?" And you know, whatever key it was in was all right with us. And that was the fun we had. And then we found out, years later when he went to Vegas, when they would be breaking down the stage to go home, Elvis and the singers would be sitting around the piano. It brought Elvis down. It was his down time. Like going to your room and watching TV. It takes a while to come down after you've done a show like that. And they would all just sit around and sing gospel songs. Not rhythm and blues or rock and roll. But gospel. Elvis won three Grammys for gospel music. That says a lot. I've been invited to come to Memphis for the 50th anniversary of the special. My group, we're going down to Graceland in August to celebrate the Comeback Special. And most of the show's going to be gospel. Then I've been invited back to go to Bad Nauheim, Germany where Elvis was stationed in the army, and where they have his festival. Last year we went and there were more than 10,000 people there. I said, "Y'all sure Elvis is dead?"