What’s It Like To Be The World’s Most Famous Backup Singer?

Darlene Love on Phil Spector bringing a gun to recording sessions, her role as Danny Glover’s wife in Lethal Weapon, and talking with Elvis about gospel music. She goes into all this and more in the upcoming documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.

Darlene Love, a singer who’s been working in the business since 1963, is responsible for the soul of many songs you know and love, like “Da Do Ron Ron,” “He’s a Rebel,” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” So why don’t you know her name? In the stunning documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, out June 14, it becomes clear that “backup vocalists,” or the mostly female singers behind many of the hit songs of the ’60s and ’70s, weren’t really the “backup” at all — instead, they were at the forefront of shaping and defining the sound of almost all of the most popular music that came from those eras. The film gives Love and many other singers the opportunity to have their gorgeous voices be heard both figuratively and literally.

Love got her start when Phil Spector discovered her group, The Blossoms. She went on to work with artists like Elvis, Aretha Franklin, and The Beach Boys, and was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. BuzzFeed spoke with her about her career, the industry, and what life is like on the other side of the wall of sound.

Do you think Twenty Feet From Stardom will have an effect on the music industry once people become more aware of what backup singers do?

DL: I think that it should, but I don’t know that it will. The industry is crazy right now — there is really no way people can get started in this business. The groups today come already prepared with their own singers and their own musicians. Even in commercials now, commercial houses use the same people over and over again. It’s hard to get started as a backup singer.

Is it hard to maintain a career in background singing even if you’ve been doing it for a while?

DL: No, not if that’s what you’ve been doing. A lot of the people that I’ve worked with over the years have gone out on the road. They’re not in the recording studio; they’re out on the road with Sting and those people that need background singers.

Darlene Love’s lead vocals on “He’s a Rebel.”

You were discovered in church, right?

DL: I was singing in my church choir. One of the ladies was getting married and they asked me to sing at their wedding. While at the wedding, two ladies who sung with the group The Blossoms were in the wedding party and they heard me sing. When the party was over they asked me to audition for their group. I’ve been singing ever since.

Where do you predominantly perform?

DL: You name it; I’m all over the place. Mainly at Christmastime because of the Phil Spector Christmas CD — every Christmas everyone wants me to work. The last five or six years I’ve been all over the country. A couple years ago I went to Australia and did Fame, and I was on Broadway for two years with Hairspray. It varies. I will go wherever they want me. It’s just gotten bigger every year.

I saw that you’ve done a bit of acting as well. How did you end up in Lethal Weapon?

DL: I was doing my show at the Bottom Line in Manhattan. The casting director was a fan and he asked me if I’d come and audition for a movie that we were getting ready to do. I went and I met the director, Dick Donner, and the rest is history. I did four Lethal Weapon movies as Danny Glover’s wife. It’s amazing because they were looking for someone that could act but wasn’t one of the main black actresses that they used. The biggest deal when you audition for television or movies or plays — they are looking for a certain type. I fit the bill.

Darlene Love in Lethal Weapon.

Can we talk a little about your time with Phil Spector? In the movie, that seemed like a nightmarish period for you. What was it like to work with him?

DL: In the beginning, Phil Spector was just starting out as a record producer, and I had been a background singer for three or four years. Phil came to Los Angeles from New York to look for a singer who could do this song, “He’s a Rebel,” but he was going to put it out under the name of his group, The Crystals. We used to go in there and do it and they’d put it under somebody else’s name. I saw that Phil Spector could do records, so I thought, Hmm, I need to sign with him. When I signed with him, he continued to put my records out under the name The Crystals, which he wasn’t supposed to be doing. That’s what got us started out on the wrong foot. We’d go into the studio recording songs that were supposed to be the next Darlene Love release, then I’d hear it on the radio and it would be The Crystals. That’s something I couldn’t do anything about because I was signed to him and he could use all of his groups intertwined. He could make me The Crystals; he could make me Bobby B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. I did mostly all the background voice with Phil Spector. When we went in to do Bobby B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, we had no idea who was going to be that name for the record.

You just knew that you were doing the song and that was it?

DL: After years of being with him, I finally got something under contract. I was doing this TV show called Shindig! in 1964 and 1965, and Phil Spector would not record me at all while I was on it, which nobody could understand or believe. That was a way of getting a hit record immediately. You sang your song on a hit television show every week and the producers of the television show even call Phil Spector and say, “Hey, man, what’s the matter? Why don’t you record her?” He would just give them some kind of lame excuse. So when my contract ran out, I said, “Good.” What really got me into a barrel of crap with Phil Spector is when I signed to Gamble and Huff Philadelphia International and Phil went and bought my contract back from them.

He could just do that that easily?

DL: Lawyers play games. I’ve learned over the years that most lawyers know one another. They all play golf together. You have to be shrewd. Phil Spector even told us one time: There’s no contract written that cannot be broken.

What did you think of the murder that he committed? Were you surprised?

DL: Not at all. I used to tell Phil all the time, “Somebody’s gonna get hurt, while you’re here playing with all of these guns.” I think [the murder] was an accident, but I think he did it because of his personality. I’d get to a session and some of the guys would say, “That fool Phil’s got a gun in there.” I said, “Well, I’m going back home.” And I would! I told the guys, “I’m not stupid. What are you doing in there with a guy with a gun?”

Why would he bring a gun to sessions?

DL: Just to prove that he could. Even after he bought my contract back, I went into the studio with him because this was maybe the only time I could get this record, that I’ve been trying to do for years, and in the studio was John Lennon and Cher and a bunch of other stars standing behind the glass partition while I sung. The song was called “Lord, If You’re a Woman.” I’d never have any trouble with Phil before. I’d go to the studio and he’d say, “Doll,” — that’s what he used to call me — “you got it.” I’d go in there and do four or five takes, maybe seven at the maximum. This time was different. Every time I did a line he would say, “I didn’t like the way you did that, do it again.” This went on and on for a couple of hours. It was like, you know what? I’m not crazy. When I get ready to do something, I prepare for it. I knew the song. I knew how he wanted me to sing it. I took the earphones off my ears, I put my coat on, and I picked my purse up and walked out of that studio. I didn’t see Phil Spector again for another 25 years. At that point I was either going to kill him or he was going to kill me. I wasn’t going to go to jail for killing a fool.

I had to make up my mind when I walked out of that studio that I was not only leaving my singing career behind, I was leaving Phil Spector behind, and I didn’t even want to think about him anymore because I didn’t want to give him the power to make me act like a fool. At that point, I just said, “Lord, maybe I’m not supposed to be recording.”

Darlene Love with Phil Spector.

What did you do then?

DL: At that point of my life I was going through a divorce, my father had passed — so many things were going on to make somebody lose their mind. I have so much faith in God. I know that he loves me and he wants good for me. I just kept thinking, What else is there for me to do? I know I can sing, what else can I do? I went over to my girlfriend’s house and she got back from a cruise. And I said, “Do they have singers on the ship?” So I went and got a job on the cruise ship.

What was that like?

DL: I actually was getting away from what was happening to me by going on the ship. I didn’t know anybody on the ship, I couldn’t use the phone.

That must have felt so good, after going through a divorce and leaving Phil Spector behind.

DL: It was like I was leaving two divorces. I was leaving him and my husband! All I can say is that thank god my family were Christians because that’s what I had to hold on to. As I’m talking to you, I can almost feel myself tearing up, because that’s all I had. Going on the ship gave me the chance to meet fans that I did not know I had. I loved singing on the Carnival cruise line. They said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “Working, child!”

Darlene Love (first from right) singing with Cher (center).

You worked with people like Elvis, The Beach Boys, and Cher. Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like to work with such famous people?

DL: I think my biggest thing recording was with Elvis Presley because he was such a big star. When we found out we were going to sing with him we were like, “Why?” Because he used to have choirs behind him or male singers. But for his 1968 comeback special, they wanted us to sing with the choir to give them more of a body, a more gospel sound. Elvis fell in love with The Blossoms. He said, “Oh, y’all are going to be on my special.” He was just as excited to sing with us as we were with him, which was amazing to me. He could have just done the show and said good-bye, but he was such a delight to sit down and talk with about gospel music, which was amazing to me. The other people that I loved working with was Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross because their music is my music. To be able to sing on their sessions was on the top of the list, and then you have these people and they’re your friends. That’s what’s so great about the people I’ve had the chance to work, just that we all become friends after a while. I worked with Dionne Warwick for 10 years. We’re like family. She even called me her cousin on stage once because she had her aunt out there, they had her sister, so they said, “Well, we’re gonna make you the cousin.” It worked. Everybody got cousins!

What was it like when you were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame?

DL: Amazing. I cannot find words to describe it.

Darlene Love being inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame by Bette Midler in 2011.

You looked beautiful.

DL: Thank you so much! I had to ask people the next day what happened because everything was so exciting. You’re eating dinner and you’re sitting there with all these wonderful stars, like Bruce and Steve. There was a guitar on stage and nobody had been playing it. But when Darlene Love got up to sing, Bruce Springsteen started playing that guitar!

I bet nobody protested.

DL: I sure wasn’t going to protest! In this business, Bruce Springsteen was one of my advocates. He said he was going to get me in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and that it was a shame that I wasn’t already. He said, “Let’s make something right that we haven’t done.” Two years later, I was in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame getting that statue. When I had a speech it had to be written out, because if I had to say what I felt in my heart, I would have been rambling. So I had to write it down because I didn’t want to leave out anyone or anything. I even thanked Phil Spector. People were shocked. But if it wasn’t for the songs I did with him, I wouldn’t be in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Darlene Love’s hit Christmas song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

What is important for you, as artist, to share with your audience?

DL: If you feel you have a gift, you can’t let anyone take that dream away from you. It is a struggle, especially for an entertainer — it’s just so hard to get out there. There are barriers, but barriers are nothing but something for you to get over. You just have to keep on pursuing your dreams and not let anyone keep it. I think dreams are a spiritual thing. God gives you dreams, well, you got to fulfill them! You just can’t let them die. It’s your job to get up there and do it. I want the world to know you have to pursue it. You have to pursue it! It takes a strong will.

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