“God gave me this talent and I intend to use it,” Darlene Love proclaims in the first part of “20 Feet From Stardom,” the riveting documentary about the voices that everyone knows behind the names that few recognize.
The film, directed by Morgan Neville, opens July 5 at Regal Tara and Lefont Sandy Springs and unveils the secret ingredient behind many of music’s biggest names — the unheralded backup singers.
Love, who said in an interview last week that she was the first singer contacted about the movie, is in fine company: Merry Clayton (Ray Charles, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones), Lisa Fischer (Luther Vandross, Sting, the Rolling Stones), Claudia Lennear (Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker) and comparative newcomer Judith Hill (who was good enough for Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder but not, apparently, for voters of “The Voice,” which she recently did not win) share their stories about standing in the shadows while elevating the stars.
They all have compelling stories, but Love, still vibrant and big-voiced at 71, is worthy of her own film.
As a member of the California backing group the Blossoms in the late 1950s/early ’60s, Love was one of the first black background singers to work in a studio.
It’s the Blossoms you hear on Phil Spector-steered songs such as “He’s a Rebel” and the holiday masterpiece “(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home,” along with scads of other hits from the era (“Monster Mash” or “That’s Life” sound familiar?). But Spector frequently used the Blossoms’ vocals on recordings ostensibly by the Crystals, preventing the singers from ever achieving their own recognition.
While the control Spector had over Love’s career — including changing her last name from Wright to Love — eventually led her to quit the music industry in frustration, she has a simple message if she were to talk to Spector now.
“I would say thank you. Really, I would. I never hated Phil. I just disliked what he was doing. I never got the money I should have, and my name never was on records,” Love said. “But it never went to hate. If it wasn’t for those records, I wouldn’t have a career. Even today, people love those songs.”
Love, who lives just outside Manhattan, also offers continued gratitude to Paul Shaffer and Steven Van Zandt.
It was a mid-’80s performance with Shaffer at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village that brought David Letterman into the audience to witness Love singing “(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home.” Letterman told Shaffer he wanted Love to sing the holiday song on his late night show, and she has annually performed the classic since 1986.
Van Zandt, meanwhile, is the one who suggested Love move from California to New York to reignite her career.
“I moved here and found out people knew who Darlene Love was,” she said. “Steven and I have stayed friends all of these years.”
Her transfer to New York also meant convenient access to Broadway, where she starred in “Hairspray” from 2005-2008. Love, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, said she’d welcome a return to the stage for the right show.
“Although,” she joked, “after ‘Hairspray,’ I said, ‘Lord, Jesus, no more!’ It takes so much of your time. Maybe I’d do it again for a year if it was something I really wanted to do.”
While she would also entertain a role in a TV sitcom, it’s still singing that commands her time — and her heart. (Speaking of, though she had a mild heart attack last July, Love said she feels great and is back to doing kickboxing with her daughter.)
In doing press for the movie, Love hopes to come to some markets — such as Atlanta — where she hasn’t performed much over the years and remind people of her vitality.
“If you don’t sing, it goes away,” Love said. “People wonder why my voice is so strong today. I tell them, I never stopped singing.”
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