You may not recognize the name, but you’ll recognize the voice. For me, Darlene Love has been synonymous with Christmas since 1992. That’s the year she sang “All Alone on Christmas”, written by Steven Van Zandt, for the movie Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. The song accompanies the montage of Kevin McAllister’s initial adventure through Manhattan.
The chiming bells, blaring horns, and an infectious drumbeat light the song like a rocket. Gives it that 1960s rock ‘n roll sound.
A sound Ms. Love helped create.
IN THE BACKGROUND
On July 26, 1941, number eighty-four on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Singers list was born. Darlene Love was the daughter of a minister in San Antonio, Texas. She honed her instrument in the church. In her teens, she joined a little-known girl group named the Blossoms.
In 1962, the Blossoms began working with uber-record producer Phil Spector. They were one block in Spector’s legendary “Wall of Sound”.
Ms. Love recorded “He’s A Rebel”, her first song singing lead vocals. Upon hearing the song for the first time on the radio, Ms. Love was sandbagged – the song was credited to the Crystals. They were a more experienced girl group produced by Spector, who thought using their name would promote the song better. The song hit number one in November of 1962. And no one knew it was Ms. Love’s voice cascading over them from their transistor radios.
The Blossoms contributed back ground vocals for many of the 1960’s biggest hits. “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes), “Johnny Angel” (Coach actress Shelley Fabares), “Monster Mash” (Bobby “Boris” Picket), and “That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra) are just a few of them.
Ms. Love’s first brush with Christmas was on the 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector. The song was “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes was supposed to supply lead vocals, but wasn’t able to inject enough emotion into the song. Ms. Love stepped up. This song is now her signature tune.
During the 1970s, Ms. Love took a break from singing to focus on her family. While working as a house cleaner in Beverly Hills, she heard her Christmas song on the radio and decided to ditch the Pledge and return to the stage.
A conversation with E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt brought Ms. Love to New York City in 1982. A jukebox musical titled Leader of the Pack was opening on Broadway. It featured the rock n’ roll songs of Ellie Greenwich. Ms. Love played herself in the show. Of course, you’ll recognize her from another acting gig: playing Danny Glover’s wife Trish Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon movie series.
TAKING CENTER STAGE
Band director Paul Shaffer once declared, “Darlene Love is rock n’ roll!” The other man who knew this was a former Indiana weatherman who now had his own late night talk show on NBC.
That man was David Letterman. In December of 1986, Mr. Letterman invited Ms. Love to perform her signature Christmas song on his show, Late Night with David Letterman. Ms. Love’s appearance became a yearly tradition; one which Mr. Letterman and Mr. Shaffer brought with them to the Late Show with David Letterman on CBS starting in 1993.
There, Ms. Love performed her song every year with the exception of 2007 when the Writer’s Guild strike brought late night talk shows and the entertainment industry to a halt. When Mr. Letterman announced his retirement, Ms. Love performed her song one last time on December 19, 2014. Mr. Letterman has said that Ms. Love’s performance is his favorite part of Christmas.
People were recognizing the name Darlene Love. And so did the music industry. In 2011, Ms. Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by one of her greatest admirers, the divine Bette Midler.
Of Ms. Love, Ms. Midler said: “She changed my view of the world, listening to those songs, you had to dance, you had to move, you had to keep looking for the rebel boy.”
Their paths would cross again in 2014 when Ms. Midler released an album paying tribute to the many girl groups that inspired her. Ms. Midler and Ms. Love recorded a duet of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”. It’s a standout on a flawless album.
The 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom was made to shed light on the music industry’s unsung background singers. Ms. Love played a prominent role. She took the stage at the 86th annual Academy Awards when the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
On September 8, 2015 – a gift from God. Introducing Darlene Love was released. Ms. Love’s first solo CD in years. The entire album was produced by Steven Van Zandt. Two of the songs were written specifically for her by Bruce Springsteen, another long-time admirer.
As of now, I know of no plans on a follow-up album, but it’s possible. Ms. Love is still out there, singing the hell out of any tune she wants. A song should be so lucky. And if you’re in New York City, stop by BB King’s Bar and Grill to catch Ms. Love’s annual Christmas show.
I can attest to Ms. Love’s talent. I had the privilege to see her perform live when I was living in New York City. It happened quite by accident. Lance Bass was performing in Hairspray on Broadway, so I bought tickets to see it. He wasn’t in the matinee performance.
But Ms. Love was.
She was playing the role of Motormouth Maybelle. Any disappointment I had of not seeing Mr. Bass went out the window at this fortunate turn of events. Ms. Love brought the house down with her character’s signature number “I Know Where I’ve Been”. I saw the show two more times after that. Eventually I saw Mr. Bass. But what I remember most is seeing Ms. Love every time.
One performance my friend and I won the lottery. Two seats in the first row for $25. When the entire cast took the stage to perform the last song “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, there was Ms. Love standing directly over me. She belted it out. Attacked it, even. All while absorbing the frenetic energy thrown back by the crowd. At one point she looked down. We made eye contact. I mouthed “Great job” and “Thank you”. Maybe I was delirious with joy, but I’m pretty certain she smiled and nodded at me.
Even if she didn’t, who cares? I saw Darlene Love live!
Below is Ms. Love’s last performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the Late Show with David Letterman.