When the creators of the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom began envisioning a film focused on backup singers, one name kept coming up: Darlene Love. Among fans and musicians alike, Love had a sterling reputation as one of music's legendary, if still somewhat under-celebrated voices performing behind the biggest acts. So after speaking to Love, director Morgan Neville said he was finally convinced that he could make an entire movie on the topic, one that heavily showcased Love's long-winding career and countless behind-the-scenes stories.
Like many singers of her generation, Love didn't grow up listening to the music she became most known for performing. "We couldn't listen to rock 'n' roll or rhythm and blues, or any of that kind of music growing up in my family," she tells Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's comedy trivia show Ask Me Another, at the Bell House in Brooklyn. As a preacher's daughter, Love said she was told it was "the devil's music."
Love soon broke from family tradition at 16, when she joined the singing group The Blossoms, a move that would change her life. As background singers, The Blossoms collaborated with countless stars and musicians, from Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye to Aretha Franklin and Tom Jones to Dionne Warwick and even Elvis Presley. The group's first smash hit song was "He's A Rebel," a single originally credited to another singing group, The Crystals, went on to sell over three million copies.
Love's many years performing from the back of the stage afforded her a rare vantage point from which she could observe the underbelly of the music industry. "We see everything," she alludes. "We saw the other side of what people don't see... we know about the parties, we know about everything the entertainers do."
After she parted ways with The Blossoms, Love went through some rough patches. For a while, to make ends meet, she cleaned houses — while secretly still driving her car from the glory-days, which she was loathe to give up. She parked it down the street, so employers wouldn't see. "They can't have a maid cleaning their house that has a Mercedes!" Love quips.
Eventually, Love was coaxed back into the music business by a serendipitous sign. "A wonderful thing happened while I was cleaning this one lady's bathroom," she recalls. "My record came on the radio." It was Darlene Love's 1963 song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." "I just looked up and I said, 'Okay, I hear ya, I'm outta here.' Not that I think anything's wrong with that kind of work, but I was given this gift and I wanted to use it."
Love moved to New York City, where she began performing on Broadway. In 1986, David Letterman invited her to sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on his then-NBC talk show Late Night, and it became a seasonal tradition nearly every year since. Those frequent appearances propelled Love to the spotlight once again, helping her book her own gigs and reach new audiences. It finally culminated in numerous accolades: She has been named among Rolling Stone's Top 100 Singers of All Time; she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. And in 2014, Love reached a new celebratory pinnacle when she accepted the Academy Award on behalf of the Oscar-winning team of 20 Feet From Stardom.
Love will soon be performing at Graceland to promote the collaborative Elvis gospel tribute album Where No One Stands Alone. In honor of her love of Elvis Presley, she played an Ask Me Another trivia game about The King himself.
On the first time she saw Elvis:
"I thought he was the finest man I'd ever seen."
On whether she can share some juicy celebrity secrets:
"Of course not, are you kiddin' me?"
On being asked to sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" in the summertime:
"If I did you wouldn't have anything to wait for! I sing it til about January the 25th."
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She's a legendary singer who has collaborated with just about everybody. She was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," and she's part of the new album "Where No One Stands Alone," inspired by Elvis Presley's love of gospel music. Please welcome Darlene Love.
DARLENE LOVE: Hey (laughter).
EISENBERG: Welcome, welcome, welcome.
LOVE: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
EISENBERG: So I want to start right from the beginning. You grew up as a preacher's daughter.
EISENBERG: When did you discover non-gospel music?
LOVE: I didn't do it at home that's for sure.
LOVE: No, we couldn't listen to rock ’n’ roll or rhythm and blues or any of that kind of music growing up in my family.
LOVE: It wasn't allowed. They called it the devil's music. I don't know what they called theirs when they were growing up.
LOVE: But when we were coming up, that's what they...
LOVE: ...Called ours. So I had girlfriends who would listen to the rhythm and blues stations. So that's where I started listening and - all the music that I end up loving today.
EISENBERG: When Morgan Neville, who is the director of "20 Feet From Stardom," was having the, you know, idea that he wants to do this documentary. And you were the very first interview. And then, supposedly, he reported back to the producers, I don't know what documentary we could do about backup singers, but we could do an entire documentary about Darlene Love.
EISENBERG: When he came to talk to you, was there something very specific that you wanted the world to know about the world of being a backup singer?
LOVE: We see everything.
EISENBERG: I bet you do.
LOVE: We saw a whole lot.
LOVE: You know, we saw the other side of what people don't see, you know, 'cause they see the artists when they're on the stage. We're 20 feet behind, but we behind, too (laughter).
EISENBERG: Right, right.
LOVE: We know about the parties. We know about everything that the entertainers do, and we knew their families. You know, so what they did on the road stayed on the road.
EISENBERG: I mean, is there a kind of tale that would be OK to share? Is there...
LOVE: Of course not.
EISENBERG: Yeah. OK.
LOVE: Are you kidding me?
EISENBERG: Oh, OK.
LOVE: No, but I do say - when I worked with Tom Jones, it was a lot of fun. And he used to have all these parties, you know, after the show was over. But the group I was singing with, the Blossoms, we would never go to the parties because we heard what they did at the parties. So one night, Tom Jones came down to our room with his bodyguard and said, how come y'all don't come to our parties? We said, because we heard y'all be doing a whole lot of things at the parties with ladies. And we don't want to be a part of that. And he said, we don't do that kind of stuff. Come on. So we started going their to parties, and they were very nice. But every time the Blossoms got ready to leave, they would say the Blossoms are gone. Come on, ladies. Come on out.
EISENBERG: Right. So...
LOVE: You learn how to take care of yourself when you're on the road. It was great for the Blossoms 'cause we were the three girls. We kind of protected one another because there were times when it got a little rough out there, you know, with gentlemen.
LOVE: I'm calling them gentlemen now because it was jackasses.
EISENBERG: Right. Now, you started with the Blossoms when you were 16 years old.
LOVE: Sixteen, yes.
EISENBERG: Everyone knows the hit "He's A Rebel"...
EISENBERG: ...Which you were brought in to sing.
EISENBERG: But it was credited not as the Blossoms. It was credited as the Crystals...
EISENBERG: ...Because they were on tour.
LOVE: Well, they were very young.
LOVE: You know, they were like 13 and 14 years old. We were 18, 19 years old when we recorded "He's A Rebel." So Phil didn't want to fly them all out to California.
EISENBERG: Phil being Phil Spector...
LOVE: Phil Spector.
EISENBERG: ...The very famous producer...
LOVE: Right. So he...
EISENBERG: ...Very problematic producer.
LOVE: Yeah. And Phil was looking for someone to sing lead. He taught me the song, "He's A Rebel," in the recording studio. We went in the next day and recorded the song. And I told him that song stinks - ain't nobody going to buy that song.
LOVE: So I said, I'm making you pay me now. So I asked for $3,000 to record "He's A Rebel," right? And then I told him, honey, ain't nobody going to buy this record but your mother.
LOVE: That record went on to be a number one record and sell over 3 million copies, but guess what?
LOVE: I took Phil Spector to court. I sued him, and now I get royalties from "He's A Rebel."
EISENBERG: So speaking of making money and making your way - in 1982, you leave the Blossoms.
EISENBERG: And you decide you're going out on your own, and things are a little bit tough.
LOVE: Very tough.
EISENBERG: Yeah. You were cleaning houses for a little while in Beverly Hills.
EISENBERG: But you're parking your Mercedes down the block, right?
LOVE: Yes, I...
EISENBERG: Like, things are good and bad at the same time sort of.
LOVE: They can't have a maid clean their house that has a Mercedes.
LOVE: Anyway, I would park it down at the bottom of the hill, and I'd walk up to the lady's house to clean it. But one day, I almost got caught because it was raining cats and dogs. And she says, I'll take you down to the bus stop. And I go, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It's OK. I don't mind walking. It's - you know, I need the exercise. She says, no, I will take you down. I went OK. So I let her drive me to the bus stop. And I sat there until she was out of sight. And then I went and got in my car.
EISENBERG: And so at one moment, you just decided, I've had enough of this, and I'm going to move to New York and just...
LOVE: Well, you know, a wonderful thing happened while I was cleaning this one lady's bathroom. It was during the holiday season. And my record came on the radio "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." And I just looked up, and I said, OK, I hear you. I'm out of here (laughter). Not that I think anything's wrong with that kind of work, but I was given this gift. And I wanted to use it. And...
LOVE: ...I moved to New York over 30 years ago. And voila, here I am in Brooklyn.
EISENBERG: And so of course, yes, people know you as the Christmas Queen from 25 years on David Letterman. How did that meeting first happen?
LOVE: We were doing a show. And Paul Shaffer invited David down to see the show one night. And the next night, he went back to his show, and he said, I just heard the greatest Christmas song. It's unbelievable. And he said, we need to get that girl on our show. And the next night, I got this phone call from the producers saying that David wants me to do his show. I said, child, I'm busy.
LOVE: You just can't pick up the phone and call me, and I'm going to run down. I wanted to. But anyway, I was so excited, so three or four nights later, I went on and did his show. And I thought it was going to be the one time, right? After that, it was year after year after year. When you want to talk about a friend in need, a friend indeed, that was - really lit up my life as far as my career was concerned because people started hiring me all over the country, you know, at Christmas time.
EISENBERG: At Christmas.
LOVE: But - and then they wanted me to sing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" even in the summer time. I said, but if I did, what would you - you wouldn't have anything to wait for - so no. I sing it until about January the 25th.
EISENBERG: You have a cutoff.
EISENBERG: And then in 2011, you were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
EISENBERG: Bette Midler in a glowing speech said, no voice drove me crazier than Darlene Love's. So, I mean, you're still touring. I - you work like crazy. And I just wonder. So many people, as their singing career progresses - loses some of their range. Your voice is pristine. You - I mean, what do you do to keep your voice in such good shape?
LOVE: When I'm working, I do what you call voice rests, vocal rests. And I tell my singer friends, y'all don't know what vocal rest is. It means to shut up.
LOVE: And sincerely - and my husband is so used to it. He said, boy, she's on voice rest this week (laughter).
LOVE: And when my friends would call me, they go, hey, how you doing? I go, I'm fine. What? They go, you're on voice rest. I say, yeah, bye. Really and truly, my life was about the show. And I wanted...
EISENBERG: Everything - yeah.
LOVE: I wanted my voice to be as perfect as it can be when I work. And my doctor even - how do you take care of your throat? What do you do? And I tell him. He said, that's what I tell my patients. I say, well, can now I get your salary?
EISENBERG: Darlene, are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: All right.
EISENBERG: You're going to love it. Darlene, you've collaborated with many legendary musicians including Elvis Presley. Matter of fact, you're part of a new album, "Where No One Stands Alone," inspired by Elvis's love of gospel. You met Elvis Presley obviously because you worked with him. What was your first meeting like?
LOVE: I thought that was the finest man I'd ever seen...
LOVE: ...'Cause he was gorgeous, really 'cause see; I met him in 1968. This was before the drugs, before he had put on weight. And our communication was great because of my gospel background, so we would always - with the Blossoms, when we had a break or something, they'd go. We'd put us on 10 or 15 minutes. We'd - he'd go get his guitar. And we said, do you know this one? Do you know this one? When you're breaking down the stage, you know, at night after the show and everything is over, the guys hang around the piano, the band members...
LOVE: ...And the girls and we all just - and he would just sing gospel songs, so we had a ball. Yeah, it was fun.
EISENBERG: OK, so you - so this will be very easy.
LOVE: You're leading up to something.
LOVE: I know she's leading up to something.
EISENBERG: Your game is all about Elvis Presley.
LOVE: OK, OK.
EISENBERG: So - but the answers - I'm going to give you multiple choice.
LOVE: Oh, OK.
EISENBERG: OK, and if you do well enough, Jason Weiss from Chicago, Ill., is going to win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: All right, let's see how it goes. Here's your first question. Elvis' birthday is January 8. He shares it with another famous musician. Is it, A, Conway Twitty; B, David Bowie or C, all of Nickelback?
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly. You know what?
EISENBERG: I love you so much for saying that. Who do you think? Conway Twitty, David Bowie?
LOVE: I'll say David Bowie.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's correct.
LOVE: You're kidding.
EISENBERG: And supposedly they were fans of each other. I mean, I get it. They both...
EISENBERG: ...I mean, they could trade clothing kind of. You know, they both loved the glittery jumpsuits.
LOVE: (Laughter) Right.
EISENBERG: But according to a 2016 interview with Dwight Yoakam, six months before Elvis's death, Elvis asked David Bowie to collaborate with him on a record, but that never happened.
LOVE: Wow, OK.
EISENBERG: That's kind of amazing. All right, true or false? Elvis dyed his hair black because...
EISENBERG: Yeah, that is true.
LOVE: I was there.
EISENBERG: You were there.
EISENBERG: You would watch him dye his hair, or you would see it?
LOVE: No, I was there. You could tell that Elvis' hair was dyed.
EISENBERG: You mean like the carpet didn't match the drapes or...
LOVE: I won't get that deep.
EISENBERG: All right. We will just stick with you were there.
EISENBERG: OK, this is your last question.
EISENBERG: Which of these is not a real event involving Elvis impersonators?
EISENBERG: Not real - the annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis, Tenn., the Elvis Cruise or the Elvis Racquetball Racket, where Elvis impersonators compete in the King's favorite sport. Which one's not real?
LOVE: Number two.
EISENBERG: The cruise?
LOVE: Yeah, the cruise.
EISENBERG: The Elvis Cruise? You don't think the Elvis Cruise is real?
EISENBERG: Oh, Darlene, the Elvis Cruise is real.
LOVE: How do you know?
EISENBERG: I just have...
EISENBERG: I have friends.
EISENBERG: Actually, the King's favorite sport was racquetball, supposedly.
EISENBERG: Yes. But there is no Racquetball Racket.
LOVE: True (laughter).
EISENBERG: But yeah, I guess there's a lot of money to be made with an Elvis cruise.
LOVE: Well, I can see that now. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Have you ever cruised?
LOVE: Listen, when I was down and out, and they said they'd hire me on a cruise ship, I went.
EISENBERG: Yeah, and how was it?
LOVE: That's right. It was wonderful. My fans were excited to see me because they wanted to know why I was on a cruise ship working. I said, to make money.
EISENBERG: Yeah, right. Exactly.
LOVE: Make a living. They needed great talent on the cruise ship because the...
EISENBERG: Yeah. Of course.
LOVE: Y'all been on cruise ships?
LOVE: You know the talent that's on the ships? They needed me desperately.
EISENBERG: I think we all need a little Darlene Love. I think we all need it.
EISENBERG: So congratulations, Darlene. You and listener Jason Weiss (ph) have both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
LOVE: All right.
EISENBERG: Yeah. So Darlene Love is touring across the country. She's featured on the new album "Where No One Stands Alone." Thank you so much, Darlene Love.
LOVE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.