Finally the Star
Introducing Darlene Love
Jennifer Forness

Darlene Love has been in the music business for over fifty years, and Rolling Stone counts her among the top one hundred singers of all time. When Bette Midler inducted Love into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she said Love “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.” Love sang on some of the biggest hits of the 1960s and has worked with Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and Bruce Springsteen. For many people, Christmas did not begin until Love sang “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the Late Show with David Letterman. Yet despite all of these accolades, the seventy-four-year-old Love just released a solo album entitled Introducing Darlene Love. Why would someone with such an impressive resume need to introduce herself to the world?

One answer is that Darlene Love was one of the most important backup singers of the 1960s. Producer Phil Spector used Love’s girl group, The Blossoms, as backup singers on many of his albums. Spector hadThe Blossoms record “He’s a Rebel” with Love singing lead vocals. Spector then credited album arthis girl group, The Crystals, with the song, and it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Spector also used The Blossoms on recordings of The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” The Blossoms contributed backup vocals to Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” Unfortunately, Love and The Blossoms were only credited as session musicians. Although their voices provide a soundtrack to some of the most iconic girl group recordings of the 1960s, they never achieved star status.

After leaving the music industry to raise a family, Love decided to get back in the business in the 1980s. Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band collaborator Stevie Van Zandt saw her show, while she was working at a club in Los Angeles. At Van Zandt’s urging, she moved to New York and began touring with Springsteen. She starred in the Broadway musicals “Leader of the Pack” and “Hairspray” and began her Christmas tradition of singing on the Letterman Show. In 2013, Love was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” The documentary propelled Love into the spotlight, and Van Zandt finally honored a long-time promise to Love to produce an album, Introducing Darlene Love, which was released on September 18.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Van Zandt explains that the title of the album is a bit of a joke. Love’s career should require no introduction, but Van Zandt felt the need to connect the person with the voice that people have heard for fifty years. Introducing Darlene Love is an ebullient celebration of Love and her voice. Rather than a somber, reflective album dispensing wisdom from a seventy-four-year-old venerated musician, Introducing demonstrates that Love is still in the prime of her career. Love doesn’t want to step back and reflect on her past; rather, she demands respect as a solo singer. Van Zandt got some of Love’s admirers to write songs for the album, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb, Joan Jett, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil. This is a loud and proud album that acknowledges the pop, rock, and gospel music that has influenced and shaped Love. As Van Zandt said in an interview with Billboard, “I tried to capture the breadth of her talent. But we didn’t want to do survivor-type songs. It’s romance, adventure with a spiritual foundation; blues, R&B, Motown, girl groups, rock and roll—it’s all on there. It’s about connecting the continuum.” Romance provides the inspiration for many songs on the album.

Love and Van Zandt released “Forbidden Nights” by Elvis Costello, as a single before the album debuted. It is a send-up of the girl group sound that first made Love in demand as a singer. It opens with the backup vocalists singing “Sha la la la la,” and its triple meter is reminiscent of 1960s beach songs. It is a romance song that celebrates having fun on a “forbidden night.”Love’s strong vocals clearly indicate that she is not too old to have a little fun. The element of play is emphasized in the music video for the song. Love cruises around Asbury Park, New Jersey in a convertible seeing various friends on the way, including Springsteen, Van Zandt, Costello, Joan Jett, Patty Sciafa, Paul Shaffer, Bill Murray, and David Letterman. Love enjoys life and has no intentions of slowing down or stopping soon.

“Forbidden Nights” is also the first of the many songs on the album that deal with love. “Love Kept Us Foolin’ Around” is a Motown-style song that acknowledges that “Love keeps you  falling, leaving you warning, with never enough… Love kept us foolin’ around.” “Still Too Soon to Know” is a ballad with Love’s friend Bill Medley that asks “Should I stay or should I go?” when infidelity occurs. Joan Jett and Desmond Child’s “Little Liar” is an angry rock song that answers the previous question, “You want to speak with me but hey that’s tough / Why don’t you call me when you’re all grown up.” In the guitar-heavy song, Love explains that she has been around long enough to know when someone is lying, but that she still “believes in you.” Her mature voice lends heft to the song without lecturing the listener. In “Painkiller,” Love acknowledges that she has made poor choices in her love life. “I was hurting so bad / I was a big fat liar but you took me higher / You’re my painkiller.” This fast-paced blues rock demonstrates Love’s versatility as a singer as she belts out her thanks to her painkiller.

Romance is the predominant theme on the album, but Van Zandt and Love do make references to her wisdom and maturity. The opening track of the album, “Among the Believers,” exhorts her listeners to make a change for the better. The Springsteen lyrics explain, “We are the rebels who carry your names / We learn from your history and bury your pain / Please wait for us; it’s not too late for us / I remain among the believers.” This fast-paced pop song, complete with a full horn section, encourages the listener to remain positive. While the lyrics refer to change in the world, it is easy to remain among the believers of Love’s powerful voice. Jimmy Webb’s “Who Under Heaven” asks similar questions of the listener. “Who under heaven are we saving it for? / If this is not the time then when is? / Only love can ever open the door / End all the war.” The slower vocal sections of the song provide Love with an opportunity to display her mature and nuanced voice. That voice is also featured in Van Zandt’s “Last Time,” one of the few songs on the album to acknowledge Love’s long journey. “Listen baby, I didn’t get here by complaining / And I’ll be leaving the same way that I came / In you I saw myself and for that I’m grateful / I’m going to make sure you remember my name.”

Van Zandt pays tribute in the album to the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound,” that Love helped to make famous. The decision to include a cover of Spector’s “River Deep, Mountain High” is an acknowledgement of Spector’s impact on Love’s career and an assertion that the song belongs to her. Spector originally taught Love the song in 1966 but had Tina Turner record the lead vocals, with Love only recording backup vocals. The song eventually became a huge hit for Ike and Tina Turner. Love has since claimed “River Deep, Mountain High” as her own and has performed it in her live shows for years. Van Zandt opted for a “wall of clarity” versus a “wall of sound” on this recording. Rather than a mass of sound, you can hear strings, horns, percussion, and guitars that complement, without drowning out, Love’s commanding voice.

The album also acknowledges the strong influence of gospel music in Love’s life. Her father was a pastor and the church played an important role in her musical upbringing. Walter Hawkin’s gospel classic “Marvelous” allows Love to thank God for providing her with an instrument and career. “Jesus is the Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin’)” is a surprising gospel contribution by Van Zandt himself. It is a rollicking gospel tune that ends the album on an energetic high note with Love proclaiming her inspiration in Jesus.

In creating such a high-energy album, Van Zandt unfortunately does not give the listener a chance to rest. It is exciting to hear a seventy-four-year-old sing with so much power, but the album leaves the listener longing for a softer side of Love. Even the ballads build to a loud climax, with Love proclaiming her strength. You almost need to divide the album in sections in order to avoid fatigue from Love’s unbounded energy. The various musical styles on the album help to break up the loudness of sound, but the album does not provide Love the opportunity fully to demonstrate the range of her abilities.

Introducing Darlene Love is an album that celebrates life. Love does not sing from the position of a wise grandmother but as a fellow traveler in the journey of love and life. The album is not a greatest hits compilation of Love’s fifty-year career but a statement of her intent to keep making new music. This refreshing album provides an opportunity for the public to connect Love’s passion for music with the iconic songs she recorded in the 1960s. After listening to this album, I, too, can be counted “among the believers” of Darlene Love.


Jennifer Forness is on a leave of absence from her position as a music teacher in Ewing, New Jersey, while she and her ­family are living in Munich, Germany for the 2015–2016 academic year.

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