Darlene Love may not be a household name, but you’d know her if you heard her. As a member of the Blossoms, she recorded background vocals for many key Phil Spector songs in the ‘60s. Spector even put her front and center on “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” but credited the Crystals instead. The new documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom” highlights those, like Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, who made a living singing backup. Today, Love, boisterous even in her 70s, enjoys a solo career singing her old songs, and in 2010 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s also a Broadway staple who played Danny Glover’s wife in all four “Lethal Weapon” films.
Phil Spector wouldn’t tell people you and the other Blossoms were black. What was the reaction when the public found out?
Most disc jockeys knew that we were black. But as far as the public knew, they didn’t know what color we were. They didn’t care. They just loved the sound. As far as sessions go, no one really cared, because there were a lot of black musicians. People were telling us we were really doing something there, we were paving the way. It didn’t feel like it at the time. And now it’s like yeah, it’s paying off.
You started in gospel. Was it strange using that sound for secular music?
No, not really, we just took what we did from the gospel world to the secular world. My father was a minister. We sang in the choir, at his church, my brothers and sisters. That’s where we learned to sing harmony. We were really blessed because when I heard a song I knew what the alto part was. When you sing in a choir you sing so many different kinds of songs. It's not one type of songs. We sang spirituals, we sang African songs. At one point we sang with Gene Autry. [laughs] And they had no idea we were black! I’m sure they thought we were white singers. We sang with Gene Autry on one of his Christmas albums. It was a lot of different kinds of voices. Nobody taught us how to sing country and western. We were able to change our sound which was really a gift.
What was Phil Spector like in the early days?
Actually, he was a great guy when we first met him! He was very calm and hadn’t lost it yet. [laughs] He came from New York to California, and the musicians, they were already great in their own right. He came to us kind of humble. He always had on a suit and tie. And we thought that was weird because nobody came to a session dressed up. He was very short, so he used to wear those Spanish shoes with the big heels, that the English people wore in the ‘60s. It was a real heel, like the heels that the matadors wear. He was so short.
What were his reasons for not crediting you with “He’s a Rebel” and others?
He had recorded with the Crystals in New York, but he didn’t necessarily want that same sound. But he wanted to use their name because they already had a thing going on. It was easier to break a new reord with them than with me. Phil didn’t have as many groups as Motown had. He only had three or four gropus, and he was interchanging all of them. Motown was trying to make stars. Phil spector was trying to be a star. That’s the difference.
At what point did he officially start going crazy?
It was later on in his career, after he went to London and got hooked up with the Beatles and the Stones. That’s when he started saying "I’m the producer of this record, everyone else I just use as an instrument." Matter of fact, that’s what he said — that I’m just like any other instrument. I became an instrument and he became the ringleader. Like in a circus, cracking the whip. That’s when it started getting a little out of hand.
You later made one of his songs, "River Deep Mountain High," which he originally recorded with Tina Turner, one of your staples.
Phil had this great song, and we listened to it. I thought it was going to be my song, because he taught it to me. The girls came in, and we rehearsed it. And we were going to go in the session and record it. And this is when he started doing these things. I did not know I was not going to be the lead on that record until Tina Turner walked into the session. That’s when I found out. [laughs] That’s what "Twenty Feet from Stardom" is about — how they did those kinds of things.
Have you talked to Tina Turner about reclaiming that song as your own?
No, no. I haven’t talked to her in years. In fact, I haven’t seen or talked to her since she left Ike. Because she was doing her own thing and trying to rebuild her career at that time. I was so happy for her when she had her big solo hit — "What’s Love Got to Do With It?" The rest is history.
I’m imagining there’s more comradery than competition with background singers.
It’s like a sisterhood. We were always happy when someone made it. Because most background singers do not aspire to be solo artists. Very rarely. The one that sticks out that most was Luther Vandross, because he became a superstar. I don’t even think Luther started out wanting to be a solo artist. He loved being a background singer. It was part of our lives to create. That’s what we were doing, we were creating different sounds. Producers were depending on different background singers. They’d put the song on, and it was just a bare record. They’d ask us, “What do you hear here? Should we do something here?” We were creating, and no one really understands that until hey see this movie.
You've said you didn't find real success until you moved to New York. Typically people don't find success till they move to the other coast.
In California, people only goes out on the weekends. That means Friday, maybe Saturday. Sunday, they got to go to work Monday. But moving to New York was a great thing for me, because people in New York go out every night of the week. They want to see somebody.
After you came back in the 1980s, you started doing acting, including in the "Lethal Weapon" films. How did that come about?
I was working in New York at The Bottom Line, and a casting director was a fan. He didn’t come to see me to get me into the movie, he just saw me as a fan. The day after he saw me he called my office and said there was a movie coming out, to see if I would be interested in being in a movie with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. And I said sure. [laughs] I got a whole new life after I moved to New York. I became a Broadway star, then I became a movie star. It was wonderful. I think everyone thought I was a figment of Phil Spector's imagination. [laughs] People don’t know, on those records, that’s really me.