Songstress Darlene Love broke down barriers, leading background singers to the forefront
Imagine working 40 hours every week just for someone else to get paid for your work. You show up 5 days a week, work 8 hours straight, and your coworker receives recognition and walks away with your paycheck. Even though you completed the work, someone other than you is being acknowledged & compensated.
For many years this was the situation for songstress Darlene Love. Her talent and contributions to music went unrecognized almost as if they were nonexistent. You may be familiar with the idea of the caged bird that should be free to roam. Ironically, Darlene who was described to have “a voice of a Nightingale” was treated very much like caged a bird.
Darlene Wright most known as Darlene Love grew up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s era. She began singing in church at age ten causing admirers to take notice. In 1958 she became a member of the group The Blossoms, who acquired their name from a record executive who said their skin tone variations resembled a bouquet. The group’s first hit “He’s a Rebel” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962.
Prior to that, The Blossoms had been recording their own music for a number of years without any chart success. It was also quite common for them to sing background vocals for other acts including The Crystals. When”He’s a Rebel” was released it received major chart success, but it wasn’t rightfully credited to them. The song was credited to The Crystals, another girl group on the same label.
Soon after that Darlene signed a solo deal and recorded “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”, but once again she did not receive credit or recognition for her vocals. She received another chance to express her talent as a solo artist with the song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in 1963 for a compilation album. The song slowly became successful over time, but she continued to record with The Blossoms as the lead singer for over a decade. Even though she was signed as a solo artist, she was not being promoted as such.
A Songbird should be free to Roam and Sing
Darlene Love’s distinctive and harmonic voice continued to back many legendary artists from different music genres. In the ’50s and ’60s, most background vocals were provided by singers who were White. As a background vocalist in this climate, Darlene was among the first Black vocalists breaking down these racial barriers. Love eventually left The Blossoms and her repressive label in 1974. After leaving she signed a contract with a new label, but they quickly sold her contract back to her original label. She took a hiatus from the music business in the aftermath.
Love went back to her roots singing in church, and she began cleaning houses to generate income. Ironically, while cleaning a bathroom one day she heard her song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio. At that moment she realized she was supposed to continue using her gift and sing for the masses. She then went on to star alongside Danny Glover in all four Lethal Weapon movies. She also had many notable leading roles on Broadway, including Grease.
Darlene is quoted saying, “I was talented and didn’t even know it”. However, her talent was truly undeniable and she was destined to shine. She began singing her now signature Christmas hit in 1986 which became a yearly tradition on the David Letterman Show.
She appeared in the 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom where they illustrate the plight of background vocalists, and how they give life to the records they grace. Love is among a few historic African American vocalists declaring their stories in the film. The documentary went on to receive several awards including an Oscar, and in 2015 it won the Grammy for Best Music Film. The award was presented to all of the featured vocalists as well as the production crew. In addition to being a Grammy Award winner, Darlene Love is also a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee.
Today she continues to record music, sing background for other iconic artists, and she continues putting on her annual Christmas shows in New York City. Darlene’s contributions to music have finally come full circle with well-deserved recognition, and her talent continues to glow. It is important that we honor and remember those who came before us and paved the way. Ultimately, it is their legacies that laid the foundation for us to build upon.
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