How Darlene Love Became ‘Christmas Queen’
By Geoffrey Himes
Special To The Washington Post
Darlene Love thanks her old friend David Letterman for her nickname “Christmas Queen.”
Every December between 1986 and 2014, except one, the talk-show host brought the singer on his show to belt out her classic holiday number “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” On the strength of that, Love, 76, still stages her “Love for the Holidays” show across North America and Europe between mid-November and early January.
But there’s a lot more to Love than just one song. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her lead vocals on such early-’60s hits as “He’s a Rebel,” “The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and for her harmony behind Elvis Presley, the Righteous Brothers, Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross. Love shared an Oscar and a Grammy for her role in a documentary about backup singers, “20 Feet From Stardom,” and she has starred in “Hairspray” and “Grease” on Broadway.
But the winter holidays are crucial to her story, as is another man who helped make Love the Christmas Queen -- Phil Spector.
It was Spector, the infamous music producer whose demons alienated nearly everyone around him and led to a murder conviction for which he is serving time in a California prison, who hired Love’s group, the Blossoms, to sing “He’s a Rebel.” Love was astonished how the producer’s thick layering of rhythm, strings, horns and voices transformed this unpromising tune about a girl in love with a motorcycle-riding bad boy into a grand drama.
“He hired some of the greatest musicians in the world, and they gave you that rounded sound that surrounded you like a hug,” Love said by phone from her home in New York.
Spector was a notorious control freak, micromanaging every aspect of every recording, so Love was surprised when he casually mentioned that he was planning a Christmas album. Were there any songs she’d like to sing? She suggested three: “Winter Wonderland,” “It’s A Marshmallow World” and “White Christmas.” He was uncharacteristically agreeable and mentioned that he had commissioned his favorite songwriters, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, to write a new song for her: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
“I thought it was a great song,” Love recalls, “and I was right, because people are still singing it today.”
Christmas songs often have a liberating effect on singers, musicians and producers. Because they aren’t “real songs,” these holiday tunes encourage a more relaxed, more risk-taking approach to musicmaking. This can lead to halfhearted music, but it also has inspired some of the best music ever recorded by Presley, Charles Brown, the Pretenders, Aaron Neville, the Beach Boys, Spector and Love.
Spector, Love says, “always put you in the mood for the song. When we were doing the Christmas album, it was August and 100 degrees outside, but Phil made the studio as cold as possible and hung up Christmas lights.”
Years later, in 1985, when Love was trying to revive her dormant career (at the lowest point, she was cleaning houses), she moved to New York on the advice of her ardent fans Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt. In the mid-’80s, she played herself in the off-Broadway show “Leader of the Pack,” a jukebox musical based on Greenwich’s life story. Paul Shaffer, whose day job was music director on Letterman’s show, played Spector.
“Paul loved Phil Spector,” Love says. “He could talk like him and act like him. He even called me ‘Doll’ like Phil did. Paul invited David to come down to see the show, and the next night David announced on TV that he’d just seen a show with the greatest Christmas song he’d ever heard: ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).’ They asked me to come sing it on his show, and I did.”
And that’s how Love became yuletide royalty.