I see that, as of a few months ago, Darlene Love’s autobiography has been reissued in paperback. She was strongly featured in the Academy Award®-winning film “20 Feet Fron Stardom”. And now, the autobiography is being made into a movie for Oprah Winfrey’s network.
One thing at least the original version didn’t include was the part I and a few of my friends played in her comeback c. 1981-’82. I doubt it’s in the new edition, either.
It all began when I saw a small display ad in the Los Angeles Times, promoting an appearance by Darlene at Medley’s, a club fronted by the Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley, in Southern California’s South Bay area.
I was amazed: to my knowledge, Darlene — one of the greatest singers in pop music — didn’t perform “live”; she was best known for her career as a background singer on hundreds at least) of recordings made in Los Angeles, and for a few records issued under her own name and produced by Phil Spector.
Ringers abound in club appearances by purported stars — I recall seeing “Ral Donner” at the Palomino several years after he’d died; and someone who falsely claimed to be Porter Wagoner’s son at another show. But I doubted that Medley would showcase a fake Darlene Love. As a member of The Blossoms, she’d performed on many of his and the Righteous Brothers’ records; and they were said to have had a love affair at one point. So it seemed like a trip south would be worth the gamble. A friend and I drove down.
It was indeed Darlene Love.
She was sensational; looking good, and singing at least as well she had on the records we all remember. But the songs were something else — a set of material that virtually any other singer might have done (I remember Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”), with a brief medley of some of the records she’d made on her own.
What a waste!
One of the greatest singers in rock and roll was performing to a small club crowd, backed by a band of the kind of guys in mullets you might expect to see playing top-40 gigs in the outlands. She played that kind of set, too — I specifically remember Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” She sang the hell out of it, but that wasn’t the point. Her Spector hits — the reason people who knew of her cam to see her — were confined to a medley toward the end of the show.
God did not mean it to be this way.
As it happened, there were two ways in which I might be of help. First, though I was at the time jobless, I had contacts at various papers around town, and I decided to pitch a story.
The L.A. Weekly, for whom Judy Raphael and I were writing the country music club and concert listings, wasn’t interested. So I approached Robert Hilburn at the Los Angeles Times. I knew him socially, but hadn’t worked for him. But I figured the story was too good for him — well-known as a Spector fan — to resist.
Then, a long shot: I called the city’s second (in terms of circulation) paper. I didn’t know anybody there, so asked for the features editor. Caught him at the right time; he talked to me. And he went for the idea.
More or less concurrently (I can’t remember the timing), I alerted some friends who’d been producing an annual New Years’ Eve party.this time for December 31, 1980. A private affair, admission was charged ($35!) and “name” acts were booked. Good ones, including r&b singers Roy Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I had nothing to do with the organization of the party, but knew the people who did (in no particular order: Art Fein, Bill Liebowitz, Bob Merlis, Gene Sculatti and a few other friends). And I suggested Darlene. After another trip to Medley’s, this time with a couple of the party’s organizers, things were set up.
My friend Billy Cioffi, whom I’d met when he was working with Gene Vincent, came in as bandleader. He assembled a group of people he’d worked with and shared his love of ’50s and ’60s material.
We created a set-list; Billy had new charts made for all the Spector songs she wasn’t performing (which was, virtually, all of them); and she debuted at the party, held at Hollywood’s Starwood club.
That clip is the first time she ever performed “Christmas” outside the recording studio.
With no agent involved, we had her booked on a series of live shows including the Roxy, where Bruce Springsteen, Dionne Warwick and Robert Mitchum (!) were in attendance. By now, Darlene’s set included Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and “Sometimes When We Touch,” written by Dan Hill and Barry Mann. Though they weren’t, both could have been written for her.
Darlene Love played Club Lingerie in Hollywood on Valentine’s Day. Another gig resulted in the “Darlene Love Live” album on Rhino. Then she ditched us all; within a couple of months she was back playing on cruise ships and lip-syncing in gay bars.
We were kind of dumbstruck, even though, we never intended to run her career — just take her to the point where someone who knew what they were doing could. And, to various degrees, we lost money on the project — Darlene always got paid, though of course nowhere near what she’s worth.
She never officially fired us — just started accepting gigs on her own, and asking “our” sax player to lead the band. After, I think, one gig, the sax player didn’t want to work with her, either. She asked an old friend to manage her (fine with us); unfortunately for her, he had a full-time job and had evidently lost many of his former show-biz contacts.
Just to make things clear: we were all thrilled to work with Darlene and proud of what was accomplished during a maybe six-month period. My guess is that she was just overwhelmed by the whole thing, and didn’t know how much she could trust us. Though she was very nice and easy to work with at the time.
On a commercial basis, she wasn’t all that old; nor, though, was she a teenager. That was probably a factor. And you’ll still that while she still makes the occasional record, she never did develop a career that involved hits, touring and that kind of stuff.
What she did do was move to New York City, co-star in “Leader of the Pack”, a jukebox musical based on the life of composer Ellie Greenwich, play Danny Glover’s wife in three “Lethal Weapon” movies, appear in Broadway musicals “Carrie” and “Hairspray,” and sing “(Christmas) Baby Please Home” on David Letterman’s last show before the holiday every year for the last couple of decades. In other words, she’s done pretty well without selling millions of records under her own name.
In her own telling these days, she’d given up singing to work as a housekeeper until one day she heard one of her records on her client’s radio — and was moved to return to music. Forget about us; she doesn’t mention Dionne Warwick, who hired her as backup singer for her live shows for many years. She doesn’t even mention Medley, who is the real hero of this story.
As for me, I wen to work for that paper — the Los Angeles Herald Examiner — for several years; moving from free-lance to staff “music guy.” Billy Cioffi, the bandleader, kept the backing musicians and worked for many years with various personnel changes doing their own shows, working as house band for oldies revues, and suchlike. He also worked as musical director at times for acts including Del Shannon and Chuck Berry. Some years ago, he moved to Arizona to further his education and continues to write, perform and produce music professionally, regularly. And, having earned his Masters, Billy now teaches college-level English.
One more thing: for several years, Darlene groused about Spector’s not paying her the royalties she “deserved.” While we were working with her, she claimed several times, quite proudly, that she’d taken a triple-scale (I think) buyout, because she had a family at home and was making plenty of money as a studio singer. Also, of course, there was no guarantee that she would become a big star as a result of those records. Off the top of my head, only the Righteous Bros. did, and they were an established act before signing with Spector. But that’s another story.