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Twice, Darlene Love had to stop midverse, dropping the microphone to her side in frustration. She was coming through the speakers scratchy and thin, this only hours before she was to sing at the premiere of a documentary about her voice.
"We could do five sessions in a day, and each session could be three hours," she tells New Times the next morning about the beginning of a singing career that has spanned more than five decades. "Eventually, we started taking Saturdays and Sundays off. We had to. We were the girls," she says with a shrug. "But if you're good enough, you start getting known."
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She's being modest. Darlene Love was the most powerful singer in Phil Spector's Wall of Sound productions and has sung on records with everyone from Buck Owens to Bruce Springsteen. For 27 years running, Love's performance of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" has been a holiday tradition on David Letterman's talk shows. She's a legend among American vocalists but largely unknown to the average American. Her nearly endless misses with fame and success are detailed in the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, opening at Regal Cinemas South Beach this Friday.
On the afternoon of the film's opening-night gala at the Miami International Film Festival in March, however, something wasn't right. She stood alone on an otherwise empty stage at the Olympia Theater, an instrumental recording of "Lean on Me" surging all around her. She sipped water and looked up at the swirling projections of night sky on the theater's ceiling.
"Sorry," the sound technician told her as he took the microphone from her. He adjusted some settings and handed it back. His apology carried across the theater as he tried to whisper to Love: "We have a lot of singers here. But I don't think we've ever had any that can sing as loud as you."
"That happens quite a bit when I don't have my own sound guy with me," she laughs the following day. "I just happened to be blessed with a very powerful voice."
But when her career began in late-'50s Los Angeles, she often had to mask her vocal power. She was the leader of the Blossoms, a group whose members quickly became known for being able to tailor their voices to any genre of music. They sang on records with Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Paul Anka, and Jan & Dean. Brian Wilson used them to fill out the Beach Boys' sound on "In My Room" and several other classics.
"What we did was not so much hold back as blend," she says of the Blossoms' role. "I see it like we're soldiers. We have to act as one machine. We want to sound great but do it so that no one voice is louder than the others. And we blend so that not only do we sound like one but we fit with and lift the whole song."
Rarely did Love and her fellow singers know that what they were working on was destined to be a lasting part of the cultural firmament.
"We were lucky with the songs we were on," she says, "especially since a lot of West Coast records never got out East."
Darlene Wright became Darlene Love when she joined Phil Spector's operation in the early '60s. Though their work together brought her some notoriety, she faults him for her career never hitting the big time.
"He pushed for himself, not for us. He never helped me to become a star. He didn't put my name on songs — just 'Produced by Phil Spector' was all he cared about."
It was worse than that. He took her work and credited it to his other groups. Just one egregious example: the Crystals' number one hit, "He's a Rebel." That's Darlene Love on lead and her group the Blossoms backing her up — no Crystals involved. She still tenses up when talking about Spector all these years later. Asked if she has ever thought about sending him a care package in prison, she smiles.
In the years after leaving Spector, she starred on Broadway. She played Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon movies. She didn't stop singing. Even when she took a break after her career cooled, fans such as U2 and Cher would still request her to sing on their records or tours.
"Oh, Cher?" she says with impossible nonchalance. "I've known her since she was 16, and she and Sonny would play on Phil's songs. He would use anyone he could — he just wouldn't pay them."
Love is 71 now, but as Twenty Feet from Stardom continues to open around the country, she sees a new stage of her career beginning.
"I want to take care of my family, my grandchildren," she says, "to sing where I should have been singing, to make the records I should have been making. I started out as a back-up singer like the others in the film. But what's next is what my entire life has been taking me toward."
Back at the Olympia Theater, the instrumental track started over, and this time the sound system was prepared for that voice. Big. Loud. Honeyed. Each note telling a story of struggle and triumph. Now it just remains to be seen if the rest of the world is ready for Darlene Love.
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