ARLENE LOVE is the voice of the early 1960's American pop songbook; a songbook written by that celebrated group of BRILL BUILDING writers such as CYNTHIA WEIL and BARRY MANN, and JEFF BARRY and ELLIE GREENWICH. In an era where one relies on WILL.I.AM to pen something called 'MY HUMPS', it may be hard to remember a time in pop music history (pre-BEATLES) where pop songs were 3-minute epics that spoke to finding love and losing in love. It was PHIL SPECTOR's WALL OF SOUND that gave pop music it's symphonic scope and it was DARLENE's big, brassy, gospel-honed voice that had girls across America lip-synching into their hairbrushes to pop classics like DA DOO RON RON and HE'S A REBEL. One shouldn't forget the PHIL SPECTOR-produced anthem CHRISTMAS (BABY PLEASE COME HOME!), a song LOVE has performed on THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMEN for the past 23 years every Christmas.
In a career spanning five decades, she's worked with pop music luminaries such as ELVIS PRESLEY, SAM COOKE, THE BEACH BOYS, DIONNE WARWICK, and SONNY AND CHER, but for the past two years, she's been on Broadway in the role of MOTORMOUTH MAYBELLE in the musical adaptation of HAIRSPRAY. Set in early sixties Baltimore, the role of MOTORMOUTH MAYBELLE seems to have been tailor-made for LOVE. "MARC SHAIMAN, the guy wrote the arrangements for the musical and is an old friend of mine and he wanted me in the play when it first started, but at the time I wan't big enough." says LOVE. " In the play I sing this song BIG BLONDE AND BEAUTIFUL, right? So in the beginning, I wasn't big enough, but eventually, HAIRSPRAY became a big enough hit that they called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. Then they put me in a fat suit. There's always something!"
LOVE has just released her new CD 'IT'S CHRISTMAS, OF COURSE' (SHOUT! FACTORY) - her first ever Christmas album and this time things are different. For a voice that is so intertwined with the production work of PHIL SPECTOR, it's exciting to hear the singer, DARLENE LOVE at the front with a sparse band behind her. The songs are intimate re-workings of modern Christmas classics such as, '2000 MILES' by THE PRETENDERS, 'WHO TOOK THE MERRY OUT OF CHRISTMAS' by THE STAPLES SINGERS, 'THANKS FOR CHRISTMAS' by XTC, and 'HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER)' by JOHN & YOKO AND THE PLASTIC ONO BAND. This collection of non-traditional Christmas songs will no doubt become a most welcome Yuletide tradition.
ROCKWIRED spoke with DARLENE as she had just finished rehearsals for her annual Christmas show at the LINCOLN CENTER. Here is how it went.
Christmas seems like a big thing for you?
It is. It's my favorite time of the year. It's about the life of Christ, whom we are celebrating. We're celebrating his birth day and it's the season where people are in the spirit of giving and loving, no matter what they are going through. That's the joy that makes me enjoy Christmas so much. Even people who don't have anything give some kind of gift. People are happier and feel better around this time of the year.
I have to preface things by saying that it is great to hear your speaking voice. I've known your singing voice for years. I grew up in Baltimore where a lot of oldies music was really popular and I remember all of the CRYSTALS music.
That's right. I did my first big Christmas show there. We used to go through all of those areas like Baltimore and D.C. I remember the year I did it, I was with MARVIN GAYE and THE SHIRELLES. It was great!
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It's great having the voice of all of those great CRYSTALS songs, speaking to me.
Exactly. So I caught you at the end of a rehearsal?
Yes. I'm rehearsing for this years Christmas show, and this year we're bringing in all of my close friends that I have been working with over the years like CISSY HOUSTON, ANNIE GOLDEN who first worked with on LEADER OF THE PACK, and LA LA BROOKS, the original voice of the CRYSTALS. They will be doing the show with me also. I'm also going to have TEVIN CAMPBELL, who plays my son in HAIRSPRAY and NATURI NAUGHTON who plays my daughter in HAIRSPRAY. So, it's going to be a family affair.
It sounds like it.
It's going to be so much fun! I can't wait to do it!
I wish I could be out east to see it.
Well, where are you? Get yourself out here.
Right now, I'm hoping that the DAVID LETTERMEN writers will be off of their strike, so we can do CHRISTMAS (BABY PLEASE COME HOME) live as opposed to picking video footage from the twenty three years that we've done it.
Do they need writers, just to get you on the show? I would think that since LETTERMEN holds you in such high esteem that he would just let you on anyway.
Honey, listen! I don't know what they're doing up there. I just go and do my gig.
IT'S CHRISTMAS, OF COURSE' is your first Christmas album.
Right! It was such a joy to do it live with a band. The band played and I sang along and everybody got a chance to put their own input into the songs. They all came out so great and so fresh . When we started working on this album, we decided early on that we're not going to do SILENT NIGHT and GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN. We were going to try to do songs like '2000 MILES' by THE PRETENDERS. That's such a great song. There are so many great Christmas songs like THE BAND's 'IT MUST BE CHRISTMAS' or the JOHN LENNON & YOKO ONO song. It was time to do something different with Christmas music and I really enjoyed doing it.
How was the material for this album selected?
SHAWN AMOS who was the producer and KEVIN got together and started sending me all of these Christmas songs and I was like "we can't do this one! Oh no! I can't do that one!" But after a while I was like "Oh, I like this one! I like that one!" We did one by THE STAPLES SINGERS called 'WHO TOOK THE MERRY OUT OF CHRISTMAS'. We also did one by JAMES BROWN, that I didn't want to do, but everybody else was like 'Yes! Yes! Yes! You have to do this one!' There are a lot of songs that you find you don't want to do, but the producer is always insisting so you do it anyway. The JAMES BROWN song we do is called 'SANTA GOES STRAIGHT TO THE GHETTO'.
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We did a lot of the Christmas songs that no one ever hears. So far I've been getting great reviews for doing something different.
Your singing voice is synonymous with the WALL OF SOUND, so it is interesting after hearing this CD, to hear your voice up front without a PHIL SPECTOR symphony.
That's right! We didn't want to do that. We didn't want to bury my voice in the tracks with fifty thousand instruments. When I recorded with PHIL SPECTOR, it was all about the song. We (THE BLOSSOMS/THE CRYSTALS) were just a part of the group.
Currently, you are on Broadway doing HAIRSPRAY.
Yes. We just came off of a strike and we are happy to be back at work after six weeks. We were definitely ready to go back to work.
In HAIRSPRAY you are playing MOTORMOUTH MAYBELLE. A great character!
She's a lot of fun. I tell people that I'm re-living my life every night in that show.
That was your era.
Exactly. The one thing is that back in the sixties, the television show SHINDIG was going national and they didn't want blacks on that show, and that is the same thing that we're doing in HAIRSPRAY. It's all about integration.
How did you happen upon the role? Was it suggested to you? Did you audition or was it a role that you were hungry for?
MARC SHAIMAN, the guy who wrote the arrangements for the musical, is an old friend of mine and he wanted me in the play when it first started but I wasn't big enough. In the play I sing this song 'BIG BLONDE AND BEAUTIFUL', right? So in the beginning, I wasn't big enough, but eventually, HAIRSPRAY became a big enough hit that they called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. Then they put me in a fat suit. There's always something!
Where you familiar with HAIRSPRAY at all before doing it?
I saw the JOHN WATERS movie years ago. Our play is nothing like that.
And you've been with the production for a couple of years now.
I'm going on my third year.
What set you on the course to wanting to do music?
My father was a minister. I have four siblings; three brothers and a sister and we always sang in Church. I was raised in a Christian family and we all came up singing. I always enjoyed singing, but I never thought the day would come when I would actually become a singer and become professional. It was done for fun and I enjoyed singing in church. So here I am all of these years later and I'm actually singing and making a living at it, which I never dreamed of doing.
Was it ever encouraged that you would make a living at it?
No! Never! My mother and father were against that kind of music. You never heard that kind of music in my house. My girlfriends played it and that's where I heard it. At home, we could never bring records home and we could never listen to it on the radio. One of my favorite singers was MARIAN ANDERSON and that was who I loved and adored and I would sing like her. When I started singing, my mother and father never said that I couldn't do it. They just didn't encourage it. They knew the people I was working with and the girl groups and their mothers and fathers.
What set you on the path from this gospel music to a more secular pop sound. When did that begin?
I think it was just natural. The group I was in, THE BLOSSOMS became a back up group in California where I 'm from an we were singing behind everyone back in those days. I used to work for PHIL SPECTOR's partner LESTER SILL. One day, LESTER told us that his partner was in town and that this partner wanted to make a record with us and voila! That was how I met PHIL.
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Just what I've read about PHIL SPECTOR, I'm sure the first visit was quite a visit.
Yes it was!
You want to talk about it?
I got along with him okay, because I was already a professional singer by the time I met PHIL. I had worked with everyone by the time I met PHIL, like SAM COOKE, THE BEACH BOYS, and THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS. By the time I met PHIL, it was no big thing. The thing with PHIL was that he knew what he wanted, which was unusual for a producer. They usually say 'Okay girls, what do you hear?' So that was what made him different from everybody else, and he was also overdubbing, which no one was doing at that time.
In the music scene that you came out of, you were surrounded by so many great songwriting teams.
Yes we were. The best of that time with people like BARRY MANN and CYNTHIA WEIL and JEFF BARRY and ELLIE GREENWICH. They were the best! They were the ones doing all of the writing back then.
And you don't have that now.
No, you don't. Songwriters these days want to become the entertainers now.
What are your thoughts on pop music today?
What pop music? (laughs) That's my answer to you.
You've performed with everyone from ELVIS, SAM COOKE ,THE BEACH BOYS, and you recorded once with the E STREET BAND, right?
Yeah. We did that HOME ALONE movie.
Is there anyone that you haven't performed with yet but would like to?
BARBARA STREISAND. I think her voice is an unbelievable instrument. Just like everybody else I've ever wanted to work with, I'll get to sing with her to if she don't die before me.
What would you like for someone to come away with after hearing this new CD of yours?
I want them to see what a person can do when they really put their heart into something. I'd like them to go away with the message of Christmas, and they can hear it in all of the songs on that album like '2000 MILES' by THE PRETENDERS. She's (CHRISSIE HYNDE) is talking about how far away this person is, and how she wants him to come back. There are messages in everyone of those songs and it would be great if they take these songs to heart. That's what I want them to do.
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