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In Full Voice

After Decades of Imposed Anonymity in the Music Business, and Finding Herself Nearly Penniless, Singer Darlene Love Is Back--and Knows Exactly Who She Is

November 02, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | Times Staff Writer

The house was like so many of those big houses in the Hollywood Hills. Five bedrooms, seven baths, mahogany staircase, man-made waterfall in the garden.

Darlene Mitchell had been to such houses before, as a guest, but this time was different. This time, in late December of 1982, she was the cleaning woman, polishing the gold faucets and scrubbing the bidets for $50 a day.

On her knees in front of a toilet in one of the master suite's his-and-hers bathrooms, she heard the song, her song, on a radio down the hall.

It was "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which she'd recorded as Darlene Love, 20 years before.

"When I heard my own voice singing that song again, I wanted to throw my rags down and shout, 'Hey, that's me!' " she recalls. "But I couldn't. Because in too many ways, that wasn't me anymore. When I was out cleaning houses, nobody realized who I was, and after a while, I began to forget myself."

Sixteen years later, Darlene Love--who sang "He's a Rebel" (even though the label said the Crystals), "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others' Hearts" (even though the label said Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans) and "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry" (one of the rare releases that actually had her name on it)--is back. And she's not cleaning toilets.

She was in Los Angeles recently, singing at the tony Cinegrill lounge in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and promoting her new book, "My Name Is Love: The Darlene Love Story" (William Morrow & Co.)

"Can you believe it?" she marveled from her corner suite. "Here I am sittin' in a fancy hotel room that looks right out at those same Hollywood Hills where I went to work cleanin' the piss off other people's toilets. Goodness, chile! There was a time--a real nice long time--when I didn't even clean the piss off my own toilets!"

It's hard to understand how a woman rock critics compared to Aretha Franklin ever could have fallen so low. In the early 1960s, Love may have been the hardest-working backup singer in L.A. Her soaring contralto filled in such songs as "Be My Baby," "Then He Kissed Me" and "Johnny Angel."

And she was the lead singer on a stack of Top 10 singles produced by Phil Spector, the famously bizarre producer whom Love's coauthor Rob Hoerburger calls "either an American Mozart or an all-American psychotic." It was Spector who discovered Darlene and her singing group, the Blossoms, and convinced her that someday, if she worked hard enough, she would be a star.

But Love believes that Spector actually sabotaged her career. Although the wunderkind producer gave Love her new name, he kept it off of most of the hit records she made for him, often crediting the singing to fabricated "groups." Some of his associates say it was an odd marketing ploy; others say it was his way of keeping Love from getting too big for her britches--or his hit factory. Either way, it stopped her star from rising.

"Is it any wonder I had an identity crisis?" Love jokes today.

Born Darlene Wright 57 years ago, she did her first singing at her father's church in central L.A. Her parents, her sister and three brothers all lived in a 3 1/2-room bungalow at 887 1/2 42nd St.

"There's an old cliche that goes, 'We didn't know we were poor,' and, in our case, that was true," Love says in her book. "Even in a house where all the kids slept in the living room and ate corn bread and beans most nights, we still managed to have birthday parties [and] big dinners at church on Sundays."

And they always had music, gospel tunes like "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and jazz classics like "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." Darlene learned early that music was magic. And, she learned, she could sing!

But singing rock 'n' roll, her parents said, was "like praying to the Devil," and no preacher's daughter was going to go down that path. She begged for weeks, however, and her parents relented, letting her join a group of neighborhood girls who sang heavenly harmony. They called themselves the Blossoms.

"Harmony has always been my favorite kind of singing, finding your part and staying there," Love says. "It's like knowing how to solve jigsaw puzzles. Anybody who can carry a tune can sing melody, but singing harmony is like having the keys to the kingdom."

The kingdom Darlene entered was one where, rock writers would say, "God is a young girl singing." It was post-Presley but pre-Shirelles; the Blossoms arrived on the scene at just the right moment. "We didn't sound black and we didn't sound white, and none other than Sam Cooke, whose daddy was also a preacher in L.A., came to Fremont High School to pick us up one day and drive us to the studio to sing with him." The song was "Chain Gang," and the Blossoms were on their way.

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