Watch Darlene Love, who will perform at the Cohan Center, sing with Bruce Springsteen
It’s a frighteningly familiar show business story.
A naïve young singer with a spectacular voice meets a brilliant yet unbalanced record producer who promises to make her a star. She signs a contract, records a few songs. But while her powerful vocals propel hit after hit to the top of the charts, the singer herself is kept in the shadows.
Fortunately, Darlene Love’s story doesn’t end there. Over the past three or so decades, the woman known as the world’s most famous backup singer has starred in Broadway musicals, appeared in movies and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I have a blooming career today,” said Love, whose fight to reclaim her voice and rebuild her music career is chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” “People that know me don’t understand how my career’s so big.”
Love, 75, stops in San Luis Obispo this weekend on one of her signature Love Songs mini-tours, featuring such classic songs as “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry.” Famously featured on the soundtracks of “Sixteen Candles” and “Father of the Bride,” it’s one of her biggest hits.
“In the ’60s, that was a bubblegum song,” Love said, but her fans view it as a traditional love song.
“I still sing that song today at weddings,” she said. “It’s funny because it’s now their children and their grandchildren who are getting married to that song.”
Love, who grew up in Los Angeles but now calls New York home, has been making listeners smile since she started singing in her church choir at age 10.
While still in high school, she joined the girl group the Blossoms. That led to Love’s introduction to producer Phil Spector, whose “Wall of Sound” approach dominated the airways during the 1960s and ’70s.
In 1962, he brought Love and the Blossoms to record “He’s a Rebel” – crediting the No. 1 song to a more famous girl group, the Crystals, instead. (The Crystals got credit for another Blossoms song, the hit “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” as well.)
Dominated by the demanding Spector, who withheld not only credit but royalties, Love spent much of the era in the recording studio. With the Blossoms, she contributed backing vocals to some of the era’s biggest smashes – including Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel,” Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”
Performing as Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, Love and Blossoms bandmate Fanita James scored another hit with “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” featuring lead vocals by Bobby Sheen. (Love took the lead for the trio’s “Not Too Young to Get Married.”) Love even recorded a few songs under her own name, including “A Fine, Fine Boy” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
Looking back, Love said, “I didn’t make the best choices” when it came to Spector.
“I believed he’d do what he said he was going to do. He would record me and if I had a hit my contract said he was going to pay me. He didn’t do that,” she said. “But when you’re 17, 18 years old, you don’t know what to really do. You believe everything the record producer is telling you.
“I’ll take the blame for it – but not all of it – because he didn’t really have to treat me that way.”
When Love’s contract with Spector’s Phillies Records was up, she signed with another label, Philadelphia International Records. But Spector bought her contract back.
Heartbroken, she headed back into the studio to record “Lord If You’re a Woman.” But Spector’s berating behavior had gotten worse, she said.
“I took my earphones off my ears, put my coat on and walked out the door and never looked back,” Love recalled. “I said, ‘I have talent. Phil cannot take my talent away from me. That’s mine. … So I’ll just do another part of the business – go on Broadway, make movies.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” she said. “I was in the right place at the right time every step along the way.”
Love makes it sound simple, but the reality was considerably more messy.
Although she spent years singing backup for artists such as Elvis Presley, Tom Jones and Dionne Warwick, she struggled to get gigs of her own. “I said, really and truly, ‘To hell with the recording business,’ ” Love recalled, and broke ties with the industry entirely.
As legend has it, Love was cleaning houses in Beverly Hills when she heard “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio – and realized she still craved a career in music.
Encouraged by high-profile fans such as Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt, guitarist of Springsteen’s E Street Band, she returned to the stage and moved to New York – where her performances of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” became an annual holiday tradition on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
As she rededicated herself to music, Love, who played herself in the Tony Award-nominated jukebox musical “Leader of the Pack,” also launched an acting career – starring in productions of “Grease” and “Hairspray” and playing Danny Glover’s wife in four “Lethal Weapon” movies.
In recent years, Love has found herself pushed further into the spotlight. In 2011, she was inducted into the Rock and Hall of Fame, something she described as “probably one of my highest moments in this business.” “20 Feet From Stardom” reintroduced her to moviegoers in 2013, the same year she published her autobiography, “My Name Is Love.”
And in 2015, roughly three decades after Van Zandt first proposed the idea, Love released a new album called “Introducing Darlene Love.” “It took about 30 years,” Love acknowledged with a laugh, “but I’m also a big believer in ‘Do anything in its own time.’ ”
“We knew we wanted to make a rock and roll album. We didn’t want to change who I am,” she said, so Van Zandt recruited big-name songwriters such as Elvis Costello, Joan Jett and Jimmy Webb. “They knew who I was and they knew what I meant to them, so they wrote songs especially for me.”
One of Love’s favorite tracks off “Introducing Darlene Love” is “Among the Believers,” a Van Zandt-penned tune originally recorded by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. It’s the stirring rock anthem that now opens Love’s live shows.
“That song is perfect. I told him, ‘I will do it until the audience gets sick of it, or I get sick of it,’ ” Love said with a laugh.
Love, coincidentally, counts herself firmly “among the believers.”
“I have a lot of God in my life,” she said. “And I believe that what he has for you no man can take away from you. As long as you have the faith to believe it, you can do (it).”
8 p.m. Saturday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
$28.80 to $66
805-756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org