By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 11, 2015 at 9:06 AM

In an era of Vine celebrities, reality show fame and instant social media stardom, it's easy to forget the path to making it can often be a long and treacherous one. Take for instance Darlene Love's story – one of many background singers who spent most of her career just off to the side of the spotlight. 

You've certainly heard her voice, working for music producing mastermind Phil Spector in the '60s and helping provide the vocals on tracks like "He's a Rebel," "Be My Baby," "Monster Mash," "That's Life," "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "He's Sure The Boy I Love" – which was supposed to be released as a Darlene Love single, and hopefully a breakthrough track, before Spector credited it for The Crystals. 

For a large portion of her career, Love seemed doomed to be a bridesmaid to fame but never a bride. With the help of her Christmas hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and a role as Murtaugh's wife in the "Lethal Weapon" movie series, however, Love eventually managed to find some stardom for herself, and after the Oscar-winning documentary "20 Feet From Stardom", over 50 years into her singing career, the powerful and soulful singer has possibly never been in greater demand. 

It's certainly been a long, winding road – one that now takes Love to the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts for a performance, "Love for the Holidays," on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. Before she takes the stage, OnMilwaukee got a chance to chat with the legendary singer about her journey to fame and finally getting her due. 

OnMilwaukee: You released your album, "Introducing Darlene Love," this past fall. What does it feel like to be introducing yourself to the public like this after the prolific career you’ve had?

Darlene Love: That was a punt from Steven Van Zandt – I thought it was kind of cute – because there is a couple of years – 10, 20, 30 years – of people who never seen me or heard me before, not the way that record is. They might remember me from the David Letterman show or they might remember me from the Christmas album I did over 50 years ago, but my voice has changed drastically over the years. It’s still as powerful as it was, because when I recorded with Phil Spector, he would record me and then speed the record up so I would sound younger. (laughs)

So today, I wanted somebody like a Stevie Van Zandt, who I knew could get what I sound like on stage and get that onto a record. It’s really wonderful to be able to put out that kind of product where people actually hear what I sound like.

OnMilwaukee: Was that the most important thing about this album that you wanted to achieve with it?

Love: Yeah, that was the real purpose of Stevie doing it. Because I knew that if he did it, he would get the real sound of Darlene Love. He would tell people, "I need her voice to be surrounded with great instruments, live music," because everybody’s using synthesizers and not really using real instruments, and his whole thing was he wanted the instruments to be live and surround me because I have a powerful voice.

OnMilwaukee: What was that experience like, being treated like the showcase talent instead of a background singer?

Love: It was actually a once in a lifetime chance for Stevie Van Zandt and I to get together. With his busy schedule and my busy schedule, we’ve been trying to do this for 30 years, but he schedules wouldn’t allow it. He’d be out with Bruce (Springsteen) for a couple of years, and they would stay out there forever, and then he’d come home and it’d be Christmas time, and then I would be too busy.

For us, he said, "There’s never going to be a right time; what are you doing tomorrow?" Literally, that’s exactly what happened. I said, "Well, we’re off tomorrow," and he said, "No, you’re not. We’re going to the studio." Once you get started on something, time will let you make the time to do it. That seems to be the best thing you can do. You say, "OK, let’s do it next month," then if you put it off that long, it’ll never happen. He had the mind of let’s start tomorrow, and once he started, we found the time to do it.

OnMilwaukee: So this was a 30 years in the making project. When did he first approach you about this?

Love: When we first met; that’s the amazing thing! We met in the ’80s, but his career and Bruce’s career were not even quite peaked yet. So they were still on their way.

I saw him at a club in Los Angeles; Lou Adler, one of my good friends, owned the Roxy in California, and he came to that show – Steve Van Zandt and Bruce. And in that show, I was singing a song from Bruce’s album, "Hungry Heart," which at the time, I had no idea that Bruce was coming to the show. It’s just a great song to sing. And as luck with have it, he was in that show where I actually sang that song – both of them.

I met them there, and we talked about 1981, and during that time, he says, "You need to come to New York." At that time in my life, I didn’t know anybody or producers to get me to New York. He said, "If I find you some work, will you come?" I said, "Sure." Well, as luck would have it, he got me a gig at the Bottom Line and at the Peppermint Lounge. He said, "I need to get together with you and record a record." That would be fantastic – because, at that time, I had nobody interested in recording Darlene Love.

That’s how it actually started. But once I moved out to New York, Stevie Van Zandt and I stayed friends, and we talked often. We did gigs together; he would give me gigs, and I would him on my Christmas shows. That’s how the relationship kept going and going and going.

A lot of people probably don’t remember, but I did the title song for "Home Alone 2." Stevie Van Zandt wrote that song, "All Alone At Christmas," for that movie. So we stayed in touch over all of those years. We were going to do this; it just took a long time to do it. (laughs)

OnMilwaukee: I’m a big fan of the documentary "20 Feet From Stardom." When were you first approached about participating in that film?

Love: That was over two/almost three years ago when I first approached by it. Lou Adler, the record production, and (Richard) Donner, the movie director of the "Lethal Weapon" movies, actually both called me and told me this gentleman was going to call me about a background singers documentary he was thinking about doing. They told me to take the call, because it was legitimate, and when he called me, we were on the phone for about two hours, just talking about background singers. Because they said if you’re going to a documentary about background singers, you have to call Darlene Love. (laughs)

OnMilwaukee: You’re really the soul, one of the key voices and key experiences in that film. What was the hardest part of your story to share with the audience in that film?

Love: The down time, how I got thrown into the down time by Phil Spector, because I couldn’t sign work because of him recording my voice as The Crystals. I couldn’t claim "He’s A Rebel" or "He's Sure The Boy I Love" as my records, because my name wasn’t on there. I remember one producer trying to get me to say I was a Crystal, but I wasn’t, so I couldn’t claim that. So I couldn’t find work.

I stayed out on the road, doing background behind different artists, and when I came back, it was hard for me to find work. Eventually, I did hear my record. This is a true story: I was doing day work, cleaning this lady’s house, and I heard my record "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the radio. And literally, that’s what got me back in the business again. Thanks to David Letterman and Paul Shaffer, they put me on the map.

OnMilwaukee: You had that holiday tradition with those two with "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and you’ve said that there’s no way you’d do "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" for Colbert.

Love: No, no, no. We have not been able to straighten that out. I said I was not going to get hooked up with a network where I couldn’t do it anywhere but for one network.

OnMilwaukee: So there’s potential here …

Love: Oh, anybody can have me do it! When I was doing it for David, I felt in league with him, that he’s going to do this every year so I’m not going to do it for anybody else but him during the time of year of Christmas. Now, after I did it for David, anybody can have it, but everybody wants you to do a one-on-one, and that’s what I say I’m not going to get hung up with that.

And if anybody’s going to do it, are they going to do it on the grand scale that I did it on David Letterman? Remember, when we did it with him, we had choirs and a whole orchestra. Nobody wants to spend that kind of money, but once a year, they spent that kind of money. So if you’re not going to do it right, you’re not going to do it at all. (laughs) You have to have so many instruments and have to have so many singers … but you have to make it right! (laughs)

OnMilwaukee: Looking back on your career, do you have any resentment toward the path things took or Phil Spector or the industry?

Love: No, because this is the kind of industry we’re in. I wasn’t the first one that it’d ever happened to. It happens to a lot of people; you just don’t hear about it, probably because it was Phil Spector, and he was this rising producer who got gigantically big and successful who started his own empire. Matter of fact, most people who started their careers in the ’60s don’t have a career today. That’s the way you have to look at it. My career is almost like it’s just really budding or starting – and it’s because of those old records.

So I hold no resentment toward Phil Spector. If anything, I think it’s great that all of those records recorded over 50 years ago are still as great today as they were in the ’60s – or more so.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.