Like your favorite retailer, singer Darlene Love launches her Christmas season the day after Halloween. That’s when she starts rehearsing for her annual holiday tour. The shows kick off this year on Nov. 19.
“I don’t think it’s ever too early” for a Christmas show, said Love, who will present her holiday program Nov. 30 in St. Paul.
Excuse Love if she seems overzealous about Christmas. Her career has been rejuvenated — and redefined — by a holiday song. With festive outfits and seasonal props, she performed “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” every December for 28 years on David Letterman’s show.
“It got me better jobs,” she acknowledged. “Now 29 years later, I have more work than I’ve ever had, which is a wonderful thing.”
At age 75, no less.
The Letterman legacy, along with Love’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and her prominent role in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” have made her busier than ever. In fact, she’ll finally make her overdue Twin Cities debut this year at the Ordway.
Even though she was all over the radio in the early 1960s, Love was pretty much forgotten. She was super-producer Phil Spector’s go-to female voice, featured on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans’ “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Primarily a backup singer, she also was heard on the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life.”
Her Hall of Fame resume includes work with Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Sonny and Cher, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Bette Midler.
Befitting her early yule preparations, Love recorded her signature Christmas song on a hot July day in Los Angeles in 1963.
“It was the hottest summer I think it’s been in California,” the Los Angeles native recalled. “Phil was saying, ‘Y’all having a hard time in there. Let’s make it really cold. We’ll bring in some Christmas lights.’ It didn’t really help us any. It was something like 95 to 101 [degrees] that whole month when we made that album. So we had to bring on our own Christmas cheer.”
Whatever it was that Love brought to “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” it has become a standard in the yule repertoire.
“With all the wars and everything going on in the world, people are gravitating to ‘I want you to come home,’ ‘I want you to be with me.’ I think that had a lot to do with the song becoming popular,” Love observed. “Plus all the stars started singing it. Mariah Carey recorded it, U2 recorded it, Cher recorded it. And after all those years on the David Letterman show, everybody knows it. When it comes time for Christmas, they want to hear it.”
Spector and Van Zandt
When Love started working with Spector, he wasn’t an eccentric, gun-toting madman.
“In the beginning, it was a lot of fun. I’d been singing backgrounds for five or six years by the time I’d met Phil. He was one of the first producers to start using the same musicians all the time. We got to know those guys really well — Glen Campbell, Leon Russell.”
But then, over the years, Spector started changing, especially after he went to London and worked with the Beatles and became more famous.
“It got the best of him, to put it mildly,” Love said. “And he went a little off.”
While she got paid for the recording sessions, Love never received royalties from recordings she made for Spector — until she successfully sued him in 2004.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” along with holiday songs by the Ronettes, the Blossoms (Love’s own trio) and others, were included on a 1963 album titled “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector.” Probably the most critically revered holiday album ever, it ranked No. 142 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
On that collection, Love sang three more songs under her name, including “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.”
Those numbers will be part of her show at the Ordway. So will material from last year’s splendid comeback album, “Introducing Darlene Love,” produced by Steve Van Zandt. He wrote material for her, as did his Boss, Bruce Springsteen, along with Elvis Costello and Joan Jett.
It was Van Zandt who rediscovered Love at a concert in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. She’d been languishing in California, singing backup for the likes of Dionne Warwick and Tom Jones and working as a maid between gigs. One day while cleaning a house in Beverly Hills, she heard “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio and knew she had to get back to music.
After she did, Van Zandt invited her in 1984 to New York, where he promised they’d work together. It took them three decades to get around to making the promised album, but he helped her find work.
Love landed in “Leader of the Pack,” an off-Broadway show featuring songs from the 1960s. She eventually graduated to Broadway, spending three years in “Hairspray” in the ’00s. She also ended up on the big screen, portraying Danny Glover’s wife in four “Lethal Weapon” movies.
In 2014, the singer published her autobiography, “My Name Is Love,” which led to Oprah Winfrey purchasing the rights to adapt the book into a biopic. The project is in limbo. Love hasn’t been happy with any of the scripts.
Taking ‘Christmas’ requests
Love has an Oscar and a Grammy for “20 Feet From Stardom,” the doc about backup vocalists, next to each other on the mantel in her New Jersey home. Both were big boosts.
But so was the Rock Hall of Fame induction.
“It meant a lot to me that my peers really do appreciate all I did for this business,” she said. “Because mine was an unheralded, sometimes thankless job.
“No one knew who you were. Just go in and do the backgrounds, thank you very much, and go home.”
There’s no question, though, that Letterman was the turning point. Since he retired in May 2015, will Love sing her signature yule song on any other TV programs?
“We’ll be doing it on ‘The View,’ and last year we did it on ‘The View.’ I don’t know if this is going to be a home or not,” Love said.
“The late-night shows have changed. It’s fun to see who’s going to call. We’ll probably say yes to the first person because we don’t know if somebody else is going to call.”
She burst into a jolly laugh worthy of Santa Claus.