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Darlene Love's Christmas Comeback!
by Billy Ingram

Ever heard of singer Darlene Love? Unless you were a rabid fan of early-60s girl groups, that name is only familiar today because of something I got tricked into doing.

I first presented this story on the TVparty! Blog 5 years ago, back in 2014 when Letterman announced his retirement as host of 'The Late Show' on CBS. A yearly ritual of Letterman's program for the last 8 years was to have Darlene Love on to sing one of his favorite Holiday tunes, 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),' also one of my faves.

Darlene Love's vocals, that dynamic voice encased in a volcanic Wall of Sound that murderous musical genius Phil Spector was famous for. Think: 'To Know Him Is To Love Him' by the Teddy Bears, 'Be My Baby' by Ronnie Spector, 'Chapel of Love' by The Dixie Cups, and 'He's A Rebel,' another Darlene Love (with her girl group The Crystals) hit song from 1962.

'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' was included on Spector's brilliant 1963 holiday album 'A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.' That LP was released on the day President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, it didn't chart very well, nor did any single make the Top 40. Only the most somber of Christmas carols were heard on the radio for that season.

Retitled 'Phil Spector's Christmas Album' the LP was reissued by Apple Records in 1972, landing as the 13th most popular Christmas album that year. It was a hit all over again in 1908.

A former co-worker of mine in West Hollywood in 1980, Jay Lamey, was a fanatic when it came to Spector, an evangelist if you will. He turned me on to a compilation album of The Crystals' 45s from the early sixties with (mostly) lead singer Darlene Love that blew me away - the crushing instrumentality, tenderly vibrant vocals, the audaciously inappropriate 'He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)'.

In late-1980, Jay and a musician friend tracked down Ms. Love, not an easy thing to do, with a novel idea - to ask if she would perform a nightclub gig, one night only, to be professionally videotaped. Video was kind of a new concept then, not many homes had a VCR. No wonder, they retailed for around $1,000, close to $5,000 in today's money.You could count on one hand the number of movies that were commercially available on VHS in 1980, perhaps there were none, that weren't porn flicks.

Jay and his friend had a backup band at the ready who could pull a performance together quickly and the room was booked and ready to go... if Darlene Love would agree to it.

After a few weeks of trying in vain to convince Ms. Love, Jay asked if I could help them out. Despite the fact that Love was working as a maid in Beverly Hills she was hesitant to commit. She'd been burned so many times, disappointed with so many so-called comebacks, she had become sick and tired of show business. She'd also had it with touring as a backup singer for Dionne Warwick, apparently so much so she'd rather clean toilets for a living. Imagine that!

For whatever reason, Jay wasn't making the sale. He knew I was a smooth talker, professional in my manner as opposed to himself and his slovenly musician friends. I was fluent in the language of show business, in other words a pro bullshitter. I don't know what possessed him to do so but he told Ms. Love that I was a big-time music producer and asked that she call me at my office so I could assuage her fears.

Except I wasn't any kind of music producer at all, I had been writing a punk rock column for an LA gay bi-weekly entertainment magazine called Data-Boy that could be found in gay bars all across California but mainly focusing on So Cal. Close enough for show biz, right?

Besides, Jay Lamey and I had a checkered history, especially after he pulled a switchblade on me one afternoon on the job and threatened to slit my throat. But I also knew the team he had assembled could do the job and it was a solid idea with little to no downside for anyone involved.

At that time I was working in a four person graphics shop, once or twice a week the secretary would take our orders and pick up lunch from the Marie Callender's. The half-hour she was out I usually answered the phone (because of my aforementioned gift of gab). I knew Darlene was likely to ring me any time that particular day, I just hoped she wouldn't call while the receptionist was out. Of course she did, so I had to explain why this successful music producer, as Jay built myself up to be, was I answering the phones.

Love and I had a nice conversation, regardless she remained leery throughout our talk, obviously the way Phil Spector had mismanaged her career (perhaps purposely) and subsequent letdowns weighed heavily on her. “People didn’t really think there was a Darlene Love,” she said in a later interview. “They thought I was a mystique of Phil Spector’s, because they heard the Crystals and the Ronettes and they saw them.”

Still, she expressed a strong desire for something that would lead to a renewed career, one she could finally take in control of. If anything, a strong dislike for the way she was treated by Ms. Warwick on the road was a prime motivator, that was the impression she gave me. Utterly charming, she ended the call in a non-committal fashion.

I must have said something right to her on that call because a few days later Jay told me with great enthusiasm that she had agreed to do the showcase.

The show was simply staged, singer and a five (?) piece band, in a club somewhere around Santa Monica with an audience of fans and low level music insiders sitting around oval tables near the stage. Darlene Love was phenomenal, we were cheering when she broke into 'He's a Rebel.' A standing ovation ushered her off the stage. This may have been her first performance since the 1960s and it was all captured on tape. This led to a gig at the Roxy on Sunset a week or so later, bringing her even more visibility. The music industry took notice.

A performance of 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' at a New Year's Eve party at the legendary Starwood Theater in Hollywood in 1981:

 

Phil Spector's 'A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector' was once again re-released to great reception in 1981 on an obscure label, that's when I first heard it. The LP was very hot with the New Wave hipsters because of those ear-ringing, trippy arrangements. 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' became a KROQ top request that December, back when 'The ROQ of the Eighties' was the shit in LA. That the album was so well received was a surprise to all, Spector's overwrought style was considered hopelessly passé by then.

Slowly, over the next decade as the unwashed masses discovered it, that LP became a Christmas staple.

Not long after that Roxy performance, Steven Van Zant lured Love to New York City, this led to starring in 'Leader of the Pack' at The Bottom Line (later starring on Broadway in 'Grease,' Hairspray,' and Carrie'), the 'Lethal Weapon' movies as Murtaugh's wife, before being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

David Letterman was so taken with her, Darlene Love performed 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' every year on his late night program beginning in 1986. Paul Shaffer: "It’s one of those things which is terribly sincere and yet has a sort of an ironic edge to it at the same time. It’s the saddest time of year, but it’s also the happiest time of year. The song makes you happy in its sadness. I don’t know how, but I think this was one of the properties of the songs from that era. They were filled with teenage angst yet they would make you laugh as you were listening to them. I don’t know how they accomplished that. All I know is that we try to accomplish it every year."

Here's the first edition of 'Christmas, Baby Please Come Home' on the Letterman program in 1986:


I never did know what happened to the video of Darlene Love's performance in that small club back in 1981 but I did get an opportunity see it once, and glimpsed myself in it, front row vigorously applauding.

You're welcome Darlene Love for the career save...

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