Who, in the music world, is the true queen of Christmas? There are going to be some fan bases with some very strong opinions about that, it goes without saying. But for some of us, Christmas is Love… Darlene Love, the principal voice (on songs both credited and uncredited) of Phil Spector’s 1963 compilation “A Christmas Gift for You.” Your sleigh mileage may vary, but between the pair of Love-sung songs that bookend that collection — “White Christmas” and the original “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” — and an addition to the canon with 1992’s “All Alone on Christmas,” there’s a case to be made that Love is singularly responsible for the three greatest single Christmas records of all time.
Love is highly visible again this holiday season with a couple of projects. In Netflix’s “The Christmas Chronicles 2,” she shares a full-scale musical number, “The Spirit of Christmas,” with Kurt Russell, who plays Santa, and a slew of dancers. And in lieu of her usual Christmas-themed mini-tour, she filmed a pay-per-view concert special, “Love for the Holidays,” at New York’s Sony Hall (also incorporating non-holiday hits she had with Spector, like “He’s a Rebel,” and a spectacular version of Walter Hawkins’ gospel song “Marvelous” amid the chestnuts). That terrific showcase, which proves what an undiminished powerhouse Love remains at 79, and which benefits some of the venues Love would normally be playing in December, can still be purchased and streamed here through Christmas Day.
Prior to the streaming special’s premiere Saturday night, Love got on the phone with Variety from her New York home to talk all things holiday-related, including the very, very gradual success of the Spector Christmas album, how David Letterman helped resurrect her career by making her annual rendering of “Christmas (Please Come Home)” into 12:25 a.m. appointment viewing for 29 years, obscurities like her Jewish-themed Christmas song for “SNL”… and whether “Lethal Weapon” is a Christmas movie.
Was it an easy decision to do a pay-per-view special, since you can’t go out live?
I was trying to think of what I could do for my fans, and also for the places where I go have me back every year. I said, well, what can I do for them? And then someone came up with the idea: Why don’t you just do a pay-per-view show, and you can give back? A lot of the proceeds are going to all the places where I worked, you know, because they’re all closed now, too.
I really miss doing a concert for my fans around the country and this year they’ll all get to see me — and for much cheaper. I mean, they have to pay per person when they come to my show, but this time they can have five people in the room for one price. We wanted to try to make it as simple as possible, as far as prices were, but I’m sure they understand that people have to get paid, even if I don’t get paid. it’s more elaborate. Because I can’t carry all the things on the road that I can do in the Christmas show here in one place. So it was a joy to do it, to let them see what actually my show would look like if I had all the bells and whistles.
Did it allow you to do anything you normally couldn’t — like a costume change?
Eeeeexactly. We could take a break and change clothes. The only thing they won’t get to see is the sweat. Because you get a chance to wipe it off before they know it.
Thanks to Darlene Love, her band & team for an amazing #LovefortheHolidays concert! Don't forget – the show is available to purchase and stream on demand through Christmas Day here >> https://t.co/8NxZk8cM9p / #darlenelove #nyc #saveourstages pic.twitter.com/ylsXcryETu
— Sony Hall (@SonyHall) December 6, 2020
“The Christmas Chronicles 2” just came out, marking your second year in a row with a Christmas film on Netflix.
Yeah, because last year I did a film about a family’s problems that go on at Christmas time, “Holiday rush.” This is the first time I’ve ever done Christmas movies back to back. Stevie Van Zandt wrote “All Alone at Christmas” for “Home Alone 2,” and this year he wrote “The Spirit of Christmas” for this movie. They said, “Who’s going to sing this,?” and looked at each other and went “Darlene Love.” At first I was just going to sing the title song, but I wasn’t going to be in it. And then Chris Columbus said, “No no no, she has to be in the movie.” So it turned out great for me, two musical numbers in different shows, back to back.
The screen really comes alive when you’re on it. Kurt Russell is obviously a magnetic guy, but there’s no doubt you’re the star of that scene.
Well, that’s nice of you to say. It is a big part of the movie. Santa and his reindeer get lost and crash and they end up at an airport, and that’s where they meet me. Santa does a few tricks with his nose and I become this great singer or at the airport. It’s a really great role. I couldn’t have asked for anything better than this.
Kurt Russell does not have the same illustrious singing career as you do. How was it singing with someone whose voice is, let’s say, a little bit gruffer than Darlene Love’s?
I tell people all the time: I’ve sang with the best and I’ve sung with the worst., and I sang with the ones in between. [Laughs.] This song is made for both of us to sing. Our voices were fabulous together.
This is your second time working with Columbus and Van Zandt, as you say. How did it come about that you did “All Alone on Christmas” for “Home Alone 2”?
Chris Columbus called me and wanted to know if I would sing “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” for “Home Alone.” And I said, “Why don’t you do another song? Why sing ‘Christmas, Baby’? That one everybody knows. What you need to do is call Stevie van Zandt and he can write a song for me to sing in your movie.” And that’s actually how it started. Stevie and I have worked together off and on ever since the early ‘80s, so it’s been a love relationship between the both of us when it comes to the music.
“All Alone on Christmas” is one of the best original Christmas songs of the last 30 or 40 years. It’s an homage to the Phil Spector Christmas album, and to “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” specifically, but also has the flavor of the E Street Band and its own personality.
That one is almost as popular… well, not quite as popular as “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” But when I sing it in my show, it gets as much excitement going. So it’s really great to be able to do a Christmas song that was done over 50 years ago and one that was done over 20 years ago, and they’re just as popular today as they were when we recorded them.
More so, probably. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” was around for decades without really becoming a standard at all. I remember when it was used in “Gremlins” in the early ‘80s and, at that time, only hardcore fans of yours or Phil Spector’s really remembered the song. It felt like that was the beginning of a turnaround for it.
Well, thank God I had a friendship with Paul Shaffer. Because when I came to New York, we did a play at a club called the Bottom Line called “Leader of the Pack,” and Paul Shaffer played Phil Spector. He invited David Letterman down to see the show one night, and the next night on the show, Letterman said, “We have to have that girl down here to do that Christmas song you all do in that play. That’s the greatest Christmas song I’ve ever heard.” And he just kind of lit my career up.
I mean, I was doing a few shows here in New York and Connecticut and New Jersey and these areas. But once I started doing the David Letterman show, and people were watching me sing it every year, they were like, “Wow, I want to hear her sing this in person.” Then after about five or six years, David started dubbing me “the Christmas queen.” During that time I was the only one touring with a Christmas show. Nobody else was doing it. And for David Letterman to put me out there where millions of people could see me just gave a shot of adrenalin to my Christmas career.
Do you remember what year you started doing your first Christmas shows?
Oh yeah, believe it or not, 1986. That was because of the Bottom Line. The guy that owned the club, Alan Pepper, said, “You should do a Christmas show, because you have so many great Christmas songs “ During that time, it was just the Phil Spector “Christmas Gift to You” album — that was it. They hired a great band to work with me and some great singers. Before you knew it, people were lining up outside at the Bottom Line to see my Christmas show.
It was amazing, because when I first came to New York, not a lot of people really believed there was a Darlene Love. Phil Spector never advertised me, because my first hits were under the name of the Crystals. So the newspaper people would ask me, “Are you really Darlene Love? There really is somebody named Darlene Love?” [Laughs.] Little by little, everybody started hearing about the real story. I tell you, living in New York was the place to be during those days, for Darlene Love, anyway.
The album, “Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You,” really wasn’t as well-known as it came to be later, either.
Yeah, it didn’t take off right away. Phil Spector recorded it in 1963, and then John Kennedy got assassinated, and so he was kind of like, “Well, let’s not put it out this year, let’s wait until next year.” [Editor’s note: It did enter the Christmas albums chart in 1963, though it was not a success. It finally reached the top 10 of that chart in 1972, when it was re-released with a different cover and title on the Beatles’ Apple label. It never entered the Billboard 200 chart until 2018.] Over the years that record grew. It really became a famous album in the late ‘90s. He was determined to make that Christmas album as big as it is today. I don’t know if he thought we would all still be around, but that album is still around.
What Phil was trying to do was make the first rock ‘n’ roll Christmas album. He was forging something that hadn’t started yet. So it took a while to catch on like everything else that’s good and great. I think it took about 10 years before they started playing it, playing it, playing it, and you were hearing less of Bing Crosby and Perry Como.
They tell me it took Mariah Carey 25 years to get her (Christmas single, “All I Want for Christmas is You”) to No. 1. If mine’s going to be No. 1, it’s going to be more than that. She wasn’t even born when I recorded mine. [Laughs.] But that would be a reeeeeeal big, wonderful surprise if that would happen. As long as we here and we doing it, I say never say never. You never know.
Spector’s name is tainted now, but the album survives the taint.
When your work is good, they forget about whatever happened to you, and they look at the product, and that is what has happened with Phil. Even though his life didn’t go the way he expected it to go, the music is still there, and people still love “He’s a Rebel” or “Be My Baby” or “Lovin’ Feeling.”
Looking back at that album and the songs you sing on it, there is kind of a split between the songs that have your name on them and the ones that don’t. “White Christmas” and “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” bookend the album (not counting a spoken-word epilogue), and those might be the two greatest Christmas records ever recorded. They’re more soulful and you get to let loose, versus the rest of the album. Do you think by having you sing in different styles under different names, he was trying to create two different styles for the price of one?
At that time, Phil couldn’t get the Crystals to fly in to California to do “He’s a Rebel” or “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” [the two major hits Love sang that were released under the Crystals’ name]. I lived in California and was one of the women that started the background singing groups, and he used me to do it. The fans didn’t realize that Darlene Love and the Crystals and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans were all part of Darlene Love’s voice, so it got a little crazy.
When I started out as a solo artist, I had to actually work harder to get my name out there, because (agents and bookers) said, “Well, we could find better jobs for you if you say you were a Crystal, or Bob B. Sox & the Blue Jeans.” But I was determined not to use those names because they were not my names. I was Bob B. Sox and the Blue Jeans, but I was never a Crystal. The Crystals were young teenagers, you know — 13, 14 years old. I was already 19, so I couldn’t have made it with them anyway. They were too young, and they couldn’t do a whole lot of traveling at that age.
So I was just determined to get my name out there, and work on my own rather than as a Crystal or any other group. It ended up being very hard to do, but I stayed my course, and it worked.
It turned out all right in the end for you, however many years it took.
Yes, it did. Thank God. [Laughs.]
With the writers of “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich [Spector is also credited as co-writer], did you ever get a chance to talk with them about writing that song?
Oh, yeah, once I moved to New York, Ellie and I became very, very good friends. Jeff was in California at the time. “Leader of the Pack,” the Broadway show that we did, was about Ellie and her music. So we spent days and weeks together.I used to go by her house and we used to hang out and talk about those songs. She was saying when she first heard what Phil had done to “Christmas, Baby,” she loved it, and she kept saying, “It’s going to be a hit.” But a Christmas song is almost never going to be a hit right away.
They would just write songs and hope. Ellie would say “I wrote this song for you and he gave it to Ronnie.” That was the only thing that made them angry, the way he would give the songs that they wrote for one person and give it to another. I know that happened with “River Deep, Mountain High.” They wrote that for me and wanted me to do it, and then Phil gave it to Tina Turner. I think it hurt them more than it hurts me.
Until recently, I hadn’t realized you also recorded a non-Christmas version of “Christmas” called “Johnny, Please Come Home”!
Yep. They (Barry and Greenwich) did that on the phone. We had just finished recording “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” and Phil called them in New York and told them to write another song that didn’t have Christmas. We used the same track for “Johnny” as we did for “Christmas, Baby.” It’s not saying a whole lot for it, because it didn’t do anything. [Laughs.] I think a lot of times when you just throw something together because you have an idea, it doesn’t work. That one didn’t.
“Christmas” gets covered so much, and no one changes it very much — even when it’s U2 doing it, the arrangement is the same and everybody’s trying to copy you, basically. Are there any covers you’ve enjoyed that people have done?
Oh, yeah. I really did enjoy Mariah Carey’s version. I think she stuck so close to me, I was really surprised, because that has a lower voice than how she sings. But when you have a song that has a great melody, like “Christmas, Baby” does, there’s no sense in trying to mess with it. And she has such a great, powerful voice. She did an unbelievable version. U2 was funny. (The band’s version appeared on the first “A Very Special Christmas” charity compilation in 1987.] When they did it, they wanted me to do the backgrounds — not bring in the singers, but just me doing the backgrounds, period. So that was fun. They loved the song and that’s the way they wanted to record it. (Michael) Bublé, I love his version too. You know, he gave me credit. He went, “I hope I can do this song do justice. Here we go, Darlene.” [Laughs.] So a lot of the versions were pretty good, although Mariah Carey’s sticks out closest to my version.
Now people call Mariah “queen of Christmas” because her album from 25 years ago was so big, but for a lot of us, you’ll always be the queen of Christmas. Is there any kind of any competition for that title?
You know, it’s funny because a lot of her fans, for a while… You know how your fans try to protect you? They thought she was the original person who recorded “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” I told them they weren’t doing their homework. I don’t think Mariah Carey was born yet. But it’s okay. You know what? It just makes the album bigger. It makes the song bigger. Sometimes on the radio, I hear they’ll do her version, then they’ll play mine right after her. It’s fun after all these years. No harm is being done to anybody, I say.
An unsung Christmas classic is when they had you do “Christmastime for the Jews” for “Saturday Night Live,” for a “TV Funhouse” segment in 2005.
Oh yeah. That guy that writes those (“Saturday Night Live”) songs (Robert Smigel), he wrote that. And at first I was like, “Ooh, is this gonna offend anybody?” But the song came out so good. I think my Jewish friends loved it better than anyone.
It’s actually a really great-sounding song, comedic or not, and a terrific homage to the sound of the Spector Christmas album. I wish whoever has the rights would release an official single of that.
Keep talking loud enough, they might hear you! [Laughs.]
Then you finally did your own solo album of Christmas music in 2007.
Yeah, finally after all that time. I think I did get to a certain age and producers don’t think that you can still sing or still sell. And I say, you have to understand, people still want to hear that kind of music. So it’s never going to go away until maybe that whole generation dies out. But now the parents are bringing their children to my shows. So it doesn’t have a chance to die now, no time soon.
What will you be doing for the holidays? Zooming, from what we understand?
All my family is in California. I was going to go for Thanksgiving, but things got really bad again. So this is the first year in probably about 10 years I’ve actually put up my Christmas tree and all the decorations (in New York). I had to beg my husband, but we finally got all the lights up. We’re just doing FaceTime and just staying home as close as we can, so we can get rid of this disease. If people would just stop trying to think about just themselves and think about other people, I think we could get past this. Everybody’s waiting on that magic shot that’s going to take this all away, but I think this is going to be around for a while. We’re still going to have to be careful.
“The View” took over the Letterman tradition of having you on the last show before Christmas. Will you still be able to do that in quarantine?
I’m doing “The View” and we did “Good Morning America,” but we didn’t go to the studios to do it. They’re not even in their studios yet. We (recorded appearances for) a few shows while I was doing my show. Here’s hoping next year we’ll be doing it in person. Because it’s always lots more fun to do it in front of somebody.
Going back to “The Christmas Chronicles 2” — are you still actively pursuing an acting career as well?
You know what, the just find something for me to do and they come and ask me and I say, well, all right! [Laughs.] My heart still is about singing, but if a good movie comes along, I’m there. It’s never taken me more than three weeks to do my part in any movie that I do. So three weeks here, three weeks there is a wonderful thing.
Of course people watch “Lethal Weapon” every year, which was the start of your Christmas movie career.
The first movie I did, “Lethal Weapon,” was a Christmas movie. That didn’t even dawn on me!