There is a joy to watching certain performers sing- choosing each note carefully, locked in with the music, guiding it even as it guides them. Yet for even the most talented, moments of real grit, real grace and real soul, are just that: moments. Elusive and fleeting, they are flashes of brilliance that could dissolve into the air at any second. Although just a few days shy of Thanksgiving (11/21/15), one thousand people in a small Bethlehem, PA theater got to experience that same indescribable, hold-your-breath moment as it was pulled and stretched to last for over two hours.
Treating the microphone more like a trusted friend and confidant than an amplification system, Love paced the stage as she sang under a train of white-hot spotlights. Introducing most of her songs through stories and anecdotes about how they came into being, her set was largely divided between her music of the past and present. But no matter what she was singing, each song couldn’t help but remind you why her voice is as tied to rock and roll as Elvis Presley’s. Enduring as a patchwork held together by its very contrasts, a collection of iconic songs including “He’s Sure The Boy I Love,” “He’s A Rebel,” and “Da Do Ron Ron,” each projected a longing propelled by gleaming rushes of pure exuberance. Frequently grinning as she sang, her voice has remarkably remained as strong and affecting as it was when she first entered the music business nearly sixty years ago. Seemingly immune to the passage of time, that same voice broke through the air again and again, containing enough power and muscle to break right through the ceiling.
A professional studio singer by the age of seventeen, Darlene Wright recorded background vocals for established artists like Sam Cooke, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and the Righteous Brothers as a member of the vocal group, The Blossoms. Although in 1962, the Blossoms were hired to record the lead vocals on the Phil Spector produced song, “He’s A Rebel.” Essentially standing in for the group who could not make the session, the Crystals, the band was paid to record the song and relinquish credit. An immediate hit, the success of “He’s A Rebel” lead Wright to sign a record contract with Spector, who rechristened her “Darlene Love.” Yet despite recording her vocals for some of the era’s biggest hits, Spector would continually release Love’s work under the names of other artists. Denying her royalties and recognition, most outside the industry were unaware of her and her struggle to launch a solo career. After several years out of the business during the 1970s, she returned to performing in the early 1980s. Championed by a long list of fellow artists including Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Bette Midler and Elton John, her supreme impact and influence eventually led to her 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In September 2015, she released her latest record, Introducing Darlene Love, before bringing her newest songs out on the road.
At seventy-four, she possesses a buoyant, youthful demeanor that could’ve made the room brighter than any of the lights that were trained to follow her every move. Elevated by an accomplished backing band of musicians and vocalists, the music maintained the spark and polish that has come to define her sound. Sailing through renditions of “Love Kept Us Foolin’ Around,” “Sweet Freedom” and “Just Another Lonely Mile,” her voice displayed a strength and depth that was sweeping. Channeling emotion into each vocal, every moment of pain, struggle and reflection could be acutely felt with just the slightest bend of a note.
“Ok, Ok…I love you, too. We’ll do David Letterman’s favorite song.”
Returning to the stage amidst massive cheers from an audience begging for an encore, Love concluded her set with a performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Fusing heartache and sadness with a driving backbeat, Love made each somber plea feel as vital as the air we breathe. Sketching a complete sense of contemplation and distress, when she sang “If there was a way, I would hold back these tears,” you could literally feel every speck of resilience and composure slowly fall away. Performed by Love on the Late Show with David Letterman every December from 1986 until Letterman’s retirement in 2014, she has said in interviews that she will honor Letterman’s affection for the song by making her last Late Show appearance her last televised performance of the holiday classic. Although watching the audience, it was clear that they’ll join Love in this same theater when she returns next year, keeping their own traditions alive with the legendary performer herself. And by effortlessly creating those sacred moments that stay with you, Love once again cemented her reputation as one of rock and roll’s most treasured and eternal voices.
Watch Darlene Love Perform “Christmas (Baby Please Home)” Year After Year On the Late Show with David Letterman:
Don’t Miss Darlene Love Live In New York:
December 20th, 23rd, 26th / January 2nd / January 16th @ B.B. King Blues Club
February 12th @ Tarrytown Music Hall
April 2nd @ Walt Whitman Theatre
Article: Caitlin Phillips