A recent hot theater ticket in San Diego was the trial run of the historic rock musical, “House of Dreams,” that told the story of Hollywood’s fabled Gold Star Studio. Over a hundred hit songs were recorded there in the 1960s — from “Rockin’ Robin” to “Good Vibrations” to “Cherry Bomb.”
Owner/engineer and sound innovator Larry Levine worked in symbiosis with producer Phil Spector to realize the legendary, much imitated “Wall of Sound.” Another key ingredient to the Gold Star alchemy was The Blossoms, a girl group whose lead singer, Darlene Love, was prominently featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom (2013).
Love’s sturdy alto was not only the lead Blossom voice, but she could soar an octave over the ensemble like a forty-yard Aaron Rodgers pass to a receiver in the end zone. Even on Spector’s desperately overworked “River Deep, Mountain High,” Darlene can be heard among the din. She’s a vessel for some of the best pop music of the 1960s, and every song she’ll sing at the Smothers Theatre on the Pepperdine campus on September 12 carries a story.
The Blossoms were indispensable to the Hollywood Renaissance of the ‘60s. Love was Spector’s utility singer—handling leads and harmony for the Crystals (“He’s a Rebel”), Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, the Ronettes, and all Spector productions. Even apart from the Wall of Sound, the Blossoms were always in demand. “We sang as much for Lou Adler and Lee Hazelwood in studios like United Western and RCA,” Darlene notes, speaking by phone from her home in New York state. “But Gold Star was like home base for us.”
Producers often took credit for her ideas and arrangements. “Most of the time,” she says, “they left it up to us to come up with the parts and how they should be sung. We only stayed on the chart for someone who had very specific music.” That point touches on a songbook that has always been special to Love. “I sang on a Murray the K show in New York,” she recounts, “and Dionne Warwick was there, singing her first hit, ‘Don’t Make Me Over.’ Later on, we toured with her, and I got to sing all of those Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs. Those songs are so well-written; their timing and key changes and melodies were all so beautiful. It was an honor to sing them behind Dionne.”
“Larry would send us to people who needed us,” Love continues, “because he knew we could make the music better. Not that we needed any more work; we already had plenty.” To add to their work load, the Blossoms were regulars on ABC’s “Shindig!.” “We worked seven days a week on “Shindig!,” she says, with a touch of weariness.
Love is particularly intimate with the story of “River Deep,” Spector’s go-for-broke production for Tina Turner. “It was given to me and I was told to learn it,” she says. “I rehearsed it and I thought it was going to be my next record. Then he brought Tina in and they cut it.” Though it was praised widely in England, the record didn’t do well in America. “Tina didn’t like how she sounded,” Darlene says. “Ellie Greenwich — one of the writers — threw the record across the room when she heard it. Phil put too much stuff on the top of the song. That failure kind of buried him.”
In the fall of 1963, Spector embarked on his ambitious holiday album, “A Christmas Gift For You.” It inaugurated the Christmas rock genre, with the Spector stable handling various year-end chestnuts with rocked-up Jack Nitzsche arrangements. Love was given a new song: “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home.” “I thought it was crazy,” she says, “because it wasn’t a standard, and they were taking a big chance.” But Love turned a December lament of unrequited love into an operatic aria, and a jewel of an album that still sells. “People want to hear it all year ’round; even though I try not to sing it too far away from December. But sometimes the audience just won’t let me go without hearing it, so what can you do?”
Though it’s been years since she performed locally, Love sees the Smothers appearance as a chance to connect with her roots. “I still have a lot of my family in L.A.,” she says, “and I’m using my old band with Jerry Vivino and all the guys who worked with me at The Bottom Line in New York. So, it’ll be exciting to get to work with them again.”
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.
Darlene Love | Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University | Sept 12