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Music

Backup vocalist Darlene Love steps to the front

Darlene Love entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and is featured in the recent film “20 Feet From Stardom.”

Tony Dejak/AP/file 2012

Darlene Love entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and is featured in the recent film “20 Feet From Stardom.”

In one of the more poignant scenes of the new documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” the singer Darlene Love recalls a Christmas memory. In a career slump, long after her shining moments in the 1960s singing Phil Spector hits, Love had resorted to cleaning houses to make ends meet.

She was tidying up a bathroom on Christmas Day when “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” came on the radio. It’s perhaps her most famous song, a staple of holiday music that she has since performed annually on “Late Show With David Letterman” for nearly 30 years.

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That was it. Love knew right then and there that she was meant to sing — and to be heard.

DARLENE LOVE

The Big E , 875 Memorial Ave., West Springfield Ma 413-205-5049. http://www.thebige.com

Date of concert:
Sunday and Monday, 3 and 8 p.m.
Ticket price:
$15, $10 for children ages 6-12

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“There for a while I didn’t think I’d be singing anymore,” she says from her New York home on a recent morning, not long after the kickboxing class she had taken at 5 a.m. (Love is 72.)

“I knew I’d always be singing in church, but things were so slow for so long,” she adds. “I know when I moved to New York City from California, things picked up. I never worked on the East Coast before as Darlene Love. When I found out I had so many fans here, they didn’t even know if I existed.”

Those fans are legion and legendary, from Bruce Springsteen to Cher to Bette Midler, who inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 with a poignant speech. “She is, without question, a lead singer,” Stevie Wonder says of Love in “20 Feet From Stardom.”

Love’s struggles, and eventual renaissance, are at the heart of the film, which chronicles the trials and hard-won victories of backup singers, artists whose names aren’t on the marquee but deserve to be. Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Judith Hill are among the other singers profiled.

Love, however, is credited as a pioneer of the art form, starting with her work in the early ’60s with the Blossoms, who are considered the first group of black backing singers. Their voices are imprinted all over popular music, from recordings by the Righteous Brothers and Sam Cooke to appearances on the road with Marvin Gaye and countless others.

Love is downright tickled to note that she’s now on the road again under her own name. She has performances at the Big E, the annual state fair in West Springfield, on Sunday and Monday with shows at 3 and 8 p.m.

For Love, her appearance in the movie is yet another belated triumph in a career that could have easily fallen through the cracks.

“Some of it was painful,” she says of revisiting her hardships on camera, “but the majority of it was actually great. You know, they took me back to my old church, which I hadn’t seen in 30 or 40 years.”

Morgan Neville, who directed “20 Feet From Stardom,” which is still in theaters in Boston, says Love was the first person he had in mind for it.

“When we first started getting into it, Darlene’s name kept coming up,” Neville says. “Being the most famous backup singer is one of those difficult positions to be in. It’s like being the most famous minor-league baseball player.”

“She helped me a lot to figure out what the origins of this whole phenomenon were,” Neville adds. “She not only opened doors metaphorically, but also literally. She and the Blossoms going into these white [recording] sessions really did help revolutionize the recording industry.”

Love seemed destined for stardom as a solo artist when she recorded for Spector, the producer heralded for inventing the fabled Wall of Sound with songs such as “River Deep — Mountain High.” In one of the most infamous stories in rock ’n’ roll history, Love sang the lead vocal for “He’s a Rebel,” which Spector released as a single credited to the Crystals, a rising girl group he was grooming at the time. Only years later was the truth about Love’s work on the song revealed.

Her story is inherently heart-rending, but Love is not one to dwell on what might have been. She’s more inclined to shrug off her tribulations, emitting a robust laugh that’s infectious. She has had a full career, perhaps just not in the middle of the spotlight.

“Back in those days, we were making tons of money,” she says, laughing once more. “We figured we could make a living doing this. We really had no aspirations of going any further than that. People would hear us do backup singing and asked us to go on the road with them. That’s how we ended up getting out of the backup singing and into the recording studio.”

Her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might have been belated, but it meant something to her.

“It got me closer to my peers, because when you get into the hall, it’s your peers who induct you,” she says. “I know the majority of the people who are in the hall of fame, and it gave me a way to get better acquainted with them. And the work has gotten better. And the pay has gotten better.”

Neville says Love’s latest successes, including the recent reprint of her 1998 memoir, “My Name Is Love,” are just the start of better things for a woman who was in the shadows for too long.

“I think it’s just happening now,” Neville says. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was a long-term effort led by people who adore and admire her. This is just the beginning.”

James Reed can be reached at james.reed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.

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