Meet iconic pop diva Darlene Love all over again
Darlene Love was in on the joke when it was time to name her new album.
“Introducing Darlene Love.”
Get it? Here’s a woman who has been a fixture in pop music since the early 1960s, starting with her work as a backup singer with the Blossoms and her legendary recordings with producer Phil Spector (“He’s a Rebel”). She is beloved by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bette Midler, the latter of whom inducted Love into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Yet Love has always been dogged by the persistent assumption that she is an unsung hero, an artist dealt a crummy hand early on only to have her luck turn around late in life. Her hard-won victory was the heart and soul of “20 Feet From Stardom,” the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary about the joys and struggles of backing vocalists.
Now Love, 74, has a bookend to the film that prompted a reappraisal of her legacy. On Friday, Columbia Records, in partnership with Wicked Cool Records, will release her first solo album of secular songs since 1988. (She released some gospel records in the ’90s.)
“Introducing Darlene Love” puts the dynamo right back where she belongs, in the center of a robust pop album powered by her thunderous voice. She made it in close collaboration with Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist, radio host, and actor who has been a longtime friend and admirer. Along with writing a few himself, Van Zandt solicited songs from prominent songwriters such as Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett, Jimmy Webb, Linda Perry, Desmond Child, and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil.
“We were on such the same page,” Love says recently from her New Jersey home. “I met Stevie in the ’80s, and I had no idea it was going to take this long [to make an album together]. But I always say, when things happen, that’s when they’re supposed to happen. When he decided he wanted to record me, I felt so secure with him and I knew the kind of songs he would pick for me would be the songs I should sing.
“When I recorded with Phil Spector, even though it was powerful, he kept my voice sounding very young,” she adds. “To make it sound even younger, he would speed the song up. And I was 18! The thing about Steve and me is that we wanted people to really hear what I sound like now and when I’m onstage. It’s always been there, but I’ve never had a chance to show it.”
Van Zandt and Love went big. Very big. The songs are jammed with booming horns, soaring string arrangements, backup singers high in the mix (perhaps as an homage to Love’s roots), and at least one instrumental interlude that approaches the bombast of Mannheim Steamroller. (“Don’t you just love that one?” Love asks, referring to Webb’s “Who Under Heaven.”) She keeps nothing in the reserve on “Introducing Darlene Love,” pushing hard to prove she’s savoring this shining moment.
“I joke that Steve almost killed me before we finished the record,” Love says, unleashing the hearty laugh she deploys often and with gusto. “He’d go, ‘C’mon, give me more! Give me more!’ And I’m going, ‘Give you more of what?! I done gave you everything I got!’ ”
Having seen Love in concert several times over the years, Van Zandt had an idea of what he wanted from her.
“The first thing I wanted to capture was the excitement she generates live. After that I wasn’t really sure,” Van Zandt writes in an e-mail to the Globe. “We didn’t want nostalgia, so it ended up very much in the present tense. Big themes. Romance! Adventure! Sex! Heartbreak! Liberation! Strength! Family! Faith! All with a spiritual foundation running underneath reflecting her gospel roots.”
“There was no doubt we were literally introducing the REAL Darlene Love to the world for the first time,” Van Zandt continues. “All people had gotten was little glimpses through the years. It was high time to reveal the full glorious picture. . . . This album is the happy ending to ‘20 Feet From Stardom.’ And man, has she earned it!”
A few of the new songs, particularly Springsteen’s “Night Closing In” and Costello’s “Forbidden Nights,” sound like they belong in Love’s ’60s catalog. But mostly “Introducing Darlene Love” presents the singer in a modern context; it’s not about how great she was, but rather how great she is.
With her rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High,” in a new arrangement that streamlines the muddled layers of Spector’s original production, Love even revisits a part of her history. She says she was supposed to sing that classic song after Spector had told her to learn it. Only on the day of the session did she find out that Tina Turner would be recording it, and Love ended up singing backup.
“That was then, and this is now,” she says of her feelings toward Spector. “I tell people all the time, carrying around a lot of hate is too heavy. It only makes you miserable. Half the time, he don’t care — or even know you hate him!”
Her new version of “River Deep, Mountain High,” along with the album as a whole, reclaims Love’s right to present her talent exactly as she sees fit.
“You know, I had never thought of it like that, but it’s really true,” Love says. “Now I get to do it the way I want to do it. And even though I’m 74 years old, I still feel this is the right time for what I’m doing.”