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Christmas (Please Come Home)
Ellen and Joe Wright were barely in their twenties living in East Los Angeles when the second of their five children, Darlene was born in 1941. Joe was a Baptist preacher so the lives of the Wright family revolved around the church. At choir practice when she was 16, her full-sized voice caught the attention of the choir director who took her to a Christian bookstore where they did some radio broadcasts. Darlene sang a few songs that day. “I guess that was when my career started,” Darlene remembered. (1)
There was a girl from church, Delores Ferguson who asked Darlene to sing at her wedding. Darlene didn’t know that the wedding appearance served as an audition. Delores' bridal party included her friends Gloria Jones, Fanita Barrett, and Annette and Nanette Williams, who had a singing group called the Blossoms. They were looking to replace Annette who had become pregnant. Jones remembered, “We sounded too pop and we wanted a lead singer with more of R&B sound.” (2) Darlene, in her last year of high school, fit the bill.
After Darlene passed the audition at their manager’s office, she was invited to join the Blossoms. After a few months of rehearsals, their agent, Eddie Bill, booked them as background singers for a session with then teen-idol, James Darren on Angel Face followed by another session with Sam Cooke on Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha. More studio work followed as a result of their sound. “The Blossoms didn’t sound white but we didn’t sound black either. The magic of the group was that we could sound whatever way we wanted,” Darlene pointed out. (2) That put the girls in the background for Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Rockin’ Robin by Bobby Day, Johnny Angel by Shelley Fabares and (Dance With The) Guitar Man by Duane Eddy.
The Blossoms in 1966. Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King.
Photo courtesy of Reprise Records
The Blossoms had a few shots at becoming a headlining group. Three singles with Capitol as a foursome fizzled while their attempts at Okeh and Challenge as a trio went nowhere. The group hit the fork in the road.
In 1958, Phil Spector formed a vocal group with three friends from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles called the Teddy Bears. With a song penned by Spector from the epitaph on his father’s tombstone, To Know Him Is To Love Him reached #1 on the Billboard charts on December 1, 1958. (3) The group turned out to be nothing more than a one-hit wonder and disbanded a year later. During the recording of the Teddy Bears album, he met Lester Sill, a promotion man who mentored top Brill Building songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Spector was so enamored with the process of writing and producing songs that by 1960, he moved to New York to apprentice with the team of Leiber and Stoller on the recommendation of Sill. Spector, with no money, slept on the floor at the songwriters’ office and carried a briefcase containing a notebook of songs, a comb, a loaf of bread and a roll of hard salami. (4)
A strange and curious character, he soaked up everything around him like a sponge. He co-wrote the Ben E. King Top 10 hit Spanish Harlem with Jerry Leiber and also worked as a session musician, most notably playing the guitar solo on the Drifters' song On Broadway. He also produced Ray Peterson's Corrina, Corrina, which reached #9 in January 1961 and a major hit for Curtis Lee, Pretty Little Angel Eyes, which made it to #7.
After returning to Hollywood, Spector produced the Paris Sisters I Love How You Love Me, a hit that reached #5. (5) Working with Lester Sill, he formed Philles Records and produced a few hits for the Crystals, There’s No Other (Like My Baby) and Uptpwn.
By this time, Spector was the hottest producer in the business. In addition to duties at his record company, he produced Second Hand Love for Connie Francis. Enticed by a new opportunity, Spector took an A&R job with Liberty Records. While there, he heard a song written by Gene Pitney scheduled to be recorded by Vicki Carr. Recognizing a hit, Spector rushed a production of the song at Hollywood’s Gold Star studios.
His first choice was the Crystals. The group was on tour at the time and couldn’t return to Los Angeles. Sill recommended Darlene Wright of the Blossoms to handle the lead. Spector hired the Blossoms to sing their parts – with the agreement that the record would still be credited to the Crystals. It was a one-time deal. Not thinking much of the song, Darlene agreed – the $5,000 she was paid didn't hurt – and then watched as He's A Rebel hit #1 in 1962. (6)
Phil Spector, Darlene Love, Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzche.
Photo courtesy of Ray Avery of Getty Images.
Though Darlene knew and understood the terms, she still bristled at Spector’s deception. “The Blossoms had sung background on a number of top hits by this time. This was the first time I sang lead. This felt like my record. To hear the song alongside hits by James Brown and Solomon Burke, elevated me to another level,” Darlene realized. “For Spector, the singers were no more important than the third violin or the second engineer. He was the star of his records.” (7)
Learning a lesson dealing with the devious producer, Darlene insisted on her name credit or the Blossoms and a contract with Spector defining terms for the next song, Da Doo Ron Ron. She had to walk out of the studio mid-session to get it. She signed a contract and he immediately shelved the song. Eventually, the song was released but Spector, as a way to show Darlene he was the boss, wiped her vocals from the track substituting the voice of La La Brooks, the then-current lead singer of the Crystals and credited the song to the Crystals.
While the song sat in his self-interred limbo, Spector called Darlene back with the other Blossoms (Fanita Barrett and newcomer, Bobby Sheen) for a remake of Disney’s Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah. The song was credited to Bobby Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Knowing she had the deal with Da Doo Ron Ron and banking on Spector’s then golden touch, she agreed to do the song. Her instincts of Spector’s talent were on the mark. Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah landed in the Top Ten in early 1963.
The Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil songwriting duo penned He’s Sure The Boy I Love and was the next song on the Blossoms list. During the session, Spector told Darlene that this song would be the first one released with her name on it. Everything with him had a caveat. He didn’t care for the name Darlene Wright so he listed her as Darlene Love, a nod to one of his favorite gospel singers, Dorothy Love.
“I knew the song was a winner. You could imagine my excitement the first time I heard He’s Sure The Boy I Love on the radio, eagerly anticipating the deejay announcing, ‘That was Darlene Love.’ The deejay did come on only to announce this was the new smash by…the Crystals, Darlene remembered. “I confronted him. I didn’t need reasons as it all added up to more money for him. He believed the established name of the Crystals following a smash such as He’s A Rebel would mean more airplay.” (8) Since he owned the Crystals name, he effectively cut Darlene out of her share of the royalties.
Bound by contract, Darlene recorded (Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry for Philles Records. Since Spector worked a deal with songwriters for credit (which meant a piece of the action every time a song gets played), he listed the song as the Darlene Love debut single.
Of course, Spector had an ulterior motive. He had in mind a project for a rock and roll Christmas album and he wanted Darlene’s help. “I loved Christmas music and this would be the first time Phil let me have a say in what I would record. I picked White Christmas, Winter Wonderland and Marshmallow World,” Darlene stated. The album, A Christmas Gift For You, listed twelve traditional songs by the stable of artists on Philles Records and one original tune, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and (of course) Spector.
In a 2008 interview with Record Collector, Love talked about working with Spector on Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) "Phil worked everybody so hard on the album and the days kind of blurred into each other, thinking about it now. But there was a real Christmas party atmosphere in the studio, even though it was the height of summer, and a lot of great musicians were involved. They weren't that well-known at the time but so many of them went on to become famous in their own right, like Leon Russell. Sonny Bono and Cher were involved in a lot of the stuff too, so was Glen Campbell. We worked hard, though, some days we'd be in the studio for eight or nine hours just doing one verse of one song."
Darlene assumed the original song, the Christmas plum of the album, would go to Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes. “But poor Ronnie didn’t have enough circuits to handle the high-voltage performance that Phil wanted, so he gave the song to me, and it turned out to be the record I’d been waiting to make with Phil in the year that I’d known him,” Darlene stated. “The Christmas album was Phil Spector at his best and worst. The work itself was clearly his masterpiece. I could almost forget—almost—all the double crosses and disappointments of the proceeding months and forgive Phil.” (10)
The resulting LP had the misfortune of being released on November 22, 1963—the day President Kennedy was assassinated and, with the nation in a somber mood, never picked up any sales traction. Spector pulled the album and shelved it for a number of years. With the British Invasion just a few months away, Spector’s time in the spotlight was up as the album just sat. Ironically, it was the Beatles’ Apple Records that re-released the album in 1972 that gave the 60’s masterpiece a new life. Subsequent releases over the years meant generations of new fans would listen and buy every Christmas. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine placed the album at #142 in its list of the greatest albums of all time. (11)
The recording credits for Darlene Love for Phil Spector include the two titles credited to the Crystals, three Billboard charters with Bobby Soxx and the Blue Jeans and six singles under her own name. Love and the Blossoms continued to work in Los Angeles after their work with Philles Records. They were regulars on Shindig for its two-year duration before touring with Elvis Presley in the early 70s. Darlene then sang backup for Dionne Warwick for ten years beginning in 1971.
In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning reporter Anthony Mason, Darlene explained what happened after her time with Dionne Warwick ended. By the early '80s, with two children and her marriage collapsing, she needed to take another job as a maid. "I said, well, there's only one other thing I know I can do and I can do well: I can clean," she said. "And one year, cleaning this lady's bathroom, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) came on the radio. And I just looked and said, 'Okay, I hear you Lord!'" she laughed, "This is not what I'm supposed to be doing, so I guess you're going to help me to get where I'm trying to go. And I never turned back."
Bill Medley, of the Righteous Brothers, helped her put together a show. "How'd that feel?" Mason asked. "Unbelievable. I was like, 'What am I going to do? What am I going to sing?' He said, 'You're going to sing your hits.' And it didn't dawn on me that ..." "They were YOUR hits!" Mason said. "Right!" answered Love. (12)
Love borrowed money and put together a show, which led to a two-year gig singing on a cruise ship. She appeared in all four Lethal Weapon movies beginning in 1987 portraying Danny Glover’s wife.
In 1985, she also appeared on Broadway in a show about Ellie Greenwich titled Leader Of The Pack. It was there she met bandleader Paul Schaffer from Late With David Lettermen. Shaffer played the part of Phil Spector and Darlene played herself. One of the songs from the show was Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Shaffer invited his boss to watch the show and Letterman was impressed. Love remembered, “He (Paul) had David down to see the show. [Letterman] said, “You know that song that girl sings? That Christmas song? That’s the greatest Christmas song I’ve ever heard. We need to get her on the show.” That was 1986, and so I’ve been doing it ever since. (13)
In 1993, Love sued Phil Spector for back royalties. In 1997, a New York Supreme Court jury ruled in her favor but, because of the statute of limitations in New York State, awarded her only $263,500 for royalties going back to 1987. The award covered royalties from the 1991 Phil Spector CD box set, other compilations plus the use of her recordings in films. “I felt as if this was the day I had reclaimed some of my jewels, and a big part of my soul,” said Darlene. (14)
Today, Love keeps her anger toward Spector in check. "Listen, I can't be mad at anybody," she says. "I have a career today because of those records. Had I never met Phil and did those records, what would I have done? It worked out." (6)
Darlene sang Christmas (Please Come Home) annually on The David Letterman Show from 1986-2014. This is a mash-up of many of those appearances.
1) Love, Darlene; Hoerburger, Rob (2013). My Name is Love: The Darlene Love Story. Page 38.
2) Love, Darlene, Page 42.
3) Larkin, Colin (March 2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
4) Halberstadt, Alex, (2007), Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life And Times Of Doc Pomus, Page 131.
5) Wikipedia, Phil Spector, Link.
6) Browne, David, Rolling Stone, Darlene Love: Let Love Rule, June 20, 2013. Link.
7) Love, Darlene, Pages 66-68.
8) Love, Darlene, Page 82.
9) Love, Darlene, Page 93.
10) Love, Darlene, Pages 94-95.
11) Rolling Stone,The 25 Greatest Christmas Albums of All Time. 19 December 2012.
12) Mason, Anthony, CBS Sunday Morning, Darlene Love Spreads Christmas Cheer, April 20, 2012. Link.
13) Lynch, Matthew, Vanity Fair, An Oral History of Darlene Love’s Legendary Letterman Christmas Performances, December 19, 2014, Link.
14) Love, Darlene, Page 315.
Photo courtesy of Darlene Love.
© 2017 Jerry Reuss