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Soul Survivor 

Girl-group pioneer Darlene Love goes from cleaning houses to packing them.

Darlene Love (right) experienced a - career resurgence after playing the wife of Danny - Glover in the Lethal Weapon series.
  • Darlene Love (right) experienced a career resurgence after playing the wife of Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series.

"I'd love to play a bad guy," muses Darlene Love as she watches an A&E Biography on Kevin Bacon. A singing legend and well-traveled actress, Love is relaxing in her hotel room during a recent tour stop of the long-running Broadway musical comedy Nunsense, in which she stars. "You can dig into that something that you probably don't ever want people to know about."

If Love were able to reach down deep and come up with anything sinister, it would be a feat of method acting worthy of Brando. Love, at least in this conversation, is a delight through and through, seemingly incapable of allowing life's barbs to dent her spirits as she went from a career as a '60s girl-group groundbreaker into relative obscurity and then to film-acting and singing once again.

These days, many know Love as Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon movies, but her place in entertainment history was ensured long before that blockbuster action franchise, thanks to the epic singles she made with legendary girl-group svengali Phil Spector. "He's a Rebel," "Today I Met the Boy I'm Going to Marry," and "Merry Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)," among others, are gorgeous examples of melodramatic longing that amaze to this day. The cuts are classics not just for Spector's infinitely influential "wall of sound" production, but also for Love's mile-wide pipes, which, along with those of Ronnie Spector, Tina Turner, and Diana Ross, set the template for female pop R&B for decades to come. And from the sound of her annual Christmastime performances on The Late Show With David Letterman, the pipes are still pumping. Also, she still looks like a million bucks.

"When I'm off tour, I go to the gym five days a week," she boasts. "With this Nunsense show, it's the first show I've ever done where you cannot take your attention off the show for five minutes. Because if you do, you'll miss your spot. There's maybe 15 minutes in the whole show where I can go, 'Whew, I don't have to do anything for a second.' I've been with this tour for six months. And between all that, I've gone back to New York City to do my Christmas show and the David Letterman show, which I do every year. So I've been a real busy person. I guess it keeps you in shape."

Love is in full control of her career today, but that wasn't always the case -- especially when dealing with Spector. She explains that what is known today as the Phil Spector house band was actually a group of musicians and singers Love had worked with for a few years. In fact, when she went in to record her first hit, "He's a Rebel," she figured it was just another gig with the boys. Spector's stable was often unaware if, when, or how the recordings would be released. This was among the many ways in which working with Spector could be so volatile.

"In the early days, I loved working with him, because I thought he was very unusual," Love says. "I had worked with a lot of producers by that time, and the difference with Phil Spector was he knew what he wanted. He told you exactly what he wanted you to do, from the background singers to all the musicians. That didn't happen back then, because producers just listened to their arrangers, they didn't have their hands on. And Phil was 19 years old! But he didn't carry himself like a 19-year-old."

As beloved as all those Spector singles are, they're often hard to find at the local Coconuts. Spector's neurotic nature makes for strange reissue contracts that move the works into and out of print quickly, and he's loath to give up rights to the artists.

"He still owns them, and the hardest problems I've had with Phil Spector is, he refuses to allow me to sing these songs where I can make money off them," Love says with a sigh. "Like up in Pittsburgh they do a really great show for PBS, with a lot of the oldies groups. And they tried to get permission for me to do 'Merry Christmas Baby' and 'Today I Met the Boy I'm Going to Marry,' and Phil Spector's office refuses to allow me to do them. Even doing 'Merry Christmas Baby' on David Letterman -- Phil tried to stop that too, but David had a little more power than he did."

Trying to sabotage careers is one thing, but the most recent accusations surrounding Spector -- that he allegedly shot and killed actress Lana Clarkson at his mansion -- are a bit more serious. So Love is naturally reticent when that subject arises. "Well, I don't have a lot to say about it, because if I'm on television and they see me say something about it, that's one thing. But in print, it can come out the wrong way," Love explains. "All I'd say is that I hope it all turns out in his favor. I don't believe Phil Spector is the type of person who could just willingly do something like that."

Love would rather concentrate on her ceaseless schedule. "Oh, this year we're going to be celebrating the 20th year that I've been doing Letterman. And it's actually 40 years since I first recorded 'Merry Christmas Baby'!" Love exclaims. "Plus, this year I'm going to be doing my big Christmas show at the Apollo, and it's Apollo's 70th anniversary."

Though her voice and work ethic are as strong as ever, Love has had a hard time securing a new recording contract. Beyond the usual whims of music industry trends, she remains stuck in Spector's shadow, as industry insiders have contended that Spector is the only one who can do her justice. Similar complaints arose in the '70s, when Spector became reclusive, and the times seemed to be passing Love by.

"There was a time where I couldn't find any work singing, back in 1980. And I'd say to myself, 'This is crazy, maybe I should go back to school,'" she recalls. "I was doing day work then, cleaning houses during the Christmas holiday. And 'Merry Christmas Baby' came on the radio while I was cleaning. I looked at myself in the mirror, and I said, 'You know what? I do have a gift. Let me do all I can to get this career going again.' And I haven't looked back. There comes a time when you figure this is what you're supposed to be doing, so give it all you can."

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