Q&A: Darlene Love Says Hello to Steven Van Zandt, Goodbye to Letterman

By Shannon Carlin

“Finally.” It’s the word Darlene Love says with a laugh when you ask her to describe what it’s like being in the studio with Steven Van Zandt, 30 years after the two swore they’d make an album together.

With Van Zandt enlisting songwriting help from his famous friends like Elvis CostelloBruce Springsteen and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil—who wrote The Crystals’ 1962 hit “He’s Sure The Boy I Love,” which featured an uncredited Love on lead vocals—she told Radio.com that people are “going to be very surprised” by the album, due out later this year.

At 76 years old, Love isn’t the least bit concerned about getting lost in the shuffle of the current crop of pop divas, making it clear there’s more than enough fans to go around.

“It doesn’t matter if someone has 2 million followers on their tweets. Hey, there’s billions of people in the world!” Love says. “Just because they have 2 million of them doesn’t mean the rest of them ain’t listening.”

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As Love gears up for her first album in nearly three decades, the the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member also says goodbye to a gig she’s held for the past 28 years. This upcoming December will mark Love’s last performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on The Late Show with David Letterman, a slot she earned after Letterman saw her in the musical Leader of the Pack.

When she first got a call in 1985 from the host’s original late night gig, Late Night with David Letterman, to play the song, which Letterman dubbed “the greatest Christmas song ever written,” she actually had to pass due to a scheduling conflict. But that’s what often happens when you call someone mere days before you want them to appear on the show.

“I thought they were out of their mind,” Love says. “You don’t call somebody last minute and tell them they can come do the David Letterman show! So I said, ‘What about next year?’ And they said, ‘Okay,’ it was kind of one of those okays like, ‘Well, we don’t know if we’ll want you next year.’ It could have been a one time, one off thing. But the next year they called and they called just like a couple of days before they wanted me and I kept telling them, ‘You guys are going to have to call a little bit earlier so I can keep up!'”

Her final performance is still months away, but Love is already thinking about how she’ll say goodbye to Letterman. “I might walk over to give him a great big smack kiss on the mouth. We’ll see.”

~

Radio.com: After nearly three decades of saying you’re going to do a record with Steven Van Zandt you’re finally recording with Steven Van Zandt. Was it worth the wait?

Darlene Love: I knew if anybody could record me and make a great album it would be Steven Van Zandt because he knows my music, he knows the Phil Spector music. We knew it would happen one day, we just didn’t know it would take 30 years. And believe me, we’ve been keeping busy during this time. Steven was busy and then he got busier when he did [Sopranos] and when he got the television show in Sweden [the Netflix show Lilyhammer] so for him to cut out the time in his busy schedule to do this, to me, means a whole lot. And his word. He said he was going to do it, he didn’t say when, or how long it would take. You know what I always say, everything is timing. And I think this is just the right time for it to be done.

Why was now the right time?

Record companies didn’t want to put out the money [to make this album] because record companies are not what they were years ago, you know, they want finished product. So finally, Steven said, ‘Okay, if nobody’s going to do this, I’m going to do this.’ And that’s how it sort of happened. One day he called me and said, ‘We’re going into the studio next week.’ And I said, ‘What are we going to record?’ [Laughs] He had called his friends like Bruce Springsteen saying he needed material and he had these two songs that I had done at [the Little Kids Rock] fundraiser, one from Elvis Costello, a great song. Another song, “Among The Believers” Steven actually sang at his mother’s funeral, which is another great song. He said, ‘Let’s do these songs, we already know them.’

Little Steven has been posting photos of the two of  you in the studio on his Facebook page, including one of a string section working on the Elvis Costello-penned track “Forbidden Nights.” Can you talk about that one?

You know what, you never know what Steven’s going to do. You never see his genius until you get in the studio with him, how he works, how he makes sure every note is right. We had this one song that was a particularly hard song for me to sing. First of all, he made a demo for me with the melody that he wanted me to sing and he wanted me to sing it exactly how he wanted it to be sung. And that’s fine with me, that’s the way I want it. The goal is to get it exactly the way you want it, which is amazing, I just didn’t know he’d be that particular about it. I knew he would want it right, but I didn’t know two or three different words he’d want me to sing in different ways. The great thing about it is he can tell me how he wants it. A lot of time producers can’t tell you exactly what they want. Steve can tell you exactly what he wants the singers to sing which is great. He paces, he goes into the studio, he gets his guitar out and plays it the way he wants you to do it. He’s a master. He’s a genius at getting people to do what he wants them to do.

Have there been moments in the studio where you’re just in awe of how he works?

Well, he changed one of Elvis Costello’s songs and made it an uptempo song instead of a ballad, I thought,  ‘How the hell—excuse me—is he going to do that? It’s a ballad!’ But when we got back to the studio after a couple of days he had changed that song. It was amazing and he sent it to Elvis Costello to show Elvis what he had done. And he said, ‘This is fantastic!’ You never know with producers what they’re going to do with their imagination. And Steven’s got a big one. [Laughs]

I read that Steven and you were looking to have Carole King write a song for you, is that still the case?

We were trying to get her, but she told us that she loves to write, but she’s just not writing songs anymore. Which is great, at least she told us how she felt. We understand, she’s out and about now doing a lot of charity work. So that’s really where her focus is, which is wonderful. We understand. We’re all in this business. It’s about right now, and right now she’s not writing.

Have you and Steven talked about what you want the album to sound like? 

The sound that radiates out of me, that Steven actually wants, it always ends up having the Darlene Love signature. That’s why he’s looking to the people that he knows can write for me. You know, look what he did for Home Alone 2 with that Christmas song [“All Alone on Christmas”]? He knows how to record me. This is something my heart has always wanted to do, put out another record that’s not a Phil Spector record. Because people say, ‘Is there anybody that can do another Phil Spector record?’ I don’t want to do another Phil Spector record, I want to do a Darlene Love record! [Laughs] It is 2014 people, it’s not 1963! I want to do this stuff, and people want to hear it. That’s what’s going on right now.

What younger artists right now do you think have the goods to stick around for another 30 or 4o years?

Well, I love Katy [Perry]. I think she’s wonderful. Pharrell. Who would have ever thought the song ‘Happy’ would be so big! I did not know this guy, but the first time I heard that song I went, ‘I love that song!’ They could not play that song enough for me. I very rarely download music, but I made my son download ‘Happy.’

I think we’d all love to hear you do your own version of “Happy.”

I told Steven, ‘Try to get in touch with Pharrell to write something for me!’ [‘Happy’] is so far from what’s going on in the music world, I think that’s what people want to hear. They want to hear something different. And I mean, not only did I love that song, but I don’t know nobody who didn’t love it. I’m talking about secular world and Christian world. Because I’m happy! [Laughs] And I still listen to it. I want to walk around the house, put my earphones on and put that song on. I have it on repeat so I can hear it five or six times. So Pharrell, put the pencil down and write me a song!

I don’t want to spoil your happy mood, but this year is obviously the last one you’ll be performing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the Late Show with David Letterman. I know it’s probably not easy, but out of your 37 performances, is there one that stands out?

There’s actually two. They decided to televise the show [in 2000] to all the military [in Bosnia] and not only that, they had the Singing Sergeants [of the United States Air Force] come and sing “Christmas (Baby…)” with me. So that night was the first night I ever wore a gown. I said, ‘Okay, this is going to be special.’ It resonates in my head what Christmas really means: there was a war that did not happen and now we’re singing to the soldiers and now the Singing Sergeants are with me, and it looked fabulous on television to see them in all their uniforms and me in a gown. So, that’s probably the one I remember most, more than any of them. That and the very first one [in 1986]. How I looked was so funny!

Have you gotten a chance to talk to David Letterman since he announced his retirement?

I got a chance to talk to Paul Shaffer and I said, ‘How are you feeling about all this?’ And he said, ‘Good and bad.’ You know, it will allow him to do more things he wants to do, finally have the time to do it. But he said, ‘Me and you, we’re always going to be connected.’ And I told him, ‘Have you ever thought about maybe me and you should get together around Christmas time and do a gigantic Christmas show?’ He said, ‘You know what, that sounds like a great idea.’ Well, we can do it now!

Are you already thinking about what you’re going to do in the Christmas years to come?

Because I started this with the David Letterman show, I wouldn’t do [“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”] on any television show and it’s not because they say, ‘You better not!’ I just hold that special because people only know that song because I’ve been doing it on David Letterman’s so long. So you know, one night, a couple of years ago, I had a call from the White House to do ‘Christmas (Baby…)’ for the Christmas tree lighting and I told them, ‘Well, I better call the David Letterman show to see if that’s okay.’ I know they thought that was very weird. This is the White House calling… And I did call and talk to Paul and Paul said, ‘David said, of course. We can’t stop you from doing anything like that,’ and then they said, ‘Thank you so much for caring.’ We have a wonderful relationship and now I will be able to go and do that song and not feel obligated, and not that I minded, but now I can say, ‘Yes, I can do that song for you!’ [Laughs] But it’s really not a put on, it’s really special for David Letterman when I do that show. This year, I’ll have to tell him, ‘I guess we’ll have to do it in your yard or your living room!’ How can he live without that song? [Laughs]

Do you have something special planned for this final performance?

You know what, it’s amazing, when I talk to Paul he said, ‘We have to do something fantastic!’ and I said, ‘Well, you always do. How do you top yourself?’ They leave it up to him so all I have to do is show up and sing! So you know I just sit back and wonder what he’s going to do this year. He surely can’t put more people in than he has. One year it was so big with the strings, there was hardly had any room for me to stand. David comes over after I’m done singing, saying, ‘Where did all this people come from? Who’s paying for all of this?’ And I said, ‘You are!’ [Laughs] Last year, I think I was almost in David’s lap. But, I’m waiting just like everybody else for what Paul is going to do. It’s going to be excited, whatever he comes up with.

 

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