Darlene Love, who performs in celebration of her 75th birthday for Lincoln Center Out of Doors, has had a bumpy road to success. Although her voice was a key component in producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” and dozens of hit recordings in the 1960s, she was denied credit for much of her pioneering work. In the 1970s, she worked as a maid to make ends meet. Love’s return to the stage was slow but steady and the Academy Award–wining documentary 20 Feet from Stardom helped set the record straight. Asked what young singers need to know to make it in the business today, Love distills her top life lessons here.
1. It’s not enough to have a great voice. You have to know the business.
When I first started, we had record producers who would bring you the songs, teach you the songs, take you into the studio. You’d record, but after that it was all in the producer’s hands. You had nothing to do with it. It’s not like that today. There aren’t a lot of record companies left and they don’t want to do anything for you. It’s all on you. Sometimes I tell my audiences, “You don’t know what I went through just to get here.” My day starts at 10:00 am for an 8:00 pm show.
2. Being taken advantage of is a part of this business
Remember that the person taking advantage of you is trying to get ahead, too. That’s what happened with Phil Spector. He used singers to make a name for himself. As the years went by, he looked at us like we were any old instrument, like we weren’t important. But without us to sing his songs, he wouldn’t have been successful.
3. You have to have help along the way.
Take Beyoncé. Her father was always there for her; her mother made her clothes. My good friend Cissy Houston—a great background singer—took care of Whitney Houston when she first started. Whitney’s father was a businessman. She had someone to lean back on. If other people know you have somebody in your corner, they’ll be more leery of taking advantage of you.
4. Even if you don’t have anybody in your corner, you don’t have to be out there by yourself.
Not everyone is blessed to have that kind of family. My background was the church, so I came up in a community of singers. Another way to give yourself a foundation is by being in a group. I was 16 years old when I got with The Blossoms. I ended up being a backup singer, which was good for me because I was around good people like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, and producers like Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. They’re still friends of mine. And when I got ready to sue Phil Spector, I didn’t know who to go to. I found this gentleman. This is what he does. He gets royalties back.
5. The only one I put my whole trust in is God. That’s it.
I had a lot of help along the way, but not all of it was good help. You can’t put your whole trust in anybody. Not even your husband or your sisters or brothers—people who mean well, but might not know anything. Don’t ever get with anybody who doesn’t know more than you do. Weave your way through the maze until you find the right people.
6. Nobody is great when they first start out. You become that person. You really do. No one should expect you to be that person until you’ve been in the business for years. That’s just unthinkable. You should almost be able to say, “Hey, man, this is my first audition.” Or it’s my second or my third or my tenth audition. I’m just starting.
7. Even when they say “Thank you very much,” don’t get all downtrodden.
When I’m doing auditions, I go in with the attitude that I am the best. I’m going to get this job. And when they say, “Thank you very much,” I think, “What the hell?” You just weren’t what they wanted. That doesn’t bother me. That’s why they do auditions.
8. You might need another job to help you get over the rough spots.
Most of us had second jobs. There was no way to get around it. Singers waited tables. They did day work. I got thrust into that as a young adult. My father had died. I had three kids. I couldn’t work. There was no work to be found. Once I’d been out of the business for a couple of years, it really did help me to see where I wanted to go. People who helped me hadn’t known I was in trouble because I kept my head up. If you have to go through that, go through it with dignity.
9. Stay true to who you are.
When you audition, people will want to take you and remake you. When they’re putting all that money into you, you can feel responsible. You might think that you have to do what they say. But that’s not true. You can say, “Hey, wait a minute.” Remember that they saw something in you that they liked. If they didn’t, they would’ve said, “Thank you very much. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
9 Songs from Darlene Love