It was a crisp Wednesday evening in early December last year, and there was an almost sold-out crowd at Peekskill’s Paramount Hudson Valley Theater. The excited audience has come to see Darlene Love, often called the Queen of Christmas, perform her much-anticipated holiday show.
She’s on stage in full makeup, a glittery gown, and oh, my goodness, could it be — yes, those are four-inch–high red stilettoes. The 77-year-old Love is working the crowd like the consummate entertainer she is. She is enthralling to listen to and has seemingly boundless energy. For the next two hours — save one intermission and a short break when she throws the spotlight to her trio of wonderfully talented singers — she commands the stage with her powerhouse vocals on a thrilling mix of her rock & roll songs and holiday classics.
Chances are, you’re a huge fan of songstress Darlene Love — but didn’t know it. You may not know her name, but you definitely will recognize her songs. The Rockland County resident is the voice behind many1960s mega hits, including “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “He’s a Rebel,” and “Be My Baby” — and, of course, what everyone at the Paramount has come to hear: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
You might say that always being in the background is the refrain of Love’s own song. For so long a backup singer and not the lead, Love has nonetheless enjoyed a long and varied career.
For the general public, the spotlight only first shone on her directly in 2011 when she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (with an introduction speech by long-time fan Bette Midler). And then again when she appeared in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers, 20 Feet from Stardom, and accepted the Academy Award onstage, receiving a standing ovation from the audience. She herself won a Grammy for the film’s soundtrack.
Ranked No. 84 among Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers, Love is an iconic talent who personifies the vocals of the ’60s girl group sound. She has performed with and sung backup for such legends as Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Cher, and Aretha Franklin and acted on stage and in film, including Broadway’s Hairspray and all four Lethal Weapon movies
— as the wife of Danny Glover’s character. Indeed, Love has been wowing audiences for more than half a century.
Born as Darlene Wright into a minister’s family in Los Angeles, Love grew up singing in her church choir. In 1959 at age 16, she joined a girl group called The Blossoms that did recording session work and was signed by Capitol Records. In 1962, she was introduced to producer Phil Spector for whom she sung lead on “He’s A Rebel.” That single — which was incorrectly attributed to another group, The Crystals — went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Love was busy working mostly behind the scenes in the music world until the late 1970s, when she took a hiatus to raise her family; during that time, she worked at a dry cleaner and cleaning houses to help support them. In the early ’80s, while cleaning a house in Beverly Hills, Love heard her song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the radio and took it as a sign that it was time to rededicate herself to her singing career.
Although achieving the same level of success as a solo artist as she had as a backup singer did not come easily, her manager estimates that this year alone she will have played between 45-50 holiday and other shows in such places as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Las Vegas.
Several months after seeing last year’s holiday show in Peekskill, and a few days after she turned 78, Love and I caught up on the phone. Just as engaging one-on-one as she is on stage, she exudes a warm, upbeat energy. Indeed, Love possesses that enviable quality of speaking with a smile in her voice and even though — like anyone who has made her way in a tough biz — she has had more than her share of bumps and bruises, she seems happy and content.
After moving to the East Coast from California about 30 years ago, Love first lived in Manhattan and then settled in Rockland County, a location she likes for its easy commute to the city for when she works there. And while she loves the area, she laments the increase in population, and thus traffic since she first settled here. “What used to take five minutes to drive on local roads now takes thirty,” she says.
Love lives in a 1980s Tudor in a quiet, family neighborhood with her third husband, Alton Allison, whom she married in 1984; Allison enjoys gardening and sharing tips about it with their younger neighbors amid the lush flowers and shrubbery in their front yard. None of her family members — including Allison and her three sons, eight grandsons, and one great-granddaughter — are in the music business, except for her sister, singer Edna Wright. And while most of her family lives in California, they frequently visit back and forth.
The only member of her family to live nearby is Rose Moye, a dancer and actress she refers to as her “spiritual daughter.” The two met two decades ago in London when they were in a short-lived production of Carrie and made an instant and enduring connection; Love peppers her conversation with frequent references to “my daughter” and it’s obvious they are very close. In fact, it is at Moye’s home in nearby Connecticut — with whatever other family members can be there — that the voice of so many Christmas classics celebrates the holiday.
Love, who describes herself as a homebody on those rare instances when she is actually there — her manager estimates that she’s home only five to ten days a month — doesn’t eat out a lot but brings in often from local restaurants. And while she has officially retired from cooking, back in the day she says she was known for her traditional collard greens, yams, “mean ham,” and lemon cake.
When at home, the singer enjoys reading mystery novels and tries to meditate when she wakes up. She also loves the sun, spending several weeks each winter in Jamaica where she visits with her husband’s family.
What you won’t find Love doing much of is cleaning her own home. When she was dusting the knick knacks and beating the carpets in her grandmother’s home while growing up and then while cleaning other people’s houses, says Love, a gift she asked the Lord for someday was someone else to clean her own home — and now she has it. “My cleaning lady knows how particular I am,” she says. “If I did it myself, I’d take a full day on each room, and I just don’t have the time.”
When Love does venture out locally, favorite excursions include shopping at the Palisades Center and Woodbury Common, and movie date nights at The Shops at Nanuet. Unlike her glam onstage persona, in everyday life she doesn’t wear makeup — just lip gloss and moisturizer with sun block — and always dons sunglasses. In winter, you’ll find her in sweats and a hat, with a scarf always wrapped around her throat.
So how does this septuagenarian force of nature keep up her energy level and her seemingly ageless appearance? She tries to eat as healthily as possible and to stay hydrated, drinking up to 64 ounces of water a day; she also likes using the steam room and sauna at a local fitness center. And Love has been dedicated to fitness since she was 16 — whether it was following along with Jack LaLanne on TV, using the Jane Fonda tapes, or going to the gym.
Her workout of choice for the last eight years? Every weekday she’s in town she wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to go to a 5 a.m., one-hour kickboxing class taught by Moye in Connecticut. She assures me that she doesn’t attend the class the day before and the day of her performances — but only because Moye won’t let her.
So what’s next for this indefatigable rock icon? Not content to sit on the proverbial porch swing, this glam-ma plans to continue to strut her stuff on stage and screen until she feels that she can’t give it her all. A Netflix movie — Holiday Rush — in which she plays an aunt, drops next month. She is also considering limited residencies in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and New York City, and while this year she’s not scheduled to play the Paramount in Peekskill, you can see her at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut on December 7 and tune in when she celebrates her five-year anniversary performing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on The View on December 20.
Clearly, Love shows no signs of slowing down — she has the energy of someone half her age and is still delivering those same powerhouse vocals. Will she ever retire? “I doubt it,” she says. “I don’t see anything to retire for as long as I am in good health and can perform the way I always did.” Lucky us!