Says who? Having weathered countless career ups and downs, including an all-time low in the early '80s that found her scrubbing floors in some of L.A.'s wealthiest homes, Love, 57, has rebounded more boldly than ever with a new autobiography, My Name Is Love, a gospel album, Unconditional Love, and a coveted nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which announces its new members this month. And movie fans may know her now as Danny Glover's mystery-writer wife in the durable Lethal Weapon series. Given all that she had to come back from, a lesser soul might have called it quits years ago, but Love didn't. "I never get to the point," she says, "where I say life gave me a bum deal."
It wasn't always a fair deal, though. Still in saddle shoes when producer Phil Spector offered her the lead vocal on 1962's "He's a Rebel," credited to the Crystals, the 20-year-old Love leapt at the chance to record it for a flat fee of $3,000. But when the record sold more than 3 million copies, Spector didn't pay her anything more. In 1993 she sued him and in 1997 won $263,500 from Spector in back royalties, an amount he claimed he didn't owe, since, according to him, Love was never under contract. "Oh, please!" she now scoffs. "What did I know about a hit record?"
A lot, in her own way. With Spector in charge, Love turned up the volume, sometimes anonymously, on scores of early rock and roll gems, including "He's Sure the Boy I Love," "Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home" and "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah," the last billed to Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. "Sometimes," she says of Spector's hit factory, "you would do three or four songs in one session."
Even in fast company, Love stood out. "Darlene liked to talk loud, Darlene liked to laugh loud," recalls singer Cissy Houston, a friend from those early days. "But that was just her. She had a big, loud personality."
One of four children born to the late Joe Wright, a Pentecostal minister, and his wife, Ellen, Love developed her boisterous style growing up in East Los Angeles and San Antonio, where her father's fervor as a preacher left a lasting impression. "You heard of fire and brimstone?" she says. "Lord, the Devil himself never saw this much fire!"
Though Love sang from an early age in the church choir, she didn't consider a music career until 1957, when friends invited her to join their all-girl group, the Blossoms, after hearing her perform at a wedding. Her father disapproved at first of her secular singing, but later relented. Soon the Blossoms were in the studio, providing background harmonies for Sam Cooke and Bobby Darin. "I got a big kick out of going back to school and telling everyone what I did over the weekend," Love recalls with a smile.
In 1959 her marriage to high school football star Leonard Peete—and the birth of her first son, Marcus, now 37 and a security manager—put a temporary end to her exciting new life. But Love bounced back, singing backup for Elvis Presley on hits like "If I Can Dream" and in the '70s for Dionne Warwick.
At long last, in the early 1980s, on the advice of Bill Medley, one of the Righteous Brothers, with whom she had an extended affair, Love reached for her dream—a solo career—and fell on her face. "It was fine for a couple of months," she says. "But once I left Los Angeles, it was like, 'Who is Darlene Love?' "
Once the work dried up, even Love began to wonder. After her breakup from second husband Wesley Mitchell (whom she wed in 1970 after divorcing Peete two years earlier), she took any gig she could get, including housework, to support her two younger sons, Chawn, now 34, and Jason, 28. The strangest part, she remembers, was driving to housekeeping jobs in her already paid-for Mercedes. "What was I supposed to do," asks Love, "go and buy a new car?"
One Christmas Day in the early '80s, Love was dusting a bedroom mirror in a Beverly Hills home when her own "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" from 1963 came on the radio. "I just kind of stood there for a minute," she recalls. "That really, really hurt me." Fighting back tears, Love says, she thought, "God didn't give me this talent to sing in the bathroom." She prayed for help and asked for it from her old friend Dionne Warwick. "Let me see what I can do," Warwick responded, and came up with $5,000. The loan helped Love support her children for about a year until her ship came in—literally—in the form of a singing job on a Carnival Cruise liner known, aptly in her case, as The Love Boat. On her first voyage she met Alton Allison, the ship's chief steward, whom she married in 1984. Today, the couple live with their dog Flexx in a Dutch colonial three-bedroom home in suburban Spring Valley, N.Y.
By 1985, Love's faith had been repaid—as had Warwick's loan. "What can I say?" says Warwick. "She's serious about her craft." After Love made a guest appearance in a Christmas concert with Sonny Bono and other '60s icons at New York City's Bottom Line, she landed a role in Leader of the Pack, a short-lived Broadway musical, and other acting jobs, leading up to Lethal Weapon in 1987. "Danny Glover is like a big teddy bear," Love says of her onscreen mate. "He helped me a lot with my part."
When her old songs began attracting renewed interest on the radio and were included in movie soundtracks for GoodFellas and Father of the Bride, Love's old fans—and many new ones—were thrilled. "It did take about a decade," says Love, who has belted out "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on The Late Show with David Letterman every December since 1994. "But it is amazing when you really have a goal and you focus your mind."
It wasn't until her fortunes were finally secure that Love chose to settle accounts with Phil Spector. Though a jury determined that she should receive royalties back to 1987, Spector is appealing the decision. Yet even today, Love is able to say of the reclusive producer, "I don't really hate him. I have a career because of those records." Besides, after all she has been through, a bit of turbulence doesn't throw her off course. "Nothing about my life is simple," she says with mischievous understatement. "There's always something exciting going on."
Julia Campbell in New York City