'60s Singer Darlene Love Takes on 'Hairspray'

Ed Gordon talks with 1960s soul singer Darlene Love, currently co-staring on Broadway as Motormouth Maybelle in the musical Hairspray.

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ED GORDON, host:

The Broadway musical "Hairspray" is set during the civil rights era. It combines a love story with a blow for racial justice on the set of a teen-age television dance show.

(Soundbite of "Hairspray")

Cast of "Hairspray": (Singing) ...(Unintelligible). The world keeps spinning round and round and my heart keeps pounding to the beat of sound. I was lost till I heard the drums and I found my way. You can count the beat.

GORDON: One standout in the cast of more than 30 performers is singer Darlene Love. She plays the chatty hairdresser Motormouth Mabel. Love has taken to the stage since she was a Los Angeles teen-ager singing in her gospel choir. She went on to record R&B hits including the classic "He's A Rebel" and "Da Doo Ron Ron." Love's Broadway career includes roles in "Leader of the Pack" and "Grease." She says "Hairspray" reminds her how tough and rewarding live theater can be.

Ms. DARLENE LOVE ("Hairspray"): Most of my friends want to know, `Why in the world are you doing Broadway? Girl, that's a hard life.' (Laughs) But you have to enjoy it, you have to love it, and I happen to really love it.

GORDON: Let's talk about the latest project and I'm sure it's exciting for you. There's a lot of buzz in New York City about the play, the musical "Hairspray," and so many people have raved about it. What's it like for you to be in it?

Ms. LOVE: It's a lot of fun for me to be in it because I tell everybody it's like reliving my life the whole time I'm on stage because back in the '60s I was with a group called the Blossoms and we did a television show called "Shindig!" and they did not want us on the show because we were black. And that same thing happened in "Hairspray." They don't want black children on a white TV show.

(Soundbite of "Shindig!")

Ms. LOVE: (Singing) My, he holds his head up high when he goes walking by. He's my guy.

GORDON: You faced prejudice and racism throughout your career.

Ms. LOVE: Yes, probably because I started so early. I started in the late 50s and it was full blown still.

GORDON: You know, you have been such a trailblazer, but I didn't know that you were the voice behind "Da Doo Ron Ron," and those of us old enough remember that, and "He's A Rebel."

(Soundbite of "He's A Rebel")

Ms. LOVE: (Singing) Just because he doesn't do what everybody else does, oh, that's no reason why I can't give him all my love.

GORDON: Do you ever sit back and just pat yourself on the back to know that you really did lay down and were the forerunner of many girl groups that later on became far more popular?

Ms. LOVE: Yes, I do, because somebody has to do it. The group I sung with, the Blossoms, was actually the first background group to start doing background sessions in California. So it's great to be able to, you know, be a trailblazer. They always remember you. So it's not like, you know, they will forget who you are.

GORDON: You have over the years worked with some remarkable people. You sang background for years with Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. You sang with Elvis and Tom Jones and you sang background on two of what are clearly classic pop hits, and that's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "Unchained Melody."

Ms. LOVE: Yes.

(Soundbite of "Unchained Melody")

Mr. BOBBY HATFIELD: Oh, my love, my darling, I hunger, hunger for your touch.

GORDON: What do you see in terms of the difference, the most glaring difference in the music business that you grew up in and the music business we know today?

Ms. LOVE: Well, you know, I think it's harder today to get into the business. There is no way to really get started. Even with the big record companies, they don't have A&R men anymore. They don't go around looking for new talent. If the new talent is there, they have to go in and spend their own money, most of them, and make their own records. And then hopefully a record company will take them on, but I think you just can't be a singer. You have to know a little bit about every part of our business. So I think it's a little harder today.

GORDON: Let me ask you about the criticism of today's music, and that is that back in the day, you had to be able to sing, if nothing else.

Ms. LOVE: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LOVE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent.

Right.

GORDON: Today, you don't, frankly, and I'm curious how one who clearly can blow looks at that situation.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LOVE: (Singing) It's been a long, long, long time coming, but I know change gonna come.

Well, you know, you cannot judge what goes on in our business because it's all about money. It's not about your talent, evidently, and I've been able to make a good living singing and know that I am a singer. And other singers come along and they can go in the studio now and make them sound great, no matter what they sound like.

(Soundbite of music)

Singers: Ah, ah, oh...

Ms. LOVE: (Singing) Today I met the boy I'm gonna marry. He's all I wanted all my life and even more.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, as relates to music and the importance of it, and I think of an incident, obviously, that touched all of us most recently, and that's the passing of Luther Vandross, who I know was a big fan of yours. And when you look at how music can touch people and touches people, how much do you appreciate that you've been able to set the soundtrack to many people's lives?

Ms. LOVE: That's a really great feeling for all of us that sing and that we--the gift--'cause I say that our gift is a gift from God, and surely Luther's gift was a gift from God, and he was a very good friend of mine. And to be able to leave a legacy of `the music touched you, the music did something to your heart, it made you feel good about yourself or good about life'--I think that's the big difference.

GORDON: Could you ever envision a day that you would not be professionally singing?

Ms. LOVE: No, and I talk about it all the time. (Laughs) I was telling my husband the other day, I said, `Honey, you know, I'll be 65 in a minute. I got to stop doing this stuff,' but my husband say, `Yeah, right. You gonna quit.' But I can't really imagine myself ever not singing, not as long as I'm still healthy and God still gives me the energy and have the voice. No, I doubt it.

GORDON: Well, that's good news for those of us who knows what comes out of your mouth, and you are a wonderful singer. We thank you again for your time. And for those who are in New York or make a trek, we would say, go see this lady, because she truly is one of the great talents of our time.

Ms. LOVE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration")

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS and Ms. LOVE: (Singing) Baby, I can't make it without you.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration")

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS and Ms. LOVE: (Singing) ...it will kill me, I swear it. Dear, my love can't bear it. You're my soul and my heart's inspiration. You're all I've got to get me by. You're my soul...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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