“Twenty Feet from Stardom”: Documentary Places Backup Singers Front and Center

By Titus Falodun Staff Writer | 7/12/2013, 5:21 p.m.
Behind soft lips and infectious smiles, backup singers hide their unheralded voices and unforgettable stories.
Darlene Love, backup singing trailblazer, shines on screen in the refreshingly nostalgic music documentary "Twenty Feet from Stardom," which is playing now at local theaters in Atlanta. (Photo by RADiUS-TWC).


AV: What does your reissued book “My Name is Love,” contain in it?

LOVE: It talks about what I saw and what I was involved with, while I was in the background business. And it’s all there.

Yeah, more grittier stuff when it comes to me. You know about using guns when I was crazy. [Laughter]

My pastor was really funny, and he goes, “Oh I just can’t wait to see this movie, because this girl will shoot you.” [Laughter]

AV: Did you ever understand the magnitude of your role as a pioneering black female background singer?

LOVE: No. Matter fact, we didn’t even realize that we were starting to do background for people who had never used black singers before. At that time, I was singing with the group The Blossoms. And our manager was a vocal coach but he was also an arranger in the business, back in the 50s.

One day somebody asked him if he knew any background singers that could sing. They didn’t ask if they were black. They just wanted to know if he knew any singers that could do a recording session. And he told us that we were going to do it. Of course, we were all petrified because we never did a recording session before.

All we knew was that we could sing and we could harmonize.

AV: How did the church help you in your singing career?

LOVE: My father was a minister and a pastor. And I had a sister and three brothers. Back in the mid 50s and early 60s, you had churches but they were very small congregations. You were lucky if you had 25 members.

So if we had one person who could sing, they would pick out other people who could sing in the church. And they would teach us. We all started by singing in unison. And whoever was leading us would give us an alto part or soprano part. And that’s why it became so easy for us, because we had been doing it most of our lives.

AV: Were Phil Spector confrontations the reason for you leaving the industry for a brief stretch?

LOVE: That was it. Not only was I going through with Phil, my father had died. I was a going through a divorce. And I had three sons to take care of. And it wasn’t mixing and putting all that in the bowl, and stirring it up—it was mixing it all.

And I had to find a way to make a living outside of the music business. No matter where I went I couldn’t find any work. One of the biggest reasons was never a member of The Crystals. I couldn’t say that

My grandmother did day work and so did my mother. They knew somebody that needed to clean, and they looked at me very strange. And I said, “Yes.” And I started doing day work. I was making like a $100 a day, making enough money to feed my family, to put gas in the car—everyday living.

AV: What are your thoughts on today’s singing talent?

LOVE: I have a problem with today’s “crap” of talent. [Laughter] Crop.

The problem is when we were coming up; we didn’t have to take our clothes off. We didn’t have to scrunch and do all the kind of stuff that they’re doing on the stage today to make ourselves great talent.

We have people like Justin Bieber saying, “I paid my dues.” What dues did you pay, when you came straight from your mama’s house into a world and became a superstar?

What are you going to rely on when this is gone? And believe me, the day is coming, no matter who they are. The day is coming, unless you got something else going for you.

Tina was as fabulous and fine as she was. She had to slow down. She had to stop. And I don’t think there’s anybody today who can touch her with her energy, in her heyday.