Queens gets some love from rock ‘n’ roll legend

Darlene Love brings her act to the Kupferberg Center for the Arts on Oct. 15.
Photo by Christopher Logan
By Steve Barnes

Like most performers, Darlene Love has a lot to think about when she’s on stage—set lists, cues from the other musicians and all of the other things that go into putting on a show. But her biggest consideration, she says, is making sure that the audience has a good time.

“People say that being at one of my shows is like being in my living room,” Love says. “I invite the audience to get up and dance, and to sing along if they know the words. As much as I like singing, that’s how much I want them to enjoy themselves.”

That’s a request that audiences around the world have been responding to for many years. If you’re a fan of classic rock n’ roll, you certainly know who Darlene Love is—and even if you’re not, you’ve almost certainly heard her voice. Not only has she sung in the studio with such performers as Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick and Elvis Presley, she’s the lead singer on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and takes center stage for several tracks on the legendary 1963 holiday record “A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector.” One song from that album, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” became something of a national tradition when David Letterman began having Love on his show to perform it nearly every Christmas season from 1986 to 2014.

Queens audiences will have a chance to hear that unique voice in person when Love comes to the Colden Auditorium at Queens College’s Kupferberg Center for the Arts Oct. 15. Headlining a show that also includes Sonny Turner, former lead singer of the The Platters, and the doo-wop group The Duprees, Love will put on a show that showcases both her biggest hits and songs from her most recent album, “Introducing Darlene Love,” which was released last year.

The name of that album is, of course, just a little bit tongue-in-cheek. While her musical career spans over 50 years, for much of that time Love was a behind-the-scenes presence in the music business, a story that is told in the 2014 Academy Award-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” But now, she is back out in front and making the most of it.

“Introducing Darlene Love” came into being because of the efforts of Steven Van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen sideman and cast member of “The Sopranos.” Love says that Van Zandt’s encouragement was the main reason she came to New York, where she became an almost contant presence from the 1980s on, playing such clubs as the Bottom Line and the Peppermint Lounge. But it took over 30 years for the two to finally capture Love’s unique appeal on record. Like her stage shows, the album is a highly entertaining mix of the old and the new, including the classic “River Deep, Mountain High” alongside songs that were tailor-made for Love by an A-list of songwriting talent. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb and Joan Jett all contributed songs that feature what Love says is the main focus of her singing.

“I am a rock ’n’ roll singer,” she said. “There aren’t too many of us left, especially the women.” That rock ’n’ roll edge is always there in everything she sings. She also noted that Van Zandt brought out the best in her, pushing her to give her best. “When you are in the studio with Stevie,” Love said, “you are always working.”

But then again, it seems like Love is always working no matter who her collaborators are. A short stint in the off-Broadway musical “Trip of Love” earlier this year is just one example. Her Broadway credits include “Grease” and a run of over two years as Motormouth Maybelle in “Hairspray.” Love says that performing in a Broadway show is just about the hardest work there is.

“Nothing compares,” she said. “You have to be in great voice, every day, eight shows a week.”

It’s that kind of discipline and stamina that have kept Love going. Coming up on her itinerary is a PBS production, “Love Songs,” that is a collaboration with another star from rock n’ roll’s golden era—Bobby Rydell. “We just loved doing that,” Love said, and she and Rydell are planning to perform together on stage in the future.

Love will also be appearing at this year’s “Hulaween,” the annual costume ball put together by Bette Midler to benefit the New York Restoration Project, a group that works to provide green spaces for all of New York’s residents. “Bette and I have been friends for a long time,” Love said. “She knew that I sang on the original ‘Monster Mash,’ so she insisted I perform that.”

When asked about how today’s music business compares with the one she came up in, Love says that young musicans “don’t have a lot of help.”

She cited the lack of disc jockeys and record stores as being two things that make it much harder for new artists to get their work into the public eye. “If you aren’t internet savvy,” she said, “you’re not going to make it.”

Love has a contract with Van Zandt to make another record, however, so it’s fair to say that she’s made it for good.

Love’s show at Colden Auditorium is at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15. The auditorium is at 65-30 Kissena Blvd. in Flushing, and ticket prices range from $45 to $75. For more information, go to kupferbergcenter.org.

More from Around New York