Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, June 21 2018

It maybe didn’t qualify as the strangest sight that’s ever been seen around these parts; that day a few summers ago when a cherry-red classic Cadillac convertible eased onto the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury Park boardwalk, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers, and numbering among its passengers the runaway rocker Joan Jett, and a surfboard-toting Paul Shaffer.

But for the woman behind the wheel, that sunny afternoon in July 2015 represented the home stretch of a fifty-plus years journey; one marked by detours off the main road every bit as much as victory laps. After a long career as that uncredited voice behind the hit song, or that kind-of familiar face on the movie screen, or that seasoned professional working her craft “twenty feet from stardom,” Darlene Love was finally in the driver’s seat, as the justly celebrated superstar of her own story.

The occasion was the filming of the official music video for “Forbidden Nights,” the (Elvis Costello-penned) single from the (Steven Van Zandt-produced) album Introducing Darlene Love — and as a crowd of camera-ready fans gathered in front of the shoot’s beachtop stage, the star of the show explained to a “making of” documentary crew that the people of Asbury Park “adopted me as their own…so when I come here, I automatically have fans that I didn’t know I had.”

A little more than a month later, Darlene Love was back on the boards; this time as the headline attraction for a Paramount Theater concert organized and produced by Van Zandt — one that found the veteran voice of countless Phil Spector recording sessions recreating that fabled “Wall of Sound” with the full faith and fury of the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra. The vivacious vocalist whose 1960s work so inspired Van Zandt and his E Street Boss has returned many times to the area since; notably for a series of Yuletide-season concerts at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre.

As Ms. Love tells it, those shows grew out of the handful of songs that she performed on the Spector-produced A Christmas Gift for You, the 1963 album that overcame its bad-timing debut (it was released on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination) — as well as its Bad Santa association with the now jailed-for-life impresario — to trailblaze an entire new market for pop/rock holiday LPs. While Darlene appeared on the record as a member of Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (whose space-age Spectorization of the Disney tune “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” was an oddball hit that caught the ear of young Springsteen) — and was billed under her own name for a set of secular seasonal favorites that included “Marshmallow World” (co-written by hit composer Peter DeRose, who owned a home on Asbury Park’s Eighth Avenue) — the real standout track was “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the thrilling Ellie Greenwich-Jeff Barry original that, as it turns out, had a very influential fan in the person of one David Letterman.

“Dave gave me a brand new career,” she says of the late night host who made a tradition of inviting her to perform her signature “Christmas” song on his show a total of 29 times, beginning in 1986. “He dubbed me the Christmas Queen…and I’ve been really blessed to be remembered for it by so many people.”

Among the people who took notice from the start was the restaurateur-entrepreneur-philanthropist and eternal Shore musicmaker Tim McLoone, whose concerts with the positive force known as Holiday Express drew a tremendous part of their sonic signature from Love’s classic Christmas repertoire. In a break from the big-event settings for which the singer is best known, the bandleader has invited her to perform several times with his combo The Shirleys, in the more intimate environment of Tim McLoone’s Supper Club. On Friday night, June 22, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love joins Tim and the Shirleys for a special summertime set, inside McLoone’s sophisticated space at the top of the space-age landmark that famously and formerly housed Asbury’s HoJo’s restaurant. Set to start at 8 pm, it’s an evening that promises “a mix of my songs…I never know what we’re gonna do until he calls me” (it’s also, happily but also sadly, an event that’s apparently sold out as we post this).

“I’ve always liked Tim, and for me, singing at his club is like coming home,” says the LA native who makes her actual home these days in New York’s Rockland County. “I surprised him on his birthday last year, when I went onstage with him…we’ll probably do one or two songs together on June 22nd. But no Christmas songs in the summer! Well, maybe ‘All Alone on Christmas’ (the Van Zandt-penned song that she contributed to the soundtrack of Home Alone 2).”

Picking and choosing from Darlene Love’s recorded legacy is an activity that takes in a whole Grammy museum’s worth of musical milestones; with her vocal presence (as a member of the in-demand Blossoms) making itself felt on records ranging from Sinatra’s “That’s Life” to Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” – and her stage and studio resume encompassing additional work with Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Tom Jones, the Righteous Brothers, and Dionne Warwick (just to name a frankly awesome few). Veteran record hounds know that hers was the voice on Spector’s monumental “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” (both credited to The Crystals), in addition to her own girl group-era hits “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home.”

While the records released under her name failed to elevate her to the upper echelon of stardom, they would pave the way for her career-revival appearance in the Broadway show Leader of the Pack (regarded as the first “jukebox” musical), and subsequent stage projects like Hairspray (“Motormouth Maybelle was the biggest and best role I ever had”), Grease — and even the infamous flop musicalization of Stephen King’s Carrie, which opened and closed in one night (“although we did it in Europe first…I played the schoolteacher”).

“Doing a Broadway show is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” says the performer who actually made a living cleaning houses, during an early 1980s career lull. “You do eight shows a week… a lot of times on your day off you’ll be expected to promote the show on TV…and going out on tour with the show is even harder; much harder than doing a concert tour.”

The years of hard work paid off, however, with Love’s 2011 elevation to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor of which she says, “It’s not about how many records you sold, but what you have done for the music industry…and it was a fight for me to get recognized. I was age 40 when I decided to really get serious about doing a solo career.”

Darlene struck a blow for backup singers everywhere when she (and her many tales of life in the shadow of many a headlining star) emerged as the standout voice of the 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom  — and when the film received an Academy Award, it was Darlene Love (whose own screen acting career saw her appear as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon features) who represented the project with a gospel-singing acceptance that elicited a standing ovation from the auditorium of Hollywood heavyweights.

“That was a shock, really…I didn’t know we had a chance of winning, and I didn’t have a chance to prepare,” she insists. “But when you’re on stage, you’re all about the show…and when I’m out on tour, I don’t do anything else BUT the show.”

“If I had to take drugs to go on stage, to go to bed or get up the morning, I wouldn’t do it,” the 76 year old dynamo sums up. “Our business will make you strong, or it will kill you…and you have to be the judge of where you draw that line.”