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).