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The swaggering real-life Jeff Koons statue named Elvis Presley is hot again. Eugene Jarecki’s June-released documentary The King involves a road trip taken in Elvis’s old Rolls to survey his impact on the culture and determine that the American dream the singer represented is officially dead. (But oh, when it lasted!) Even darker is the film’s exploration of Presley’s appropriation of African-American culture, covering songs like “Hound Dog” — originally a non-hit for the brilliant Big Mama Thornton — and making them rock and sell. For singers like Thornton, the American dream never existed.
Enter powerhouse singer Darlene Love, who is represented on another new project, Where No One Stands Alone, a fourteen-track compilation of Elvis’s gospel work due out August 10 on RCA/Legacy. The L.A.-born minister’s daughter started singing in the church choir at ten, on the road to being scooped up by producer Phil Spector to belt hits like “He’s a Rebel,” “Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” and “Christmas (Baby,Please Come Home).” The lead voice of such groups as the Blossoms and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, Love ended up working as a maid in the Eighties, but when she heard one of her old hits on the radio while she was scrubbing, it inspired her to get back into performing full-time. Her appearance in the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom was memorable, especially when it addressed the way Spector promised her a solo career, but gave other singers credit for her work.
Also on Darlene’s calendar: a concert at Graceland on August 13, hosted by Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, to kick off Elvis Week; and then a headlining spot at the annual European Elvis Festival in Germany. I recently talked to Darlene about her backup singing for Elvis, and how she feels about the King’s relationship to the music he both co-opted and celebrated.
Hi, Darlene. What is some of the gospel work you did with Elvis?
There is “Let Us Pray,” the one from the movie we did with Elvis, Change of Habit. That was his last film.
It was in 1969, with Elvis as a doctor and Mary Tyler Moore as a nun.
We, the Blossoms, are in the first scene. And we were in his 1968 comeback special [Singer Presents … ELVIS].
His new gospel compilation album should be quite interesting.
They [recently] had me do some fill-ins, what we call ad libs, throughout the album to make it sound more gospel. I haven’t heard it yet. Hopefully it’s a wonderful thing.
Elvis went to church and listened to gospel singers to soak up what they did, right?
Even today, it’s more mixed than it was in the Fifties and Sixties. Whites and blacks didn’t go to church together back then. What Elvis told me he would do — we had night service on Sunday night when we did what we called “praise songs.” A lot of them were songs he loved, what we called “hymn songs.”
We didn’t have air conditioners. We had pushup windows, with a little rope. Elvis said he would stand outside the church rather than going in, because they didn’t think black and white should be in the same churches together. He said he would listen through the windows. It gave him such a thrill. It’s a big difference between the way blacks sang gospel and the way whites sang gospel.
Do you feel he was dedicated to the music or he was just taking it for himself?
I found out years later, when we were doing the comeback special, that his mother’s favorite music was gospel. He would always sing gospel around her. I think if he could have had a big career in gospel music, that’s where he would have been. But you can always make more money off secular hits. Elvis had 10 or 15,000 people come to his shows to see him. Today, they have mega churches that hold 25,000, but back then, you were doing great if you had 500 people.
I bet they have air conditioning now.
Oh, lord, yes. [Laughs] I lived in Texas for five years as a young kid with my father, and it was so hot we couldn’t even breathe. There was no air conditioning in church or the house. What a difference it makes to have a cool ensemble. You still sweat because of the energy, but back then, we were soaking wet, when we sang in church.
I love gospel music. If I had a calling — meaning from the Lord — just to sing gospel, I would have, but the secular music got to more people. I bet a lot of secular singers like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin felt the same way. They never paid us no money. “Do it unto the Lord.” “OK.” [Laughs] We would drive to the gigs and they’d give you an offering — gas money. They were hardly giving us a whole lot of money. But it was worth it, every penny of it. It was a wonderful experience singing gospel.
But was Elvis appropriating the music, or that’s just the way it was?
That’s just the way it was. A lot of people think a white person is copying the black person. He just loved the music and he was singing it the way he felt. He sang “Hound Dog” completely different than Mama Thornton. [Elvis’s version was rock, whereas Thornton’s was blues.] Even today, they take secular music and put it in gospel, and vice versa. You know, Elvis won three Grammys, and they were all for gospel records.
What were your experiences like with Elvis?
One time, Elvis decided we’d all go to the movies. He bought this theater out that night.
What did you watch — Change of Habit?
Don’t even ask me. I don’t remember. [Laughs] We had a lot of free time when we were recording and when we were making the movie. That’s when the Blossoms and myself got a chance to know the gospel side of Elvis. He’d want to know the songs we knew. He’d get his guitar and say, “You know this song?” “Yes, we grew up on it.” He’d say, “Let’s do it.”
Was he funny or serious?
He was funny and he was serious sometimes. If he didn’t think he was doing great, he’d say, “Hey, girls, how’m I doing?” He was very, very funny. I call it that “country funny.” He would do his moves in the studio the way he was gonna do them onstage. It made it easy to be around him, but sometimes it was not easy because his bodyguards were keeping people from him. He wanted to be with the Blossoms, where he could pull out his guitar. We’d say, “We think you’d better go. You’re gonna get us in trouble.” We’d never forget, because he’d be giving us his personal time.
You’d just be hanging out and singing?
Yes! Whatever song he knew — “Amazing Grace” or “River of Jordan” or “Heaven Is a Wonderful Place” or “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” We called them hymns of the church. There was another one called “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” The Blossoms were known for their harmony. We’d harmonize with him. There’s something we had with Elvis that others didn’t have. It was fun to be wanted by someone like Elvis Presley.
He had tremendous respect for you.
Yes, he did. That was great. I always say he left us way too soon. He is where I plan to go one day, so I’ll see him again.
You were all rather young and great-looking. Was there any sexual tension in the air?
There was. It could have been. But I was too scared to do anything.
You fool! [Laughs] Kidding. You wanted to keep it professional.
And I definitely did. Something about dating someone you’re working for, it takes away from that. “I know he’s never gonna look at me the same after this.” [Laughs] He’d start playing with me. He’d tap you on the shoulder or do a hip shake, and me and Elvis knew what that meant.
Yeah, I think so, and I think it showed his human side. I wasn’t bad-looking — and I was thin, too. [Laughs] He wanted to take out time and be around us. The reason we sang on his ’68 comeback special is he was the one that insisted that the Blossoms sing in the music section of the show.
So Elvis treated you better than Phil Spector did?
Oh my God, I’d say so.
That’s an easy one.
That’s a real easy one. Phil took advantage of me and my talent. With Elvis, he wanted us to work, and we got paid well. It wasn’t like Phil Spector cracking the whip and us running around!