Darlene Love
Holiday

How O.G. Christmas Diva Darlene Love Is Keeping Holiday Spirits High

The legendary singer has adapted her annual holiday tour at a time when people need it most.

In July, Darlene Love celebrated her 79th birthday by taking a 7-mile walk across the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in New York. She has always approached her career like an athlete in training — she kickboxes four times a week at 5:30 a.m. — and for the past 21 years, Love’s peak season has been Christmastime.

Love has made roughly 80% of her annual touring income from her yearly Christmas trek alone, spreading holiday cheer with her 1963 classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” This year, the ongoing pandemic made her three-month outing impossible — but Love wasn’t going to miss it. Instead, she’s streaming directly into fans’ homes with her pretaped, pay-per-view Love for the Holidays show on Dec. 5; it will be available through Dec. 25. Around 50 venues, mainly nonprofit performing arts centers, will receive a portion of ticket sales.

Filmed at New York’s Sony Hall, the $35 concert will, of course, feature her Christmas staple, plus a slew of other holiday tunes and Love classics like the Phil Spector-produced “He’s a Rebel” and “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry.”

Love is dedicating the special to the more than 250,000 people in the United States who have died from COVID-19 so far, and to her younger sister, Honey Cone lead singer Edna Wright, who died in September. Love knew the special would help not only her fans through an unprecedented holiday season but also herself as she grieved. “This is what my sister would want me to do,” she says. “I bring that love that I have had for singing and being thankful to God for the gift he has given me. It brings joy to me that I am able to bring joy to people.”

Mackenzie Stroh
Darlene Love photographed on November 14, 2020 in Spring Valley, NY.

The effervescent Love — who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 — has been performing for over 60 years. In addition to the records she made with Spector, she sang backup for acts including The Righteous Brothers, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. “My favorite, favorite, favorite was Sam,” says Love, who sang backing vocals on “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha” and “Chain Gang.” “We came from the exact same thing: His father was a minister; my father was a minister. I never thought — and Sam too — that we’d start singing secular, because we loved singing gospel.”

Love’s career hit a dry spell in the 1970s and early ’80s, and she worked as a maid to make ends meet. As the familiar story goes, she was cleaning a house in Beverly Hills, Calif., and when “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” came on the radio, she knew she had to return to performing. She holds no bitterness from those lean years — she says that cleaning houses “kept me alive. ... I knew, ‘This is only for a moment. I’m going to get over this barrier. I don’t know when or how, but I’m going to get over it.’”

By the mid-’80s, she had moved to New York and landed the starring role in the Tony Award-nominated jukebox musical Leader of the Pack on Broadway. There she met David Letterman’s bandleader, Paul Shaffer, who played Spector in the show. Their friendship led to her annually performing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on Late Show With David Letterman from 1986 to 2014. (She now performs it every year on The View; her 2020 performance is set for Dec. 18.)

Through the decades, new fans keep discovering the hit, such as when Mariah Carey recorded it for her 1994 Merry Christmas album. “Her fans thought Mariah was the original singer of that song,” says Love, who praises Carey’s version. “Well, my fans got with the other fans and said, ‘Mariah wasn’t even alive when Darlene sang that song!’”

Streaming has also brought in more listeners through holiday playlists. For the 2020 chart year ending Jan. 4, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” hit new career highs on Holiday Streaming Songs (No. 11), the Holiday 100 (No. 14) and the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 (No. 29). Before the pandemic, says Love, she became accustomed to seeing up to four generations of families at her shows. “We all know [the pandemic] is going to come to an end. We don’t know when, but I have to be prepared to go out when the time comes,” she says. “I want to pick up right where I left off.”

Love hopes to record a gospel album next; meanwhile, she’s connecting with fans on Instagram, where she offers inspiring Bible verses and fitness clips, and Cameo, where she records messages and songs for fans on special occasions. And even though it has been six years since Oprah Winfrey acquired the rights to her 1998 memoir, My Name Is Love: The Darlene Love Story, to adapt into a movie for her eponymous network, Love still thinks it will have its time. “Things that I believe are going to happen usually happen — and I have faith this is going to happen,” she says. “My life is an inspiration to people.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.