The first thing you notice in conversation with Darlene Love is the laugh.
It's deep, unforced and reflective of a spirit that is as jovial as it is resolute. Then you realize those are also the qualities that have fortified her singing throughout a tumultuous 50-year career that has made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee a true artistic survivor.
"What people have to understand is that if you're getting more good than bad out of something, it's always worth it," said Love, 72, who performs Wednesday at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. "But you have to keep on, you have to see to your goals and your dreams, and keep moving forward.
"We all have bumps in the road. We have barricades. But my whole thing about that is this: A barricade is nothing but something you have to get over. That's what I've done most of my life. Once you get over it, the joy on the other side is very fulfilling. So you just have to keep pressing on."
Love established her reputation in the early '60s with a series of recordings produced by Phil Spector. The first, 1962's power pop-soul He's a Rebel, was made with the California girl group The Blossoms.
But just as Spector's famed Wall of Sound recording technique helped establish Love's jubilant singing, the producer kept a tight lid on the recognition and exposure she received. He's a Rebel, in fact, was credited by Spector to another group (The Crystals), thus robbing Love of the critical attention she should have received for what was the first record to feature her on lead vocals.
Spector did the same thing with the similarly infectious, He's Sure the Boy I Love. It was to have been Love's debut solo single, but Spector released it as another ghost hit for The Crystals.
Love doesn't harbor resentment over such turns, preferring to focus on the innocence and joy that pervaded those early Spector records.
"You figure I recorded these songs over 50 years ago — well, the majority of them I'm still singing in my show. The whole idea is that it still feels good to me to sing these songs, because I call them feel-good songs — you know, (Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry," she said referring to the 1963 Spector-produced single. "All the things you say when you're young. You didn't think about the man you were going to marry. It was, 'I met this boy and we're going to get married.' They make me feel good also, so that feeling is conveyed to my audience."
If fame for Love was kept at bay by Spector in the early stages of her career, it was upheld and profoundly promoted in recent years by two unlikely supporters.
The first was filmmaker Morgan Neville. In the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, he chronicled Love's career and those of several other veteran singers who attempted the transition from established back-up singer to lead vocalist.
"I have a lot of fans that, when they saw the movie — with their parents, maybe even their grandparents — were like, 'Wow. Here is somebody we've heard all our lives but didn't have a clue who she was.' They never pictured Darlene Love like that.
"Morgan Neville found out things even I had forgotten about," Love said, erupting again into a buoyant laugh. "For instance, I didn't remember singing River Deep Mountain High with Tom Jones on TV. But I forget some of these things after 50 years. So they really took time to dig down deep into these stories. They did their homework."
The other hero in the latter stages of Love's career has been David Letterman.
Love's performance of the Spector-produced holiday classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) has been an annual tradition on the comedian's late-night show since 1986, when he was still affiliated with NBC.
"This all started with the little show we did at The Bottom Line in New York called Leader of the Pack. Paul Shaffer invited David down to see it. He liked it, but the one particular thing that stood out was that Christmas song. And on his TV show one night, he said, 'We need to get her on the show to sing that. That's the greatest Christmas song I've ever heard.'
"I thought I'd maybe do it that one year. Then he said, 'No, we want you on next year, too." Then it turned into 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, and here we are."
With Letterman retiring in 2015, this year's performance — her 29th yearly appearance — will be bittersweet. Still, Love can only look at the up side.
"You know, I'm going to call him and say, 'You sure you can't make it a nice, round number like 30?'"
Of course, what followed the remark was the greatest music of all: more laughter.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.