NEW YORK • She’s a rebel in stilettos and an ever-present smile.
Fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, along with musicians from Franklin L. Williams Middle School in Jersey City, N.J., helped Darlene Love showcase her high-voltage talents last week as she was honored at a rollicking Manhattan benefit.
"I’m really happy and really excited about what’s going on in my life right now; it can’t get any better than this," Love, who’s a jaw-droppingly youthful 72, said in an interview.
Rock Hallers Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers and Elvis Costello launched the Lovefest benefiting Little Kids Rock, which provides musical instruments and lessons for budget-strapped schools. The charity named its annual Big Man of the Year award for E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons in 2009, two years before he died.
Seeing the "kids’ faces light up and the joy they get out of making music" keeps "your energy level up," says Love.
In that environment, "you’re either going to be 72 ... or you’re going to be a teenager. And I prefer to be a teenager."
The benefit also featured Steven Van Zandt, last year’s winner and Love’s longtime champion; saxophonist Jake Clemons, the Big Man’s nephew; and other members of Bruce Springsteen’s musical posse. Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s musical director, took a turn on the keyboard.
Love, who was discovered as a teenager, powered producer Phil Spector’s "Wall of Sound." Her resume "almost defies belief," says her Rock Hall biography.
But "for much of her life she worked in relative anonymity in studios and on stages, backing up others," it says. "... Love is best known for ‘He’s a Rebel,’ a song credited to the Crystals that was ... sung by Love and her vocal group, the Blossoms."
Her roller-coaster life is detailed in a biography, "My Name Is Love," and the movie "20 Feet From Stardom," a hit at the most recent Sundance Film Festival.
During one dry spell, she worked as a maid. Her employers didn’t know those old hits on their radios were recorded by the woman scrubbing their toilets.
She toils in obscurity no more. Love was inducted into the Rock Hall in 2011.
On Thursday night, Love and Medley wowed the crowd with "(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration" and "You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling."
She also rendered a feel-good "Don’t Worry Baby" with Wilson.
Van Zandt, guitar in hand, bounced to the beat, smiling broadly and making funny faces, while conducting. His wife, Maureen Van Zandt, a choreographer, got the audience dancing during "River Deep — Mountain High" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)."
Clemons accompanied the kids in an energetic "He’s a Rebel."
Love still considers herself a stereotype-smashing rebel.
"Excuse me, just because I’m 72 doesn’t mean I don’t have it anymore," Love says of producers who "want to see Miley Cyrus."
She wins them over with commanding vocals. "I’m not going to take off my clothes," she says with a hearty laugh.
Not that her appearance doesn’t still turn heads; she stays fit with daily kickboxing.
Her profession has mental, as well as physical demands. The tenacious star wants kids to know they’ll need hope, courage, faith, "substance" — and lots of hard work.
"It’s a long walk," she says of that 20 feet from the background to the spotlight. "But guess what: It can be done."
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