Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of British vocalist Dusty Springfield (1939-1999).
Regular readers of The Wild Reed would know that I’ve long been an admirer of Dusty and her music. A number of previous posts have focused on this gifted singer – including this one in which I share how I first became aware of Dusty and discuss the role her life and music played in my coming out.
Given all of this, it seems only fitting to honor Dusty on this day, and I do so by sharing an article by Peter Doggert in which he not only provides an excellent overview of Dusty’s musical career, but perceptively examines “the enigma that was Dusty Springfield.” It’s an article that was first published in Record Collector, two months after Dusty’s death of breast cancer on March 2, 1999.
The death of Dusty Springfield was hardly unexpected, but it still sent a chill down the spine of anyone who had been touched by her music. The obituaries focused on her classic ’60s singles, and the mix of vulnerability and self-confidence that she brought to songs as diverse as “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and “Son Of A Preacher Man.” Equally striking as her remarkable vocal fluency was her visual image – the almost exaggeratedly ’60s style that became her trademark. But at the heart of all the tributes remained an air of mystery. With her talent undimmed, why did her career falter in the ’70s and beyond? What was the truth about her personal life that she guarded so carefully? Who was Dusty Springfield after all?
It is probably no accident that one of Dusty’s most revealing performances should come on a song called “In Private.” Throughout her career she retained a mystique, a sense of belonging somewhere outside her own space and time, which was more than the conventional showbiz image of ‘the outsider.’ After she’d escaped her initial public perception as a ’60s ‘girl,’ she was awarded the unofficial title of ‘Britain’s best soul singer’ – a status that, on the surface, should surely have been a liberation rather than a pigeonhole. But despite her obvious affection for US soul music, this description came no closer than any other to explaining the puzzle of a woman who always seemed out of place, even at the pinnacle of her commercial success.
Like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, another perennial non-conformist who struggled to find a milieu in which he could become himself, Dusty’s mysterious quality of not belonging is apparent, in retrospect, from her initial rise to fame. Look back at vintage film clips of the Beach Boys, taken before his 1964 nervous breakdown removed him from the group, and Brian Wilson seems to exude discomfort. How did nobody not notice that this falsetto-voiced genius, this ungainly giant, was hopelessly out of place amongst the macho boys’ club run by his band members?
Dusty Springfield’s early TV appearances are equally telling. In her celebrated ‘panda’ make-up and deliberately androgynous clothing, beneath a bouffant wig and (often as not) an ambiguous trouser-suit, Dusty seems to be hiding herself in the instantly recognizable trademarks of her showbiz disguise. Maybe her attempts to remove herself from her surroundings, to lose herself in her image, were an attempt to cloak her ambivalent sexuality; more likely they were a clue that Dusty Springfield (alias Mary O'Brien; even her adopted name was a mask) didn’t want to be understood too easily.
A less complex personality would have slipped more readily into the alternate career paths that were available to her in the ’60s. After her initial, startling success with unashamed pop singles like “I Only Want To Be With You” and “Losing You,” she could have followed Cilla Black and Lulu (fellow US soul fans, don’t forget) down the path of light entertainment. She toyed with that idea in the late ’60s, hosting her own TV show with the same half-embarrassed diffidence that she often revealed in public. But there was too much self-parody in her performances as a television host to win her a longterm role on the small screen.
Her alter ego as a soul singer, Britain’s answer to Gladys Knight or Aretha Franklin, seemed to present another possible route. On her ’60s albums, she regularly tackled urban R&B hits, and even some uptempo numbers which (in more obscure hands) would now be revered as Northern Soul favourites. On her legendary Dusty in Memphis sessions, she found herself surrounded by the musicians who’d supported Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the rest on hundreds of magnificent Atlantic and Stax soul sides. But unlike her contemporaries, Cher and Lulu, this supposed soul diva didn’t emerge like a triumphant butterfly in this apparently ideal setting. Instead, she shied away from the intimacy that the Memphis musicians assumed would be her natural home.
“I'm a shy singer, perhaps you might say a reluctant singer, at the best of times,” she explained later. “It takes a lot to get it out of me, because of my studio nerves. I like to hear more or less the whole thing – you know, the glamour bit – in my headphones. I think ‘Oh, this is what it’s going to sound like. OK, I can sing now’.” It was a philosophy completely at odds with the downhome spontaneity which was the hallmark of ‘real’ soul music.
It was easy enough to mistake Dusty for a soul diva – not just because she loved the music, but because her voice had a fluency and expression which matched any of her R&B contemporaries. That’s not to say that she sounded like Aretha Franklin; Dusty’s education at convent schools had little in common with the gospel tradition which was Franklin’s original inspiration. But Springfield’s voice could soar around a melody line as complex as Jimmy Webb’s “Magic Garden” without a hint of effort, a quality which set her apart from almost all her British contemporaries.
‘Soulfulness,’ whatever that was taken to mean, was far from her only vocal trademark. Years earlier, she’d passed as a convincing folkie, when her ’60s trio, The Springfields, had taken it upon themselves to investigate what we now call ‘world music,’ as well as elements of the US folk and country traditions. The Springfields’ 1962 recording of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” was a substantial American hit, and it was a convincing enough country performance to persuade Linda Ronstadt, among others, that Nashville’s music was worth investigating.
With The Springfields, Dusty passed herself off as an ‘authentic’ explorer of traditional music (albeit within the world of pop), just as she did with the soul repertoire a few years later. This suggests a complete reversal of her popular image – not a soul singer at all, but a consummate actress. Listen again to her ’60s hits, and what’s remarkable is her complete self-confidence. Like the equally enigmatic Dionne Warwick, Dusty sings “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” with such ease that it makes a mockery of the words she is delivering. The same musical facility that powers her performance, and makes it a classic pop record, sabotages its claim to the soul tradition of agonizing self-expression.
Compare that performance with “Sandra,” a track from the album I believe to be Dusty’s finest work, 1978’s It Begins Again. The LP was planned quite consciously as a ‘comeback,’ after a five-year absence from recording which had followed a run of commercially disappointing albums at the start of the ’70s. She had lived out her silence in America, apparently battling personal and physical demons – maybe drink, maybe drugs, certainly lack of self-belief – and slipping irrevocably in the world’s eyes from a vital contemporary artist to a ’60s has-been.
In the event, It Begins Again received lukewarm reviews, and modest sales, probably because it dared to move from sophisticated MOR pop to full-bore disco. “Sandra” is – physically and emotionally – the center of the album. It’s an unlikely vehicle for Britain’s Queen of Soul: it was written by none other than Barry Manilow, and its the tale of a downtrodden housewife who slips into alcoholism and despair under the pressure of family responsibilities.
Never married or a mother, and tagged by the press as either a lesbian or at least bisexual, Dusty could hardly approach the song as a piece of autobiography. But as she rides its emotional switchback from calm to quiet desperation, she captures the poignant anguish of its leading character with a raw edge that was rarely heard in her work. “Lord, I love my husband, and I love my kids” she cries as the song reaches its climax – and for that moment, she becomes Sandra, the suicidal victim of the banality of middle-class existence. Call it soul or call it acting: either way, it’s a remarkable performance. It’s far from the only one on the album: try the equally intense “Love Me By Name,” which is a prostitute’s lament, or her sublimely sympathetic reading of “Hollywood Movie Girls.” The more removed the subject from the circumstances of her own life, the more impassioned her performance.
Despite the good luck charm of the title, It Begins Again didn’t rekindle Springfield’s career. Her second United Artists LP, 1979’s Living Without Your Love, was more formulaic, and her comeback soon dissipated. In the early ’80s she recorded only one album – the much misunderstood White Heat – an ambitious experiment with electro-disco. As the title of one of its best songs, “Soft Core,” suggests, the album was hardly a way for her to play things safe. Once again, the more ‘alien’ the music, the more Dusty seemed to rise to the occasion. But aside from a couple of favourable reviews, White Heat aroused little enthusiasm.
Hence the sense of surprise when Dusty Springfield returned to the limelight, and even the charts, under the care of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, alias the Pet Shop Boys. First guesting on their single, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” then allowing them to co-produce 1990’s Reputation album for her, Dusty flourished in her sly, camp surroundings. It’s difficult to imagine Aretha Franklin relaxing into the ironies and role-playing of songs like “In Private” and “Nothing Has Been Proved” (from the movie Scandal), but the actress in Dusty was back in her element.
Bored housewife, techno dance queen, cool chronicler of emotional subterfuge – it was a strangely compelling set of disguises, which deserved a more definite follow-up than several more years of silence. The release of what proved to be her final album, A Very Fine Love in 1995, was overshadowed by the revelation that she was now battling against the cancer that would kill her almost four years later. Recorded in Nashville, A Very Fine Love was dismissed as “a country album,” although like much of what has come out of Music City over the last decade, only geography linked Dusty’s work with the tradition of Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette.
What the album did do was link Dusty briefly with an unexpected kindred spirit – a singer-songwriter who, in another lifetime, might have found Springfield the perfect vehicle for her songs. Not that K.T. Oslin, who wrote the album’s closing track, “Where Is A Woman To Go?,” required an outside voice: in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this 40+ year-old singer had brought an older woman’s wisdom, and wicked humour, to a series of songs which (like Manilow’s “Sandra”) tapped into the reality rather than the fantasy of ordinary women’s lives. Oslin shared with Springfield a voice that demanded the adjective ‘soul,’ but without ever recording material that would be recognized as R&B. As ever, when she was allowed to identify with characters who were obviously not herself, Dusty made Oslin’s story-song the most passionate and affectionate performance on the album.
Even without the illness that truncated her life, there was probably no easy road back to success for Dusty Springfield; she’d had her chance to become a cabaret star in the late ’60s and early ’70s but found the environment suffocating. As the glowing reviews and next-to-minimal sales of her last album proved, the public wasn’t ready for a 55-year-old Dusty Springfield, except as a nostalgic act – which was one role this actress wasn’t willing to play.
In the next century, it’s the ’60s hits, and the handful of superb albums she made during that decade, which will remain her most obvious legacy. But the real Dusty Springfield, the woman who wouldn’t allow herself to be caricatured into a role she found uncomfortable, was only exposed on recordings that most of her fans never heard. Maybe she preferred it that way.
Media Coverage of Dusty Springfield’s Death in 1999
In August 1997 I established Woman of Repute, a website dedicated to Dusty and her music. To read how my website first reported the news of Dusty’s death, click here.
For mainstream media coverage of the death of Dusty Springfield, click here.
For various media tributes to Dusty (including from Rolling Stone magazine, People magazine, and Entertainment Weekly), click here.
Music, Books, and DVDs
For the best introduction to Dusty’s music I recommend the 4-CD box set, Simply Dusty, the 2-CD collection, Dusty Springfield: Gold (be sure it’s the “import” edition, pictured at left), and/or the single CD compilation, The Ultimate Collection. And, of course, Dusty in Memphis is absolutely essential for any and every CD collection.
Also, there have been three books about Dusty recently published. They are: A Girl Called Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of Dusty Springfield by Sharon Davis, Dusty: Queen of the Post Mods by Annie J. Randall, and (in the U.K) Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere by Laurence Cole. I’m sure these are all very good books but, really, one can’t go wrong with Paul Howe’s excellent The Complete Dusty Springfield. (For my 2002 interview with Paul, click here.)
And finally, there are three excellent Dusty Springfied DVDs currently available: Dusty Springfield: Live at the BBC (from which the above video clip is taken), Dusty Springfield: Reflections, and Dusty Springfield: Live at the Royal Albert Hall. (For my 2002 interview with Simon Bell, Dusty’s friend and one of her backing singers for the Royal Albert Hall concert of 1979, click here.)
Other Online Tributes Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of Dusty’s Death:
The Music’s Over
JMFabiano at the Dusty Springfield Network
L’ombre de mon Ombre
We Haven’t Forgotten You
Her Brilliant Career
For more of Dusty at The Wild Reed, see:
Remembering a Great Soul Singer
Classic Dusty II
Classic Dusty III
Shelby Lynn Celebrates Dusty Springfield
Time and the River
Recommended Off-site Links:
Woman of Repute - My website dedicated to the life and artistry of Dusty Springfield.
A Girl Called Dusty
Dusty Springfield Bulletin