Thursday, April 20, 2017

Celebrating Dusty

As well as being Easter Sunday, this past Sunday, April 16, was the 78th anniversary of the birth of the late, great British pop/soul vocalist Dusty Springfield (1939-1999).

My interest in and admiration for Dusty is well documented here at The Wild Reed, most notably in Soul Deep, one of my very first posts. Other previous posts worth investigating, especially if you're new to Dusty, are Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon, which features an excerpt from Laurence Cole's book, Dusty Springfield: In the Middle of Nowhere; Celebrating Dusty, my 2013 celebration of Dusty; and Remembering Dusty, my 2009 tribute to Dusty on the tenth anniversary of her death.

And, of course, off-site there's my website dedicated to Dusty, Woman of Repute (currently only accessible through the Internet archive service, The Way Back Machine).

My website's name is derived from Dusty's 1990 album Reputation, and as I explain in Soul Deep, it was this album that introduced me not only to Dusty's music but also to her life and journey – much of which resonated deeply with me. Indeed, my identification with aspects of Dusty's journey played an important role in my coming out as a gay man.

In celebrating the life and music of Dusty at The Wild Reed this year, I share a video of Dusty singing one of her many hits from her '60s heyday, "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." It's followed by an excerpt from Patricia Juliana Smith's erudite and insightful essay, "'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me': The Camp Masquerades of Dusty Springfield." This essay is from the 1999 anthology, The Queer Sixties, and looks at how Dusty "paradoxically expressed and disguised her own unspeakable queerness through an elaborate camp masquerade that metaphorically and artistically transformed a nice white girl into a black woman and a femme gay man, often simultaneously."

While today it seems a truth universally acknowledged that the "Swinging Sixties" was an era of great sexual license that liberated everyone's libido from the restraints of bourgeois morality, the sexual freedom the decade brought forth was primarily for he benefit of hetero sexual males. Although this now mythologized neo-romantic revolution also garnered heterosexual women and, to some lesser extent, gay men more sexual emancipation than they had previously known, in the years before Women's and Gay Liberation, those who were neither male nor straight remained at best nonentities and at worst monsters, particularly in the masculinist and generally homophobia world of rock music. One of the great pop culture icons of the British Mod music and fashion scene was, nevertheless, a lesbian, though few of her fans – many of them sexual outlaws themselves – were completely aware of Dusty Springfield's "bent" sexuality.

Through a metamorphosis stranger than most fiction, Mary O'Brien – a proper, middle-class, British Catholic girl of Irish descent, who was somewhat unsocialized and seemingly destined for a career as a librarian – became the flamboyant Dusty Springfield, the idol of a cultural movement that, ironically, had little to do with her own existence. In the fantastic Mod ethos of swinging London, however, one generally could be almost anything, no matter how extreme or incongruous, except oneself – particularly if one's own true self were queer. As a result, Dusty Springfield paradoxically expressed and disguised her own unspeakable queerness through an elaborate camp masquerade that metaphorically and artistically transformed a nice white girl into a black woman and a femme gay man, often simultaneously. In doing so, this individual, who had placed herself outside mainstream British society, subverted fixed ideas of identity by assuming the personae of two oppressed and excluded groups. Thus, consciously or otherwise, Dusty Springfield blurred the distinction of race, gender, and sexuality just as she did those between life and art and those between reality and artifice.

. . . In January 1964, a seemingly new and unknown voice became a frequent presence on American airwaves. "I Only Want to Be With You" was among the flood of recordings released in the United States in the first wave of the so-called British Invasion spearheaded by the Beatles; it was, in fact, the first recording of this period by a British artist other than the Beatles to reach the American Top Twenty. This was not, however, Dusty's first American musical success.

Two years earlier, as a member of the Springfields [right], her brother's traditional folk/country combo, she enjoyed a Top Twenty hit with "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," which showcases her distinctive voice in a brief solo passage. Despite the Springfields' high visibility and popularity in Great Britain, they remained, after this isolated success, nameless and faceless to American audiences and were therefore virtually forgotten by 1964. Consequently, the greater part of the audience who acclaimed "I Only Want to Be With You" quite understandably failed to make the connection.

Unfamiliar, then, with the identity and appearance of the androgynously named singer, American listeners formed various misconceptions about her nationality, her race, and even her sex. The initial impression of Martha Reeves, lead singer of the 1960s Motown girl group Martha and the Vandellas, is typical: "When I heard her on the radio, I just assumed she was American and black. Motown signed up nearly all the best talent at that time, and I remember being a little surprised to find she was with a different label – and I was absolutely astounded when I finally saw her on TV."

Springfield's name and husky timbre, however, led some less astute listeners to imagine that the tenorish female voice that made her first hit so compelling was that of a young – and probably black – man. Lloyd Thaxton, host of a popular Los Angeles television teen music program in the early 1960s, awkwardly confessed to her on the air that he had expected his guest, whom he had not seen before the show, to be male. As gauche as this statement may now seem, his error was not completely unreasonable. Recordings by black male rhythm-and-blues singers who had adapted the high tenor voice of gospel music to a secular format – and who frequently bore non-gender specific names (e.g., Smokey Robinson, Frankie Lymon, Garnet Mimms, Jewel Akens) – were relatively common during the late fifties and early sixties.

Springfield's fascination with America soul music and identification with black female singers provided the foundation not only for her vocal disguise but also for the visual masquerade that eventually made her a role model for British drag queens. Publicity photos of the Springfields taken before her metamorphosis show a red-haired Dusty in high-collared, full-skirted gingham dresses embellished with starchy cravats and voluminous petticoats, a countrified version of the quintessential nice (i.e., repressed, artificial, and asexual) white "lady" of the Cold War era. While visiting the United States with the Springfields in 1962, she discovered the various black girl groups then popular and eventually adopted not only their vocal styles but also their fashion sensibilities. The high beehive hairstyles, heavy mascara, and false eyelashes favored by the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Marvelettes soon became Dusty's own trademark – and a sign of her complete break, in late 1963, with the Springfields and what she later called "that happy, breezy music" with which she "[wasn't] at all comfortable."

Above: Dusty with the Ronettes in 1964.

. . . Within two years of her liberation from the restrictive pseudo-femininity to which she was subject as the lady singer of the Springfields, she was, ironically, compelled to assume the role of an "unnatural woman" once again, only now in a more elaborate and glitzy mode. In doing so, she took as her role models the most unnatural "women" of all. By 1966, Dusty Springfield impersonations had become standard fare for British drag queens – while Dusty, in turn, impersonated them: [Dusty biographer Lucy] O'Brien notes that "her own image was becoming more outrageous and difficult to control. She took tips from male drag queens, learning what kind of mascara lasted longest, and how to apply the heavy eye shadow. 'Basically, I'm a drag queen myself!" she said later." Springfield learned far more from drag queens then mere cosmetology. To succeed in gaining a wider audience while retaining her earlier following, and to blur the distinction between reality and projected fantasy, she assumed the drag queen's epistemology of camp, a philosophy best articulated by none less than Oscar Wilde: "We should treat all the trivial things of like very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." In this manner, the marginality of the lesbian became a joke the outsider herself controlled.

– Patricia Juliana Smith
Excerpted from "'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me':
The Camp Masquerades of Dusty Springfield"
in The Queer Sixties
pp. 105-113

Here she comes
Here she comes
Ribbons flying from her half-forgotten hair
Look at her run
See what the world and love have done
See all her faces
See all her faces

Look in my eyes
That she is me
I can't disguise
See all her faces
Ah, ha, see all her faces

– From Dusty Springfield's 1970 recording
of Jim Lacey and Jeff Alexander Ryan's "See All Her Faces"
(released on the album of the same name in 1972)

Above: Dusty at around the time of the recording of her two Atlantic Records albums Dusty in Memphis (1969) and A Brand New Me (1970) The former is widely considered her masterpiece.

Above: A promotional photo for Dusty's third (and final) album with the U.S.-based Atlantic Records label. The album, which had the working title of Faithful, was recorded in the early part of 1971 but shelved shortly thereafter. It was eventually released as Faithful in 2015, forty-four years after its planned release was shelved. (For a review of Faithful, click here.)

Above: Dusty performing in 1971.

Above: A promotional shot for Dusty's 1978 album, It Begins Again.

Above: A beautiful portrait of Dusty which was incorporated into the artwork of her 1979 album, Living Without Your Love.

Above: Dusty performing at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1984 as part of Anne Murray's CBS-TV special, Sounds of London. (For a video footage of Dusty's contribution to this broadcast, click here. For Anne Murray's recollections of Dusty, click here.)

Above: Dusty in 1989, two years after her international smash hit with the Pet Shop Boys, "What Have I Done to Deserve This," and a year before the release of her acclaimed Reputation album.

Above: A portrait of Dusty used to promote what would be her last album, 1995's A Very Fine Love. Dusty died four years later of breast cancer. For more about this album and to view the video of Dusty's last single release, "Roll Away," see the previous Wild Reed post, Time and the River.

For more of Dusty at The Wild Reed, see:
Soul Deep
Celebrating Dusty (2013)
Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon
Remembering Dusty
Remembering Dusty – 11 Years On
Remembering Dusty – 14 Years On
Classic Dusty
Classic Dusty II
Classic Dusty III
Classic Dusty IV
Classic Dusty V
Something In Your Eyes
The Other "Born This Way"
Heat Wave
No Stranger Am I
Time and the River
Remembering a Great Soul Singer
A Song and Challenge for 2012
The Sound of Two Decades Colliding
Dusty Springfield: "Wasn't Born to Follow"

Related Off-site Links:
Woman of Repute – My (archived) website dedicated to the life and music of Dusty Springfield.
Let's Talk Dusty
The Definitive Dusty Springfield Collection
Portraying Dusty on Stage and in Film – Annie Randall (Oxford University Press Blog, April 16, 2013).

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