The White Queen of Soul
Like every icon in popular music, Dusty Springfield was a true original. She had talent, of course, and considerable gifts. As a teen, great singing and great songs intoxicated her and she grew up to possess impeccable taste in style and material. She was also a peerless interpreter. Classic pop songwriter Carole King, who wrote over a dozen songs for Dusty, said she was the best ever singer of her songs. In fact, Dusty ended up performing handfuls of stellar Brill Building material by many of the 1960s’ best songwriters.
But Dusty's pop infatuation didn't begin and end there. She was also a student of music, some even referred to her as a musicologist. She recorded music in a handful of different languages, and at her highest point had become a global superstar, an incredible journey for a Scotch-Irish lass who'd attended a single-sex convent school as a child.
She loved soul music, and infused it into all her work. She could sing Motown, one of the first (and only) white pop singers who could claim that, and she wrapped her voice around difficult material, like many Burt Bacharach/Hal David compositions, with ease. She belted out dramatic ballads the likes of which popular music had never heard.
She also participated in the folk boom, with her brother Dion as part of the Springfields. She scored hits amid the British Invasion, one of the only British acts to hit the charts in America after the Beatles arrived. In another important act, she railed against racism on a tour of South Africa, igniting a ripple effect, as other Western artists made their inaugural visits to the country.
Dusty's unique voice set her apart from the more banal singers out of Britain at the time, like Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, etc. She had incredible control of her tone; she could manipulate her voice handily, giving it a hint of desperation or pulling back and sounding vulnerable. She'd open up at the chorus and still sound hurt. She stretched her voice in ways that would infuse every syllable with passion, heartbreak, longing, and loss.
Much of this was instinct, of course. But a significant degree of her vocal dexterity came with study. When she attended concerts of singers she admired, Dusty would observe intently, writing notes to herself about phrasings and vocal styles she liked.
Because she adored Motown, she studied those singers keenly as well, both the men and the women—Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder. And thanks to her relationship with gospel singer Madeline Bell, she also explored the works of sublime singers like Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. As a result, after observing its nuances with her finely tuned ear, and incorporating them naturally into her own vocal delivery, she'd become one of the few white singers that could sound convincingly black.
Her creative apex came in 1969 when she journeyed to Memphis and recorded at soul music's Ground Zero, with an R&B studio band called the Memphis Cats. The album, In Memphis, is one of the true classics of the soul era.
Fans—men, women, blacks, whites, gays, straights—loved Dusty as their own. Yet, despite all the adoration, she was deeply and surprisingly insecure, even to the point of self-loathing. She delved into drugs, consumed inhuman amounts of alcohol, and flirted regularly with tradgedy. A lesbian, she struggled with her Catholic background and the stigma of homosexuality in Britain. Midway through her career, she began to tease prying journalists, dancing around direct questions about her sexuality with coy ambiguity.
At home in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States where she seemed to spend at least half her life, she was a luminous, lovable celebrity who made challenging but accessible music that even the most casual pop fans loved. After a while, her glamorous excesses, heavy makeup, and flirtation with gay audiences turned her into something of a camp icon. But not before she established herself as one of the purest voices in the history of soul music.
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, aka Dusty Springfield, was born in the spring of 1939 in an outskirt of London. Her parents, worried about the war and the danger of bringing up children in an urban neighborhood, moved to High Wycombe, a bucolic market town in Buckinghamshire, and then to the more stimulating environment of Ealing, a west London suburb in the early 1950s, long after the “coast was clear” of war.
Gerard O’Brien, Mary's father, known as “OB,” had been raised in India during the days of the Raj and worked as a tax accountant. Mary's mom, also known as “Kay,” had come from County Kerry in Ireland. They also had a son, Mary's older brother, Dion.
The O’Briens were a religious family and they sent their children to single-sex Catholic schools. On the surface, Mary's childhood appeared peaceful and comfortable. But all was not what it seemed in the family's comfortably middle-class household. The local priest was a fixture at their house for reasons unknown, and family gatherings around the dinner table had a tendency to devolve into heavy drinking and odd food-throwing incidents.
Perhaps it was because Mother Kay yearned for a less mundane existence; she was desperate to spice up her life. Or maybe she enjoyed disrupting her husband's irksome need for neatness and precision. But if someone had a problem with one of her dishes at the dinner table, she'd inexplicably tip it over, throw it across the table, or smash it on the floor. If she was unhappy with the outcome of something she baked, she'd destroy it with a spatula. This happened with bizarre regularity. It's not clear why this happened, but it surely masked underlying family dysfunction. Expectedly, Dusty herself picked up on the eccentric habit and resorted to it throughout her life.
Mary's parents fought often, and the young girl had to blot out the chaos and verbal violence. To cope, she admits to hurting herself as a child, putting her hands on a hot pipe, for example, just to distract her attention from the fighting. In later years, during interviews and in conversation with friends, she'd occasionally refer to her childhood as “wretched,” adding that neither of her parents were particularly attentive.
Mary was fond of her brother, but also a tad jealous. Her parents, she says, gave him what little attention they had to spare because he was a motivated child and a good student. Still, the siblings got along. They listened to the radio together and watched TV when the family brought one into the house. Dion would be the first one to admit later on that Mary was the one with the real gift, of a lovely voice.
When Mary was 12 she ventured into a record shop and made her first recording, a version of Irving Berlin's 1912 chestnut, “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’,” a vaudeville number. Her family, especially Dion, marveled at how well Mary nailed the Afro-American vernacular. The reason for this must have been the musical environment Mary's father provided at home. Though he made a living with numbers, he was a jazz aficionado and actually played some piano. So, while many kids her age were listening to trite British pop music, Mary and Dion were hearing their father's records: Jelly Roll Morton, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Kenton, and Peggy Lee. She'd hear classical on the radio, some Latin music, and lots of Dixieland.
Similarly, Mary's mother was an avid film fan, and she enjoyed watching them as an escape from her reality. Frequently, Mary would be her accompaniment at these films, and they ended up making a profound impression on her as well. Mary and Kay lost themselves in the glamour of 1940s musicals, the gorgeous gowns, the lavish sets, the dancing, beautiful celebrities.
Through her formative years, Mary's catholic education provided discipline and consistency in her life, even though she wasn't very excited about school and learning. A chubby, bespectacled student with curly brown hair, she was popular among her classmates because of her sense of humor. The same was not true for the nuns, who beat her frequently because of her attitude. Those who knew her, though, appreciated Mary's sense of humor. But she also had an intense mix of other lesser qualities, including anxiety, hyperactivity, and impatience.
Mary's sweet singing voice was difficult to deny. When she was 17, the O’Brien siblings formed a duet, with Dion on guitar and Mary singing. They booked random gigs at various small cafes and supper clubs in London's West End. The music making whetted Mary's appetite and she was soon scouring papers for other gigs in and around London's music scene.
In 1958, when she was 19, she auditioned for an all-girl vocal trio called the Lana Sisters. About this time in Britain, girl singing groups, often called “sister groups,” were popular and the demand great in the late 1950s. The Lana Sisters hired Mary as their third “sister.”
The Lana Sisters worked hard to get their act down. The girls also made a conscious decision to be a sort of risqué alternative to some of the more wholesome “sister acts.” The strategy paid off. Their reputation grew quickly and soon they were touring the United Kingdom.
While with the Lana Sisters, Mary learned a variety of valuable lessons about the music business: how to take the stage, captivate an audience, and deal with the tedium of life on the road, something she did not handle very well. She made up for that tedium by toying with her identity. She cut her hair, lost the glasses, experimented with makeup, fashion, and even changed her name to “Shan.”
They toured incessantly, supporting major performers like Nat King Cole and Cliff Richard, at U.S. airbases across Europe and at smaller clubs closer to home. They even had a hit, a ribald little number called “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat (‘Kissin’ and Huggin’ with Fred’).”
But two years of this rigorous routine was enough. Mary enjoyed the girls and the camaraderie, but hungered for music that satisfied her. When her brother and a friend, Tim Feild, phoned her to ask if she'd be interested in joining their duo, she quickly took advantage of the opportunity and said goodbye to the Lana Sisters.
Feild and Dion were in a folk group of sorts, latched onto the American folk boom before most in the United Kingdom. They called themselves the Springfields, after, some say, the many towns in America of the same name. They also decided to change their own names. Dion and Mary became Tom and Dusty. Dusty doused herself with hydrogen peroxide and became a blonde.
Their sound embraced different elements of American music, and focused mainly on pop-style vocals, suggesting seminal folk groups like the Weavers. Tom proved himself to be a real student of the American folk idiom and he wrote prodigiously. The Springfields were signed to Philips Records and released their first single, the Civil War–inspired “Dear John,” in May 1961. Their debut, Kinda Folksy, received warm reviews, and quite a bit of attention in the United Kingdom, thanks to the record's subsequent singles, the infectious “Breakaway” and the follow-up, “Bambino.” As writers and arrangers, Tom and Dusty reveled in their influences, offering material as diverse as folk and show tunes. In fact, they were almost too diverse for their own good, coloring their simple pop folk vocal tunes with strings and big climaxes. In performance, as they played to increasing audiences, Tom smiled genially, while Tim shied away from the spotlight. That left Dusty alone in the middle, attractive and alluring. She loved the position and bathed in the limelight. Her hunger for the stage blossomed.
A raucous rave-up of Leadbelly's “Goodnight Irene” failed to attract much attention, but its follow-up “Silver Threads & Golden Needles,” broke through dramatically. It made a huge impact in America, hitting the Top 20. It was the first release by a British group to chart that highly in the States, in essence leading the way for the rest of the British Invasion bands. The composition, country in flavor, also opened the doors for highly influential folk-pop acts like Jackie DeShannon and the Byrds.
As hard as they worked, the Springfields were never agsain able to duplicate that success in the States. They had another hit in the United Kingdom, “Island of Dreams,” but it didn't make it across the Atlantic. Ultimately, the pressure to break back into the U.S. market wore Tom and Dusty down. In their emphatic and fatiguing attempt to do so, their differences became more pronounced. Tom lived and loved folk music, while Dusty yearned to explore the American R&B she admired as a child. Ironically, it was Feild that left the group first, replaced by Mark Hurst. But Hurst didn't serve as the buffer Feild did and the relationship between the siblings suffered.
In early 1963, the Springfields went to Nashville to record their second album, Folks Songs from the Hills. The sessions found Tom and Dusty digging deeper into the folk idiom, covering Leadbelly, Roy Acuff, and other respected American classics. But the record's timing, coming as it did at the end of the folk boom in the States was unfortunate. It collided head on with the oncoming British Invasion.
At that point, the niche for folk-pop almost disappeared at the hands of the Beatles and other Beat groups, and there was literally no place for the Springfields. They tried using electric instrumentation to keep up with the changes, but the sound was forced. They had a couple more minor hits before Dusty responded to the Beat Boom, and its undertones of R&B. The Springfields split before Dusty and her brother could reconcile fully. Their final single was issued in early 1964. It coincided with Dusty's own first single as a solo act, “I Only Want to Be with You.” Tom would go on to make a name for himself as a producer and songwriter for the successful pop act the Seekers.
Dusty, Like No Other
Dusty, now 23 and fully composed as an artist, signed a solo contract with the Philips label. Many who regretted the demise of the Springfields preesumed Dusty would be eaten alive in the music business, that she wasn't cut out to go it alone at such a young age and with so little experience. Of course, she'd prove them wrong.
With the Springfields Dusty appeared on the British musical variety television program, Ready, Steady, Go! At the time, the show promised that any act starring on the program would be invited back. Well, the Springfields weren't available any longer, so Dusty hit them up for the return favor as a solo act.
RSG complied, infact, Dusty not only performed, but she served as a celebrity host and interviewer. She was hired alongside DJ Keith Fordyce to speak with guest artists, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Viewers and producers alike enjoyed Dusty's natural personality. Perhaps it was the artist's affinity for movies that helped settle her down in front of the camera.
By the time her first single came out, Dusty's name was firmly linked to the program, so it wasn't a surprise that she sang it for that show's audience first. Over the next year, Dusty spent hundreds of hours in the dark hallways of the show's studio, entertaining guests, organizing programs, and performing.
One guest she met, Madeline Bell, a New Jersey gospel singer in London as part of Langston Hughes's show “Black Nativity,” had a profound effect on Dusty. The program, which also featured legend Marion Anderson, had been a hit on Broadway and made its way to London, a first for a gospel production.
Bell, a standout in the cast, eventually made a name for herself as a solo act, and Dusty was inspired by her vocal style. For the first time, while studying Bell and gospel in general, Dusty began to hear the emotion and passion underlying a great song. When Bell cut her first single, “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me,” Dusty sang back up, and when Dusty's career took off, she invited Bell to sing back-up for her on tour and in the studio.
After establishing herself as a TV personality and pop star, Dusty began putting the pieces of her organization together. This included personal assistant Pat Barnett and manager Vic Billings. Both suited Dusty's modus operandi and both would remain with her for years. Once she hired them, she chose a band.
She hired a full entity called the Echoes: bassist Doug Reece, who'd be a long-term friend and confidante of Dusty’s; drummer Bob Wackett, and organist Mickey Garrett. The band had a rough go early on. Dusty demanded perfection; she asked for very specific tone and style from her band and it took a while for the band to achieve it. The bass, for example, had to sound exactly like the soul/R&B records she loved. She also required a lush, full effect even without a horn or string section. With some difficulty, the band figured out how to deliver.
Dusty's Mod Look
If nothing else, Dusty's look epitomized 1960s Britain. With white boots and velvet coats, Dusty's hip image was a combination of her fascination with Hollywood glamour and the Mod fashion of the times. While her voice proved to be her most distinctive quality, Dusty's look closely complemented it. It helped, too, that RSG was quite exclusively a program by and for “Mods,” the fashionable London youth movement that caught fire about the same time.
Dusty's eye makeup, featuring dollops of mascara, was heavy and pronounced. She admitted hating the bone structure of her face, saying her face was puffy and round. So she attempted to provide a distraction from that roundness by emphasizing other parts, namely her eyes and her hair, which often covered her ears, making hearing difficult.
After spending time watching herself on television, Dusty also spotted another flaw, this time when she espied herself in a miniskirt with black stockings. She despised her knees. From that point on, around 1963, she refused to wear anything but long dresses on screen. And she cursed her father for giving her what she deemed “knobby” knees.
Dusty's hair, piled into a beehive and artificially blonde, recalled stars of the silver screen like the French goddess Catherine Deneuve and the American icon Marilyn Monroe. She even tied her hair back with a velvety black bow ala Deneuve, a fashion statement that started a fad among English girls. “The eyes blackened with mascara seemingly applied with a paint roller, made her look like both an Italian cinema minx and a West End drag queen.” Dusty said, “I used so much hairspray that I feel personally responsible for global warming!” (Rob Hoerburger, liner notes, The Dusty Springfield Anthology, 1997).
Dusty's jackets were smart and tight, with many buttons. Her skirts were tight as well, and looked sexy under furs. In a way, her fashion was carefully cultivated and evocative. But it was also a smattering of the things that Dusty loved: glamour, intelligence, fun, America, Mod culture, and television…
Growing up Catholic and going to a single-sex parochial school, Dusty's life had little, if anything to do with boys or romance. She always rued the fact in interviews and among friends that she passed through her teenage years without really experiencing them. When she was old enough to leave the house alone, she either went to work or had a gig with her brother Dion. At that time, most girls her age were flirting with boys in the back row of movie theaters or hanging out at cafes.
Her life was sheltered for the most part, until her early 20s, when she discovered freedom following her work with the Lana Sisters. To that point her role models were, beyond her confused and unreliable parents, the nuns of her childhood. She never felt truly comfortable around men, especially as she grew older and found herself in the spotlight as a performer.
Until she understood her fondness for women, Dusty would frequently go to confession, a vestige from her Catholic schooling. Oftentimes on the road with the Lana Sisters or the Springfields Dusty would ask to pull over at a church so she could do her penance.
Her lesbian discovery, however, obviated any relationship she had with the church. Her sexual preference was contrary to everything she understood the church to stand for and in 1963, during her first affair with a woman, she thought it best to part ways with Catholicism. The split hurt Dusty deeply and racked her with guilt for the rest of her life.
No one knew who this inaugural affair was with, only that it was with “a famous singer.” In fact, throughout her career, Dusty never officially came out. Over time, the clues simply made it progressively more obvious. This repression tortured her and contributed to her many insecurities. “On this whole gay thing, I've been misquoted so on it, that I really—my God… I really think, settling back on an old cliché, that it's no one's business, and it really has no bearing on anything.” (Len Brown, “Scandal in the Wind,” NME, February 1989.)
But the remarkable element of all this was that she didn't really symbolize any type of sexuality as a performer. She appealed to both men and women, but not as a sex symbol, a teen idol, or risqué personality like Ann-Margret. She was merely a star, and created hysteria on her own, by virtue of being herself.
“It was amazing, when I first started singing on my own. There were crazy scenes, because it was sort of asexual. They didn't mind that you were a boy or a girl. They would come up sort of on stage. The minute I appeared on stage, girls would scream. Purely because they were so hyped up on the whole atmosphere of a rock and roll show” (Ben Fong-Torres, “Dusty Springfield,” Rolling Stone, 1973/1999 reprint on All Music Guide). In 1970, Dusty conducted an interview with a journalist named Ray Connolly who represented the London paper called The Evening Standard. Springfield didn't like doing many interviews, so when she did them she made it worthwhile, both for herself and her fans. She often peppered her quotes with jokey half-truths and silliness, in an attempt to manipulate the session. Her publicist Keith Goodwin quipped that Dusty was “a sort of lovable potty wombat who drove him to distraction with her practical jokes and erratic time-keeping,” (Keith Altham, “The Real Dusty Springfield,” Rock's Back Pages, July 2007.l)
To Connolly she said: “I couldn't stand to be thought to be a big butch lady,” she said, “but I know that I'm as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy.”
When the piece came out, few took notice. Sexuality was rarely an issue at the time. But when Dusty experienced a career spike in the 1980s and early 1990s, the piece became notorious and was often referred to by subsequent journalists.
Occasionally, even into the 1970s, Dusty felt compelled to fabricate the presence of men in her life. That is, when prodded, she'd conjure up a relationship; the “coupling” was generally short-lived and, ultimately, “didn't work out.” This stopgap measure helped clear the air briefly and keep the press off her back.
The Big Time
Dusty's first single, “I Only Want to Be with You,” composed by Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde, soared up the singles chart on both sides of the Atlantic. The song boasted all the signatures that Dusty favored: the rhythm section and horn charts she loved from R&B, the double-tracked vocals, and the backing singers. The arrangement framed Dusty's sensual lead vocal perfectly. It was also this canny fusion of elements that made the song create an impact on the larger music scene as well.
Up until the early ’60s, the American charts had been segregated. R&B records were considered to be for black audiences; white charts were dominated by pop and the odd crooner from the ’50s. With the uptown black groups’ reliance on white songwriters and, often, producers, the lines were blurred and the teenage market began to cross over. It was a move that was to benefit Dusty, a white singer with a “black” sound. (Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, Dancing with Demons, New York: Griffin's St. Martin, 2000, p. 54)
Dusty herself, in an unpublished interview done by Rolling Stone in 1973, admitted her influences: “When I first started, I copied every black singer. One week I was Baby Washington, next week I was the lead singer of the Shirelles. You know, I had no style at all. I never pretended to be black, and I didn't really sound black. People put that label on me. It was only an influence. There were just certain things in it; an empathy, whatever you like” (Fong-Torres).
Influenced also by the production of Phil Spector, who in 1962 created the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Dusty's single included a counterpoint string section that elevated the quality of the production and attested to Dusty's musical sagacity even at this early point in her career. Dusty was well aware of Spector's style and effectiveness as a producer and she loved the complex arrangements of Jack Nitzsche. The work of these men on records by the Ronettes and others at the time would stay with Dusty for the next few years.
She performed with her backing band, the Echoes, for the first time in late 1963, the only woman on a package tour with a handful of male performers. Dusty held her own on the stage with popular acts like Freddie and the Dreamers and the Searchers. The audience reaction was as strong for her as it was for the pop idols on the tour. “In those early days I was pretty wild,” she admits. “I came in on the wave of Beatlemania, and they somehow associated me with the Beatles. I only had to stick my head out in the street—and [screams, high-pitched] AGGGGH!!!” (Fong-Torres,).
The Hit Parade
“I Only Want to Be With You” was a perfect way to introduce the artist's style to the world, and the world was happy to accept it. It boasted Phil Spector signatures like lush production and a dramatic wall of sound, and it soared into the British Top 5, while falling just short of the U.S. Top 10. Still, it was the first major hit by a British artist in the States not named the Beatles. But when she released her version of “Wishin and Hopin’ ” in July 1964, it would be the first of a string of rewarding (and successful) collaborations she tackled with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. That list would include intricate melodic compositions like “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself.”
Dusty's first full-length album, A Girl Called Dusty, came out in the United Kingdom in the spring of 1964, and received good reviews. By the end of that year, Dusty was the biggest solo act in British pop. She won the first of four consecutive Best Female Vocal awards from U.K. music magazine NME.
In 1965, the U.K. hits kept coming: “Losing You,” “Your Hurtin’ Kinda Love,” and “In the Middle of Nowhere.” At the time the United States was infatuated with Motown and the Beatles, leaving little room for female solo acts. But the silence in America didn't last long. In 1966, she scored her biggest international hit with the powerful ballad “You Don't Have to Say You Love Me,” which topped the U.K. charts and reached the Top Five in the States. The song, with its climbing chord change and intimation of sacrifice, has become the song most closely associated with Dusty's work.
Legend has it that while she was in San Remo, Italy, attending a festival, Dusty heard a song by Pina Donnagio called “Io Che Non Vivo Senza Te,” or “I Don't Want to Live Without You.” Dusty loved the song and eagerly wanted to remake it, but she didn't know Italian and had no idea where to begin. Vicki Wickham, her manager, and Simon Napier-Bell, another manager in England, volunteered to do a little translating and deliver a new set of lyrics. Perhaps inadvertently, the translators subverted the original intention of Donnagio's song, changing it from a song of lifelong love and devotion to one of nonchalance and aloofness. Dusty had already overseen the backing tracks and arranging, so when Napier-Bell and Wickham emerged with the lyrics 24 hours after receiving the assignment, they entered the studio.
At the time, no one in Dusty's camp held out much hope for the tune. But thanks to the singer's perseverance—the band did 47 takes—and some sweet strings, Dusty's performance was a triumph and the song was a smash. It broadened her appeal and deepened her perception as a mature artist.
By 1966, Dusty had accumulated more hit records than any other female pop artist. She had moved beyond her Mod-based, TV-familiar audience and into the wider world of fame and celebrity. That meant she was recognized everywhere. It also meant that the stories of her eccentric behavior—the anxiety, the obstinacy, her fastidiousness, and her food throwing—all circulated more extensively.
By the summer of the same year, Dusty had her very own television show in Britain. The platform allowed her the privilege of singing anything she wanted and inviting any guest she pleased to join her. The control pleased her, and she took advantage, inviting personalities as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Woody Allen, and Tom Jones. At the same time, she was also in a worthwhile relationship with a woman named Norma Tanega, a struggling painter with Mexican/Indian roots.
The hits continued through the rest of 1966 and into 1967, with songs like the Goffin-King tune “Goin’ Back,” “I'll Try Anything,” the wrenching ballad “All I See Is You,” and “Give Me Time.” In the summer of 1967, she reunited with Burt Bacharach for “The Look of Love,” a bossa nova–styled song that found a place on the soundtrack to the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. The session, a coy and quiet woo of song that sounds like “eavesdropping on pillow talk” (Hoerburger), was overseen by Bacharach. It came at a time when music was growing progressively louder, with acid rock, electric blues, and heavy metal all finding footing, and FM radio gained ground over the once mighty AM band. Still, Dusty had a huge hit in the United States, where DJs preferred it to its original A-side, “Give Me Time.”
The music climate evolved dramatically at this time. Men and rock groups began to dominate the scene. Hair grew long and unruly. The Summer of Love loomed. Motown hung on by a thread. The Beatles got spiritual in India. As a counterpoint to the heavy rock of this period, a bevy of pop artists, Dusty included, were branded “bubblegum.” Perhaps they hadn't seen Dusty's duet with Jimi Hendrix, heard of her work with Napier-Bell, manager of the Yardbirds, or realized that she collaborated with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones.
Soon enough she'd stake her place in history with an album that would live on in the annals of R&B and soul as one of the best ever made.
Conflicts of Interest
Over the years, Dusty had become known as a problematic personality. She often skipped rehearsals or turned up late to gigs. Those who know her insisted she has been wrongly criticized, that she was simply misunderstood. True, she occasionally had trouble getting motivated for shows, and especially rehearsals for shows. She lived unusual hours, often not going to bed until sunrise and then having difficulty making appointments the next afternoon. She also suffered from anxiety and was prone to suddenly depletion of energy. She loved being on stage, and once she got there she was fine. But, according to her handlers, the effort of getting there was exhausting.
One of the first instances that may have led to this misconception of her being difficult, was a rather noble one. On her first trip to South Africa in 1964, she inserted a clause in her contract stipulating that she and the band would not under any circumstances play to segregated audiences. Although she was not considered to be an activist, she knew well the political problems with South Africa and its apartheid policies. But for someone raised with the respect and appreciation she had for black artists, not allowing people of color into her show made no sense.
Before the first show, Dusty was approached by government officials attempting to dissuade her from holding fast to her clause. Of course, she did, and when the curtain came up to reveal an interracial audience, she was delighted. There were ramifications to her actions, though, and the white minority felt betrayed by Dusty's open-minded demands. She and her crew were escorted to the airport by police to ensure their safety. But not before a line of black airport porters saluted their departure.
The South African government fought back though, with a campaign of disinformation. “Dusty had set this problem up explicitly to create publicity for the American tour that would follow her South African concerts” (Valentine and Wickham, p. 63).
“One of the reasons I'm very insecure is that I have many reputations,” Dusty admitted, “and many things that are totally unfounded. Being unreliable. Not turning up for a show. Never finishing an engagement. Doing the craziest things” (Fong-Torres).
At the end of 1965, another situation arose that created something of a controversy for Dusty. She was invited to play the San Remo Festival in Italy, an annual, elegant affair on the country's Adriatic coast. Dusty prepared extensively to perform “Face to Face with Love.” But something wasn't right. At rehearsals, her voice kept breaking down and Dusty panicked. She'd pushed herself to fight through it, but her condition worsened. With a worn and weak voice, she pulled out of the festival. This wouldn't be the first time, or the last, that she did this. The pattern recurred. Her voice, often taken to the limit, grew weak frequently. Dusty's anxiety exacerbated the problem.
Another incident occurred in 1966 at the height of her popularity in the United States. Dusty had been enjoying a run of hits and her first two albums had sold well in America. She was booked to headline a three-week stint at a New York City venue called Basin Street East. Buddy Rich, the disputatious jazz drummer, and his 17-piece big band orchestra were selected to support her.
Rich took his opening slot with disdain. That he had to support a “third-rate pop singer” irked him and he let the audience know his feelings. “Opening night was a disaster. Rich managed to sabotage Dusty's moment of glory” (Valentine and Wickham, p. 71). That first night, he played an hour over his allotted time, and effectively served as “a star killer.” On subsequent nights, despite the protestations of Dusty and her management, little changed. Rich berated the headliner, shortchanged her of rehearsal time, and did whatever he could do to obstruct her success.
The engagement wore on Dusty. One night, after Rich denied her more rehearsal time to work on new tunes, she entered his dressing room and slapped him across the face. On the last night of the stand, as she finished her final set at Basin Street, Buddy Rich's sax player entered the stage, grabbed the mike, and made a presentation to her: it was a pair of bright red boxing gloves.
Deserved or not, Dusty's new reputation as a combative performer dogged her for the rest of her career.
Dusty Goes to Memphis
In 1967, Dusty was hot, especially in the States, where she spent almost half of her time. Her third album, aptly titled Where Am I Going? chalked up another hit for the artist and songs like Clive Westlake's “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten,” rivaled her best material.
That year, Dusty's contract with Philips in the United States was up and she didn't want to renew. So when Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records approached her with sincere interest, she was thrilled. Atlantic had been the home of some of her very favorite soul artists: the Drifters, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and many others.
Wexler and Ertegun knew Dusty's capabilities well. But she was still surprised when they asked her to fly to Memphis, where so many soul musicians were based, to record her first album for the label. In fact, her Atlantic contract included in it a “key man” clause; Dusty was required to make her first album for the label with Jerry Wexler.
Wexler remembers prepping for those initial Memphis sessions with Dusty at his home on Long Island. “We must have had 75 songs there, of which she liked exactly 0,” (Hoerburger). Wexler exaggerated. That first batch of songs did include two songs that Dusty eventually cut: “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Just a Little Lovin’.” “Poor Jerry Wexler,” said Dusty. “I drove him mad, because originally I only picked two… And then we plowed ankle deep through the demos. We disagreed on a couple that I let him win on, ‘The Windmills of Your Mind,’ for one, and he was right… He knew something I didn’t” (Jim Feldman, Dusty in Memphis, liner notes, 1993).
Delays in choosing material and pre-production required a postponement of studio time. A second batch of cuts proved to be better targeted. Two songs from Randy Newman, four tracks from the tried and true pairing of Goffin/King, a track from Bacharach/David, and one from Mann/Weil, among others, were selected. It is perhaps the most illustrious batch of pop songs ever chosen, and none were written specifically for Dusty.
Dusty flew down to Memphis with arranger Arif Mardin and engineer Tom Dowd late in the summer of 1968. At first being in Memphis intimidated Dusty, what with all the city's musical history. She had to overcome jitters in the vocal booth as well. “They'd take me to the studio and tell me, ‘This is where Wilson Pickett stood!’ ” she fretted. “They didn't have a clue that it absolutely froze me” (Feldman).
Could she measure up to her heroes? Her voice, breathy and delicate, wasn't a cinch for the task, and neither was the figure she cut—slight, British, and blonde—a familiar one in an urban studio. But she settled down and laid down her basic vocals in about week. The studio band, known as the Memphis Cats, did their work in about the same time. She had the support of the city's best musicians, including the Memphis Horns, and backing vocalists the Sweet Inspirations. The accompaniment was spare and tasteful, allowing the full brightness of the songs to shine on Dusty's voice.
Dusty also had a strange way of recording her voice in the studio. On In Memphis, she generally recorded her vocal tracks very late at night, in the dark, with the backing track turned up so loudly that she had a hard time hearing her own voice. Still, she had miraculous pitch and nailed it, to the delight of all present.
Wexler and Dowd insisted that her voice would carry the album and the musicians would provide her with a subtle cushion. This didn't make Dusty happy. For much of her career, she abided by the Spector-esque approach of burying her voice in a lush wall of orchestration. “She used to say that most of all she wanted her voice to be another instrument in the overall sound of the production” (Wickham and Valentine, p. 113). But that wasn't the way it would happen. She returned to New York City to cut final vocals. Dusty, along with the Atlantic posse, produced and mixed the album.
“Her head tones, and the way she put a falsetto on, and her phrasing,” were impressive, says Tom Dowd (Feldman). “She's one of the important singers. Her voice contains the essence of soul.”
Upon its American release in March 1969, the album received excellent reviews, but did not meet with commensurate sales. The record-buying public was perhaps unready to accept Dusty as a serious artist. “The Windmills of Your Mind” received a song for Best Oscar from the film The Thomas Crown Affair, giving the record a boost.
In the United Kingdom, the album sat around for months before shipping to stores. In London, her previously album, Dusty Definitely, still had legs, and her management wondered what a British audience would want with a bunch of southern soul tracks from their West Hampstead diva? When it was finally released there, critics adored it, but the record received little commercial attention. It peaked at number 99 on the album chart. 1969 was, of course, more about Woodstock than a British pop singer's journey to Memphis.
Dusty herself couldn't listen to it for a year after it was complete, and she had trouble singing “Preacher Man” when he career resurged in the late 1980s.
With all the accolades, In Memphis was destined to live on as an underground classic, the kind of album that would grow in legend rather than in sales. With each passing year it's name-checked more and more as new soul converts continue referring to it as a touchstone.
In the fall of 1969, Dusty went to America again to record, this time to Philadelphia to work with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The two music men would later single-handedly account for that would come to be the Philly soul sound or “the Sound of Philadelphia.” Gamble and Huff had worked with Wilson Pickett and Jerry Butler among others, but they had yet to refine their sound. Dusty was familiar with Gamble and Huff and their collaboration was casual, comfortable, and low-key. The album A Brand New Me, aka From Dusty… With Love in the United Kingdom, was well received, but it fell to the same commercial ennui that plagued In Memphis. The tepid sales depressed Dusty and she contemplated her next move.
1970 and Beyond
Following her work in the late 1960s, Dusty became a major artist and a superstar. She had tremendous visibility. She sold out clubs regularly and earned huge fees for her appearances. She appealed to pop fans of both sexes, all ages, white and black. No one was immune from Dusty's popular spell.
Ironically, at about the same time, Dusty was wearing down physically and emotionally. She'd been reaching for the top since going solo in the early 1960s and her super-controlling, high-energy approach sapped her endurance. She also wanted to put more time into her relationship with Norma Tanega, who had moved back to California at the behest of Dusty's manager after their relationship had grown stressful. So Dusty made a commitment to spend more time in America.
Over the next couple of years, she'd jet back and forth from L.A. to London, working sporadically.
She'd tour the English provinces up north. The club circuit had always appreciated her special brand of soul. But by the end of 1972, she felt like she'd done all she needed to do in this phase of her life. She said goodbye to her band, packed up her dresses and wigs, and headed once and for all to America. She'd hired an American crew; her personal assistant and manager were both based in London and declined to make the move with Dusty.
She enjoyed solid popularity in America, and had confidence that her management would know how to plot her future course. She respected American music and American audiences, and took heart in the fact that the country's scene embraced all different kinds of music. The first thing she did was tour “the circuit.” In contrast to the British circuit, where she'd play glorified pubs, the American venues were generally posh rooms, often connected to hotels. Dusty loved a good hotel and she reveled in the luxury of the places she stayed during this time.
But as a solo performer, it was also lonely. Rather than traveling with her band, she'd play with the house bands at each stop, so that required extensive rehearsals and sound checks. After the show each night, Dusty was so tired all she could do was eat and sleep. Not the glamour she was accustomed to, but the money was good and so were the audiences.
In 1972, at the tail end of the tour, Dusty met Faye Harris, a photojournalist, based in Los Angeles. They bonded and ended up spending the next six years together, off and on. Harris was taken with Dusty's intelligence and passion. When Harris suggested they move from their small apartment, Dusty went out and bought a large home with a pool for the two of them in Laurel Canyon.
By the mid-1970s, the hotel circuit was wearing thin. The rise of corporate rock loomed over the pop charts. Bands like Aerosmith and the Doobie Brothers were now dominating radio, turning acts like Dusty into quaint artifacts of a bygone age. Hotels were also no longer trendy venues. Soon, stadiums would hold all the very biggest and boldest musical experiences. Dusty had weathered the folk boom, the British Invasion, the Sound of Young America (Motown), the British Blues Boom of the mid-1960s, and the rise of hippie and acid rock of the late 1960s. She made it through with bold and honest music. Now, though, it was looking more and more like she'd be squashed by this latest musical juggernaut, with its decibels, drugs, money, and hedonism. In fact, she didn't have much of a chance at all.
Drinking and Drugs
One night, amid a bender involving lots of drinking and drugs, Elton John, a longtime friend of Dusty's and a huge fan from her days on Ready, Steady, Go!, asked her to sing on a session of his. Dusty had already worked with him on his Tumbleweed Connection recording, albeit in better days, and Elton really wanted to see Dusty get back to her old self, maybe even make a new record.
Initially, Dusty resisted his requests. But when she heard she'd be singing with some old friends, including Cissy Houston, who sang on her In Memphis sessions, she couldn't resist. She showed up to do some supporting vocal tracks.
The track in question, “The Bitch Is Back,” would show up on his album, Caribou, but Dusty's voice wouldn't be on it. Not that she didn't try. It became immediately apparent that her voice was quite nearly gone. She struggled to hit the high notes. Her vices were catching up with her. The girl with the once mighty voice was losing what she'd had for her entire professional life. The Elton session was humiliating and plunged her deeper into drinking.
Sometime later, Anne Murray managed to convince Dusty to sing at some sessions. Occasionally, her voice bounced back, and she took advantage. She sang demos in Los Angeles, a substantial step down from her former superstar pedestal.
By the summer of 1975, Dusty's life was in a tailspin. She had had four commercial failures in a row and drinking and popping pills consumed her. She began attending AA meetings—at small town churches to minimize the risk of being found out—signing in as Mary O’Brien. Her public image had always been so important to her, and she guarded it closely.
But she felt such low self-esteem that she had also taken to the violent, self-effacing act of physically cutting herself. A few years back, when her voice let her down right before the eve of a residential booking for the London-based Talk of the Town series, Dusty cut herself repeatedly—acting out her frustration and violent depression—and now she was reprising that deviant behavior. From this point on, she had to wear long sleeves to hide her wounds.
Royalty checks had decreased in size. Her relationship with Faye was strained. She was constantly on drugs. The record company, seeing she was in no state to reenter the studio, occupied themselves by releasing compilations. While this was a boon to Dusty financially, it also made her feel that her only future was to mine the past. If she had no real future, then, what did that mean for her as an artist?
Dusty was eventually diagnosed as manic depressive. But she refused to look back. She hated ruminating on her unhappy childhood. Beyond living in the shadow of her brother Tom, Dusty had little affection from either parent. Call it emotional neglect. She lived for her music, and managed to survive without affection the way a cactus requires little water.
For the next several years, Dusty would be in and out of detox or psychiatric wards. Each time she lapsed she'd be rescued by one or another of her courtiers. She had a handful of lovers and friends who kept a watchful eye on her, including Harris, Helene Sellery, Suzanne Lacefield, and Peggy Allbrecht. She spent lots of time with professional tennis players as well, including Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals. They often came to her aid.
It was now 1976 and four years had passed since Dusty attempted to sing in front of an audience. Nona Hendryx, an old friend, was red hot as a member of LaBelle. The soul trio implored Dusty to sing with them on stage in front of a sold-out Oakland audience. Dusty agreed, and the crowd went wild. It would be one of Dusty's best nights in years. Sadly, it would be her last successful performance for a long while.
In the winter of that same year, Dusty was working on her new album, It Begins Again, with Roy Thomas Baker, a producer who catapulted to fame thanks to his successful work with the rock band Queen. Despite her efforts in AA, Dusty managed to stay sober for only a week or two before relapsing into drugs and alcohol. Her relationship with Faye Harris was again on the skids and the recording wasn't going as well as she'd hoped.
One night, her friend Helene, who received phone calls religiously from Dusty nightly for years, hadn't heard from her. Suzanne Lacefield, her sponsor at AA, didn't hear from Dusty either and both began to panic. Suzanne rushed to Dusty's place and found her unconscious on the floor. The evidence of an overdose was everywhere: pill bottles, vodka, and dirt, where she had fallen into a potted plant.
Dusty most often found love from the stage, from her fans and friends. This could explain why she made such a super-human effort to stay in the public eye. When she discovered how much “love” she felt from her audiences, she seized it and did her best to hold onto it. For a decade she lived on the love of her fans. And when she started to lose that love, she began dying, if not literally, certainly in the eyes of those who knew her best.
Dusty recaptured that love in the late 1970s when her act turned toward campy cabaret. In London, especially, where she found her dearest fans, Dusty came into her own as a person who could at last be honest with herself. At the age of 40, she was finally comfortable with being herself.
She granted an interview to Gay News. It was ostensibly to promote It Begins Again. Her handlers identified a potentially huge audience that had already silently begun to gather at her feet: gays and lesbians.
“The gay community has been extremely loyal to me as a singer,” she'd said in an interview. “I value that fiercely.”
“For them, Dusty had always been the supreme diva. It was her very ‘singleness’ that so appealed… They loved her for being cosmopolitan and exotic, for recording singles in Italian and French over the years, for knowing about Brazilian music before it was fashionable, and for being well-traveled, as much as for her ‘over-the-top’ looks.” (Len Brown, “Scandal in the Wind,” NME, February 1989.)
In 1979, four years before AIDS became a health issue, homosexuals were beginning to enjoy a visibility of their own. They'd respond enthusiastically when Dusty acknowledged them, and they began to love her, her campy shows, her roller skates, and audacious clothes, all over again.
The shows, both in London and in America, went well, but Dusty was hanging on by a thread. Her voice needed cortisone shots to get through, followed by heavy doses of Gran Marnier to recover. She'd begun a new addiction as well, to barbiturates. She said she loved the euphoria it gave her.
That euphoria only temporarily masked her unstable behavior. She continued cutting herself and resorting to even more violent acts. One night in a fit of rage she detached a restroom sink from the wall and smashed it on the floor, bloodying herself in the process.
In 1983, at an AA meeting, Dusty fell for an exotic, wild-haired woman named Tedda. She had just come off a stint in prison for violent behavior, but Dusty was taken by her beauty. After a brief courtship, they engaged in a civil union, a legally binding same-sex arrangement. They were married, surrounded by family and friends at what Dusty insisted would be a dry wedding. But no sooner had the wedding wrapped up that the newlyweds were fighting. Their relationship was turbulent from the start and deteriorated rapidly. For the first time in her life, Dusty had teamed up with someone as unstable as she. One day, that instability surfaced violently.
Tedda, enraged about something Dusty had done, clobbered her partner with a frying pan. Dusty was hospitalized and her face never truly recovered. Tedda was sent to prison, a repeat offense. Helene extended Dusty money for plastic surgery on her mouth, but rumor had it she opted for the cheapest cosmetic procedure possible so she could spend the rest on drugs.
Helene also took Dusty out to visit Tedda in prison. This forgiving gesture had a dual purpose. Dusty needed her “spouse’s” signature for food stamps. Rock bottom, the clichéd destination for junkies and ne’er-do-wells, was close at hand. She lived in fleabag motels in the seediest neighborhoods of Hollywood. One night, 11 months into sobriety, she celebrated by appearing at a charity event. Sadly, Dusty wasn't ready to sing.
“A few phrases into her first song, she collapsed under the weight of her drug intake. She left the stage, to return a few moments later with a Hoover [vacuum cleaner]. To the astonishment of the audience, Dusty proceeded to hum to herself as she cleaned the stage” (Valentine and Wickham, p. 221).
The incident is considered the most bizarre of Dusty's career.
More Battles, Occasional Victories
One day, in 1987, after several recording misadventures, including White Heat and the single “Sometimes Like Butterflies,” Dusty received a phone call. It was from a songwriter named Allee Willis, a woman who had just written a song with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys. During the process, the dance-pop duo, popular at the time in the United Kingdom and the United States, had mentioned to Willis how much they adored Dusty, and how they'd love to have her sing on the track. “What could they possibly want from me?” Dusty was said to have asked herself.
On the verge of retirement, the prospect lured her back into the studio. The track, “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” featured the monotone Tennant trading lead with Dusty. The juxtaposition was magical and the song became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Incredibly, it became the second biggest hit of her entire career.
The Pet Shop Boys would go on to produce half of the songs on Dusty's next album, the U.K.-only Reputation. The set yielded a handful of hits and Dusty was back on the charts again, on the dance floors, and impersonated on the drag bar circuit.
The first hints of serious illness for Dusty appeared in 1994, when she was in Nashville recording with Mary Chapin Carpenter and K.T. Oslin. Her manager, Barry Krost, envisioned Dusty's next project to be a country music set, called In Nashville. But bad weather sidelined the project. Just days after the stint in Nashville, she felt a lump in her breast and called her friend Vicki Wickham. With no doctor of her own, Dusty went to Wickham's doctor. The tumor was malignant. For the first time in her life, the worst was actually happening to Dusty.
“Because she'd beaten so many other things in her life, Dusty always believed she could beat breast cancer” (Valentine and Wickham, p. 257).
The cancer went into remission for a few years, and Dusty celebrated by releasing A Very Fine Love in 1996. When the cancer returned, it had spread into her bones. She called her friend Faye Harris to ask her some advice: “I'm going to die and I don't know how to do it—I've never done it before” (Valentine and Wickham, p. 286).
In January 1999, she received word that she'd be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's class of that year. The actual induction ceremony, in which her friend Elton John served as inductor, came four days after Dusty died. She died on March 2, a few weeks before her 60th birthday.
In Memphis (Atlantic/Rhino, 1969/1999)
The Dusty Springfield Anthology (Mercury/Chronicles, 1997)
In London (Atlantic/Rhino, 1999)
With the Springfields
Anthology: Over the Hills and Far Away (Phillips, 1997)
Feldman, Jim. Dusty In Memphis, liner notes. Atlantic/Rhino, 1999.
Gaar, Gillian. She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll. New York: Seal Press, 2002.
O’Brien, Lucy. Dusty: The Queen Bee of Pop. London: Pan, 2000.
Valentine, Penny and Vicki Wickham. Dancing with Demons: Dusty Springfield. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2000.