Dusty Springfield was a pop singer. She liked rich orchestrations, grand melodies, lost-love lyrics. She did not aim to be radical, but her artistic sensitivities and temperament were undeniable. She insisted on picking her own songs and involving herself in the production of her records and in how her musicians played them. This was subversive, particularly for a girlie-girl in the mid ’60s. Legend has it that Buddy Rich called her a bitch, and that she clocked him. She initially rejected nearly every song brought to her for 1969’s illustrious Dusty in Memphis.
Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in London 59 years ago, Dusty Springfield died March 2, 1999, in her home in Henley-on-Thames, after a protracted battle with breast cancer. Intensely private, Dusty didn’t discuss her illness much in interviews, but she also didn’t keep it a secret— she once said that she walked away from her 1994 diagnosis resigned to thinking “Oh well . . . “,
until she realized no one would be around to take care of her cat. Columbia delayed the release of her final album, ’95’s A Very Fine Love, so she would be well enough to promote it. The overdue honors thrown at her on the eve of her passing came a little too late: She was recently named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire but couldn’t attend the ceremony, and on March 15 she’ll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As usual, the industry prepared itself for inevitable posthumous consumer curiosity. Mercury’s 1998 The Very Best of Dusty Springfield collects 20 flawless ’60s single sides, while the label’s three-disc 1997 The Dusty Springfield Anthology presents a 77-cut chronological trip through 34 years of hits and misses recorded for over a half- dozen different companies— classics, some substandard album tracks, and frequently fanciful obscurities reflecting her range. Rhino’s latest incarnation of the oft reissued Dusty in Memphis adds worthy outtakes, but also adds an entire rightly aborted 1971 album with girl-group Svengali Jeff Barry. And Rhino’s Dusty in London gathers previously
unreleased-in-America tracks recorded shortly before the singer’s 1970 move to L.A.
But put all that aside for now; just listen to “The Look of Love.” It’s probably Burt Bacharach’s least complicated melody, the arrangement minimal, Hal David’s lyric simplicity itself. Dusty sings the first word alone, the orchestra joins her on the second, but the track is essentially Dusty sighing, yearning, caressing desire’s elusive face with one of her many voices— her hushed, husky croon. She seems hypnotized, spaced-out, stoned on love, and the more she holds back, the more she conveys. Check the phrasing: “The look [pause] of love [pause] is in [pause] your eyes [pause], the look [pause] your heart [pause] can’t disguise.” You can picture her locked into a two-way, across-a-
candlelit-restaurant-table stare, pacing herself as if to elongate that sweet gaze, as if she can’t believe it isn’t a dream or doesn’t want to wake up or snap out of it. The spell won’t last forever, so she might as well soak it up with every softly exhilarated cell of her body.
Or check out a Northern Soul dance number on the same ’67 album. “What’s It Gonna Be” is a 131-second model of compression and drama, tension and release. A swingin’ discotheque bass bumps, stabbing strings like something out of Psycho start sawing away, and Dusty enters the atmosphere of dread with her heart in her hands, ready to rip it in two lest her lover beat her to it. Her delivery is tough, cool, cutting, yet unguarded and bordering on hysterical, capable of lashing out or imploding at any moment. The background singers echo her despair, and the word “hurtin’ ” is repeated seven times in a few seconds. Yet she’s not ready to go out without a fight, and she aims for a make-it-or-break-it plea that would have been implausible only a moment ago. Several registers higher than where she started, her entreaty shoots out from an entirely different part of her body, one that doesn’t seem to belong to a white Englishwoman in a beehive, in mascara worn as proto-goth eye shadow, in a flowery maxi dress. “Baby believe me!” she cries. You do.
British superstar Cliff Richard called her “the White Negress.” During one of her first American tours with Martha and the Vandellas, Dusty would occasionally step in for a missing Vandella, supplying vocals from backstage. When she toured South Africa in ’64, Dusty refused to sing in segregated theaters. After a few shows, she was deported. A few months later, she hosted a special edition of the Mod-identified TV program Ready Steady Go, introducing Motown to England. Her own British TV show, Dusty, championed her soul-music soul mates. Footage of her romping through Charles and Inez Foxx’s “Mockingbird” with Jimi Hendrix proves just how far she would go for what she believed: Jimi’s guitar nearly drowns out both of their voices, because Dusty had insisted to her horrified BBC engineers that this was how it was supposed to sound.
Carole King considered this “difficult” singer her ultimate interpreter, and what Dusty does to “Some of Your Lovin’ ” alone proves the point. Aretha Franklin had rejected “Son of a Preacher Man” until Dusty did it. And although Dusty preferred Aretha’s interpretation, it’s Dusty’s original that overflows with understated genius. Dusty: “All Aretha ever said to me— and I died— we were in a lift, and she just put her hand on my arm and went, ‘Girrlll!’ ”
Through much of her life, sadly, Dusty did not like herself. Memphis coproducer Jerry Wexler has said she insisted on doing her vocals with the instrumental backing in her headphones as loud as possible because she didn’t want to hear her own voice. Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant recalls how his heroine insisted on recording her vocals one syllable at a time for their 1987 number-two hit “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” her highest-charting American record ever. Soon after Dusty blurted out in a 1970 interview that “I’m as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy,” she retreated to L.A., where she developed drinking and drug problems, and even attempted suicide. She cleaned up, but her career never recovered, and her music fell from near-continual brilliance to mere sporadic transcendence.
That shift is obvious after the first few cuts on the final disc of her ’97 Anthology. The material suddenly gets schlocky and bloated, and her voice often feels thin, labored, and lost until the Pets bring Dusty back to her refined pop-soul roots. Everything clicks on ’89’s “In Private,” a haunting, veiled allusion to forbidden love that’s completely understood by its intended
audience— in England, Dusty is both mourned publicly by the queen (the real one) and revered by lesbians and gays as the quintessential pop icon whose mix of public exuberance and personal anguish not only mirrors their own but also is their own. In America, “In Private” remains one of the only noncurrent early-morning anthems of a gay circuit party scene that ordinarily (and fearfully) refuses to look back. Her lung power here is diminished, but her urgency lives on.
Although it’s rarely acknowledged, Dusty’s legacy is everywhere. There’s a direct line between Dusty determination and Girl Power, the Dusty Springfield created by former folksinger and aspiring nun Mary O’Brien and the Ziggy Stardust forged by David Bowie. Look harder and you’ll see the link between Dusty and k.d. lang,
Boy George, Sleater-Kinney, Annie Lennox, Labelle, Teena Marie, Missy Elliott, Bonnie Raitt, X-Ray Spex, K.T. Oslin, George Michael, Living Colour, Elton, Alanis, Eminem, Janis— any performer who insists on stepping over a line they’re warned never to cross. Dusty in Memphis delivers the emotional and musical masterstroke that every critic suggests, but the exhilaration doesn’t begin and end there. Most of Anthology would sound timely today sandwiched between Britney Spears and Air, lowbrow and high, pop commerciality and avant-garde art, because Dusty was all those things. She was the original riot grrrl, a White Panther in a wig, a femme dyke who would be a drag queen, a nice Catholic girl your grandmother would and probably did like. She’s my all-time favorite. I hope I hear Dusty in heaven.