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Daughter of a North London Man
Dressed in a long evening gown and spiked high heels, with her hair bleached blond and mascara ringing her eyes, Dusty Springfield could look like a lounge singer with a pageant queen past. Fittingly, today Dusty is a camp icon, like Cher and Liza, a favorite for female impersonators, a featured performer in almost every drag show. In her own life, Springfield similarly defied all stereotype and caricature and broke more than a few rules. She cut a wide and influential swath through contemporary music; she brought a gravitas to her career that, even weighted with Botox, Cher will never match.
Dusty Springfield was born Mary O’Brien in North London in 1939. As a kid, she recorded folk songs with her brother in the garage and performed at the Butlin camps where the family spent its holidays. After graduating from school, she sang briefly with a girl group—The Lana Sisters—before rejoining her brother Tom as a member of the folk-singing trio The Springfields. The Springfields enjoyed considerable success—their cover of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” reached #20 in the US—, but after a few years, the siblings decided to go their own ways. Tom would go on to write some of The Seekers biggest hits, including "I'll Never Find Another You", "A World Of Our Own", and "Georgy Girl", while Mary—now calling herself Dusty Springfield—pursued a solo career. She immediately scored a hit with “I Only Want to Be with You,” which reached #4 in Britain and #12 in the US. Other hits quickly followed, including “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself."
The songs were all well suited to the young pop singer—the sort the times produced and her audience appreciated. “I Only Want to Be with You” had an upbeat melody and splashy horns. “Wishin’ and Hopin’” offered young girls the sort of man-catching advice that you would expect in a song written by men (“Do the things he likes to do, wear your hair just for him”). In "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself, "a song written by the same two men, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Springfield played the part of the jilted woman—or rather the jilted woman of every philandering man’s dreams:
“Baby, if your new love ever turns you down
Come back, I will be around
Just waiting for you
I don't know what else to do“
Wishin’ and Hopin’ for Equality
By the end of 1964, Springfield was the hottest female singer in England, but in December of that year, she revealed that she had more to say than her first songs suggested. While touring in South Africa, she was placed under house arrest after performing in front of a racially mixed audience. It was neither an accident nor a spur-of-the-moment decision; in booking her tour, she had insisted on a contract clause stating that she would not sing in segregated theaters in the country ruled by apartheid. When she tried to exercise that clause by performing before a mixed-race audience in Cape Town, her visa was revoked and she was forced to leave the country.
Her actions drew flak from some in the industry; other British performers criticized her for antagonizing the white South African market. She still had enormous clout among her fans back home, though, and she used it to pursue another project in 1965. She convinced the producers of Ready Steady Go! to air a special Sounds of Motown featuring many of the R&B and soul performers she admired. When the producers questioned how British audiences would react to the unknown black performers, Springfield suggested that she host the show and personally introduce them to her fans.
Airing in April 1965, the show featured Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, and The Miracles. Springfield shared the stage with Martha and the Vandellas for a rendition of “Wishin’ and Hopin’” that night, and according to one scholar, their performance had a huge impact on more than just popular musical tastes. “Springfield’s fans saw their idol in the presence of the singers that she herself idolized . . . and whose cultural background she acknowledged as a principal source of her vocal style.” There were no speeches, and nothing overtly political was said, but “no one could have missed the message of solidarity it conveyed,” especially following so soon after Springfield’s well-publicized actions in South Africa.1
A World of Her Own
Springfield’s artistic and political principles were inspired by her taste in music; she was a huge fan of R&B and soul. On the albums she released during these years, she sprinkled in covers of songs written by African American writers like Billy Davis and Bobby Washington while also giving her audience the sort of Burt Bacharach/Hal David tunes they demanded. By 1968, however, she had decided that she needed to stake out a more distinctive place in the industry. Music was moving quickly beyond the pop formulas of the first half of the decade. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had been released; Johnny Cash was taking his unique brand of rockabilly into Folsom Prison; Otis Redding had stolen the show at the Monterey pop festival; psychedelia was influencing even The Beach Boys’ music.
With the musical world changing around her, Springfield went to Memphis in late 1968 to record an album for her new label, Atlantic. Working with Jerry Wexler, the producer who had shaped Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Ray Charles, Springfield recorded Dusty in Memphis, an album dedicated to R&B and soul.
Given Springfield’s pop audience, the album represented a major risk. To the surprise of most, though, it revealed that this was the music she was best suited to sing. Her husky voice, filled with a smoky sensuality, had served well enough on pop ballads, but with soul music, her voice proved a more perfect instrument. Rolling Stone said she sang with “a blazing soul and sexual honesty that transcended both race and geography.”2
It was a fairly remarkable turn for the former pop star. The girl who had urged others to “wear your hair just for him” and promised to wait dutifully for her philandering man now sang as a more demanding and experienced woman. She told the girls, “Just a little lovin' early in the mornin' beats a cup of coffee.” She lamented the fact that “there's so few men nowadays who understand the soul of a woman. . . . they're always on the take and they're never giving.” She swapped her rosy view of the world for one in which “the talk just never ends and the heartache soon begins . . . and the walls are much too thin.”
No song better marked her transformation than “Son of Preacher Man.” The song had been offered to Aretha Franklin, and in retrospect it’s surprising that she turned it down. Luckily, Springfield’s voice was more than able to fill the lean arrangement, even in the first bars when backed only by a simple beat and quiet guitar. Eventually horns and back-up vocals entered, but they were restrained, forcing Springfield’s voice to sink or swim on its own.
Lyrically, the song also took Springfield to new but vocally comfortably places. Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” was not as graphic as Franklin’s (“sock it to me”), but it still oozed seduction and sex. It began with a confession (“bein' good isn't always easy”) and offered something of an apologetic explanation (“the only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man; the only boy who could ever teach me was the son of a preacher man”). In the end, the song was an unrepentant celebration:
“Takin' time to make time
Tellin' me that he's all mine
Learnin' from each other's knowin'
Lookin' to see how much we're growin’”
Greil Marcus, writing for Rolling Stone, liked the album. Dusty was no Aretha, he said; she was “evocative rather than overwhelming.” The key point was that Dusty had pulled it off: she was not just the white English girl who tried to sing soul; she had succeeded in transforming herself. Or as Marcus observed, she had formerly seemed destined “to join that crowd of big-bosomed, low necked lady singers that play what Lenny Bruce called ‘the class rooms’ and always encore with ‘Born Free,’”3 but not any longer; another writer soon crowned her the “White Queen of Soul.”
History has also applauded Springfield’s decision to go to Memphis. The album is generally considered her greatest. It is included on all the “best ever” lists, including Rolling Stone’s, where it is ranked 89th. Yet for all the critical and historical recognition, the album and its signature track only did moderately well when released. “Son of a Preacher Mann” climbed to #10 in the US, but no higher. The album only reached #99.
Nor did the years that followed prove kind to Springfield: subsequent albums did not sell well; she battled addiction and depression; she had to be hospitalized on more than one occasion for cutting herself. Yet as she had in 1964 and 1965, she decided to challenge rather than coddle her fan base with another bold action.
For years rumors had circulated about her private life. Unmarried and with no consistent male companion, she was asked repeatedly about her sexuality. Finally, in a 1970 interview, she offered a blunt-for-the-time answer: “A lot of people say I’m bent and I’ve heard it so many times I’ve almost learned to accept it. . . . I couldn’t stand to be thought of as a big butch lady. But I know I’m as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”4
Over the course of the next decade, Springfield’s bisexuality became more widely known. She never publically discussed the details of her relationships, but she did not make elaborate efforts to hide them either.
There’ll Never Be Another Her
Springfield enjoyed a brief comeback in 1987 when she joined the Pet Shop Boys in recording “What Have I done to Deserve This.” She was able to parlay that into a successful 1990 album, Reputation, but she never came close to recapturing the popularity or industry clout she enjoyed during the 1960s. In 1994, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died in 1999.
Springfield’s death triggered the usual round of commentary, including praise for her body of work, her 1968 Memphis recording in particular. Some praised more the courage and dignity she demonstrated over her career, though—her stand against apartheid in 1964; her introduction of African American artists to her British audience in 1965; her decision to reinvent herself and break a musical barrier in 1968; her honesty regarding her sexuality in 1970. She had never been classified as an activist, and she was certainly never a protest singer, but she perhaps exercised more influence and demonstrated more courage than many of the high profile activists of her day.
It had been relatively easy for Bob Dylan to climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” to a crowd of adoring fellow travelers. It had not taken much courage for Country Joe McDonald to lead a sympathetic generation in a war-damning cheer at Woodstock, fans and supporters all around him. Lady Gaga didn’t risk much in condemning homophobic policies that even army brass seemed ready to abandon. Dusty Springfield, on the other hand, did not enjoy Dylan’s audience or Gaga’s distance. Her fans were not gathered at Woodstock; she did not speak out post-Milk, post-Shepard, post-Lawrence v. Texas. Her audience was gathered in front of their tellies on Wednesday night debating whether Dusty, Cilla, or Lulu was the better singer. They weren’t looking for a singer who wanted to change the world, but they got one. Dusty Springfield risked alienating her audience, the lifeblood of her career, in order to stretch their capacity for tolerance, and she did so without ever attempting to take credit for the massive changes she helped to bring about in the world of music.
2 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” Rolling Stone, 11 December 2003, 116.
3 Greil Marcus, Dusty in Memphis, Rolling Stone, 1 November 1969, 42.