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Dusty Springfield was a bit unnerved when she set about recording “Son of a Preacher Man” and the other tracks for Dusty in Memphis; she was not sure that she could measure up to the other R&B artists that had recorded in Atlantic’s Memphis studios. Producer Jerry Wexler quickly concluded that her voice not only measured up; it could stand alone against lean backing tracks.
“Son of a Preacher Man” reflects this approach to the Memphis recording session. The introduction is instrumentally lean, a simple beat and bass line and a single guitar. Springfield’s voice is forced to go it alone without much instrumental support for the first several bars. Even when more is added—horns and back-up vocals—they are restrained. The musical styles that flowed in and out of soul music are evident in the song, including a restrained dose of gospel in the back-up vocals.
The song had been initially offered to Aretha Franklin. She turned it down, but after hearing Springfield’s recording, she recorded a version of her own. In Franklin’s cover, the vocals are surrounded by more elaborate instrumentation and back-up vocals. The piano and organ and the stylizing of the vocals lend her version a much stronger gospel feel.
In selecting a calling card for Dusty Springfield, many might choose one of the pop songs from the first part of her solo career, like “I Only Want to Be with You,“ “Wishin’ and Hopin,’” or “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” While all three were major hits, the last song was her greatest during these years. It was a top ten hit in several countries—#1 in Britain and Australia and #8 in the US. The ballad provided lots of opportunities for Springfield’s dramatic voice to show itself. As Rolling Stone observed, “When she belted she could rattle windows.”5
More broadly, “Son of a Preacher Man” seems a better choice for a calling card. It’s true that Springfield had a large dramatic voice, but what really stood out was its smoky sensuality. What set Springfield apart as an artist though, was the emotional depth she managed to convey through her music. Lulu, another singer from the era, observed, “she was very sensitive, extremely vulnerable . . . this was a very attractive quality and you could hear it in her voice.”6 Shelby Lynne more recently echoed this assessment: “What makes a great singer is that you have to be completely naked within a song. . . . Dusty was open to being fragile and letting her guard down.”7 “Son of a Preacher Man” provided Springfield with far better material for demonstrating these vocal and artistic qualities.
“Son of a Preacher Man” also better reflects the larger story of her career, including her artistic interest in R&B and soul, her commitment to promoting Motown artists in England, and her willingness to use her influence as a performer to address racial issues.
5 “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” Rolling Stone, 27 November 2008, 92.
7 “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” Rolling Stone, 27 November 2008, 92.