Dusty Springfield - Biography



 

 

          When talking about soul music, it's not unusual to classify Dusty Springfield as the best white female singer of her time. But would it be too bold to subtract the word “white” from that statement, without taking any credit away from Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick or Gladys Knight? There is at least one person who would claim that she doesn't belong in the same league as those greats, and that person is Dusty Springfield herself. Her career was marked by her own insecurities about her talent, which came out in the form of over-perfectionism in the studio, substance abuse, and depression. These traits aren't identifiable within her music, however, which paints the image of someone who simply had complete command over her voice and knew when to sound happy (“Breakfast in Bed”), sexy (“The Look of Love”) or tearfully sad (“I Don't Want to Hear it Anymore”). There is nothing her music will tell us about her personally as she, like many singers of the soul era, didn't write her own lyrics. And that says more about her than anything else; Dusty wanted us to hear her voice and leave her life out of it. We don't get to hear her take on the self-mutilation rumors, her bi-sexuality, or her alcoholism. Instead, we get the disguise; the beehive wigs, the “panda eyes” make-up, and the sweet, husky voice that reigned over the British charts during the sixties.

 

            Born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien on April 16th, 1939, in Hampstead, North London, Springfield was raised on classical music and jazz. She would sing with her older brother, Dion, in their parents' garage and soon developed a deep fondness for Peggy Lee. Right out of school, she joined a trio of girl singers called the Lana Sisters. After releasing a few singles for the Fontana label, the group fell apart in 1959, and Springfield went back to making recordings with her brother, who was now working with his friend, Tim Field. The new trio named themselves the Springfields, and the brother and sister took on the stage names Tom and Dusty Springfield. The folk group enjoyed a successful run of singles after signing to Philips Records in 1961, including the top five British hits “Island of Dreams,” “Bambino,” and “Say I Won't Be There.” Eventually, they even scored in America with the 1962 top-20 hit, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Some credit the Springfields with paving the way for the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. In 1963, Dusty, who wanted to gear the group's sound toward soul, and Tom, who preferred to stick to folk, decided to break up the band, and had their farewell show at the London Palladium in September, 1963.

 

            The time was right for Dusty to go solo, and she began her new career in fine form with the Motown-inspired single, “I Only Want to be With You.” The song, which came out in January of 1964, reached number 4 in Britain, but the real sign that Dusty was a viable artist was that it reached number 12 in the US, making her the first UK artist (and non-Beatle) to significantly place on the US charts. One month later, she released the even more Supremes-sounding “Stay Awhile,” and in April, her debut, A Girl Called Dusty (1964 Philips), arrived (later re-packaged as Stay Awhile-I Only Want To Be With You by Mercury in the US). Her next single, “Wishin' and Hopin',” was her biggest American hit and the first in a sequence that came to her courtesy of the writing partnership of Hal David and Burt Bacharach. She also scored big in the UK with “I Just Don't Know What to do With Myself” and a song written by her brother, “Losing You.” By the end of 1964, Springfield had released her second American LP, Dusty (Mercury) and won the first of four consecutive honors from NME for Best Female Vocalist. At a time when singles, not albums, reigned supreme, so did Dusty, and from 1965 to 1968, her name was practically synonymous with chart success.

 

            Springfield caused a controversy when she visited South Africa for a tour in 1964 and was subsequently deported after refusing to perform in front of crowds that were racially segregated. The decision drew criticism from some of her showbiz contemporaries, but her career did not slow, and she released her third US album, Ooooooweeee!!! (Mercury) in 1965. She scored with the hits “Losing You,” “Your Hurtin' Kinda Love,” and “In the Middle of Nowhere.” Also in that year, she hosted a BBC television show called The Sounds of Motown, which was famous for exposing young British music fans to the groups that were burning up the American charts. In 1966, she released the biggest hit of her career, “You Don't Have to Say You Love Me,” an Italian ballad driven by Springfield's achingly lovelorn vocal performance. It hit number one in the UK and broke the top five in the US. By the end of the year, she was in the news again, after an argument with Buddy Rich over who should receive top billing in a shared performance resulted in Rich insulting Springfield; the singer responded by punching Rich in the face.

 

            In 1967, she released both Where Am I Going? (Philips) and The Look of Love (Philips), the latter of which containing the stunning, sensuous title track by David/Bacharach which is now considered a classic. It reached a modest 22 on the charts and “Give Me Time” was also a minor hit. Springfield cut one more LP, the British-only Dusty...Definitely (1968) before signing to Atlantic. It was clear that her chart prowess was fading fast, and to rectify the situation, she made a move in 1968 that arguably did more than anything else to cement her status as an icon. Springfield traveled to Memphis, Tennessee and set up shop with producers Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler to record Dusty in Memphis (1969 Atlantic), universally regarded as her master work. Backed by Memphis' finest musicians and the compositions of Bacharach, Randy Newman and Carole King, among others, Springfield turned out one soulful performance after another. Sadly, the album produced only one hit, “Son of a Preacher Man,” and was a non-factor on the charts otherwise. The charts were owned by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in those days, and girl singers were now regarded as unessential. This put the singer in an awkward and confusing spot; if she couldn't make an impact on the charts with her masterpiece, how was she going to find success with future releases?

 

            In 1970, Springfield released another critically-praised work, this time taking on Philadelphia soul. Most of the songs on A Brand New Me (Atlantic) were composed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the song-writing mastermind duo who had previously found success with the O'Jays and the Soul Survivors. Again, there was very little chart success, and for someone who had so recently been racking up the number ones, this must have been detrimental to an already fragile self-image. See All Her Faces followed in 1972 on Philips, and it was not released in the US. Springfield then moved from London to New York, and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where she signed to the ABC/Dunhill label. 1973 saw the release of Cameo (Dunhill), another brilliant recording by Springfield and her production team which failed to make any impact on the charts whatsoever. A 1974 album entitled Longing never actually saw the light of day for unclear reasons, and Springfield was nearing the rock bottom of her depression. In 1975, she made references to her bisexuality in an interview, and was drinking heavily. She spent the next couple of years battling her alcohol abuse, and did almost no recording, other than an appearance as a backup singer on Anne Murray's Together LP. In 1978, she attempted to make a comeback with the Roy Thomas Baker-produced It Begins Again (United Artists), but the attempt failed. Living Without Your Love (1979 United Artists) also failed to chart.

 

            Dusty carried on recording into the eighties and fully embraced the popular synthesized sounds of the day with 1982's White Heat (Casablanca), yet another virtually unnoticed outing. It had now been about fifteen years and eight albums since Springfield had been at her peak, and it had been a steady decline since then. Over the next four years, she had minor success with singles such as the 1984 Spencer Davis duet, “Private Number,” 1985's “Sometimes Like Butterflies,” and the Richard Carpenter duet, “Something in Your Eyes.” It is very likely that she would have given up, or spent the remainder of her life in obscurity had she not received an unlikely phone call from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, otherwise known as the Pet Shop Boys, in 1987.

 

            The electro-pop duo asked her to come to London and record a song with them, and Springfield, having no idea who the Pet Shop Boys were, eventually accepted. The product of this partnership was the mega-hit, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” off of the duo's 1987 album, Actually. The song was an international smash, reaching number two on the charts both in the US and the UK. Springfield benefited greatly from the success, and released her first album of new material in nine years, Reputation (1991 EMI). She allowed the Pet Shop Boys to produce five of the album's ten tracks. Those songs proved to be the best on the LP, which sold better than anything Springfield had released since the sixties. Dusty was back, and in 1995, she recorded in Nashville for the country-influenced A Very Fine Love (Columbia). This would unfortunately be her last studio album. During the recording sessions she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After months of radiation therapy proved successful, the cancer went into remission. Less than a year later it returned, and though she fought it for three more years, it claimed her life on March 2nd, 1999. She was 59 years old, six weeks away from being 60, thirteen days away from being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and mere hours away from receiving the Order of the British Empire from the Queen of England.

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