March 2, 1999 – Dusty Springfield was born Mary O’Brien on April 16th 1939 in West Hampstead, North London, England. She was given the nickname “Dusty” for playing football with boys in the street, and was described as a tomboy. Springfield was raised in a music-loving family. Her father would tap out rhythms on the back of her hand and encourage her to guess the musical piece. She listened to a wide range of music, including George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller. A fan of American jazz and the vocalists Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford, she wished to sound like them. At the age of twelve, she made a recording of herself performing the Irving Berlin song “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam” at a local record shop in Ealing.
After finishing school, Springfield sang with Tom in local folk clubs. In 1957 the pair worked together at holiday camps. The following year Springfield responded to an advertisement in The Stage to join The Lana Sisters, an “established sister act”, with Iris ‘Riss’ Long (aka Riss Lana, Riss Chantelle) and Lynne Abrams (not actually sisters). She had changed her name to Shan, and “cut her hair, lost the glasses, experimented with makeup, fashion” to become one of the ‘sisters’. As a member of the pop vocal trio, Springfield developed skills in harmonising and microphone technique and recorded, performed on TV, and played at live shows in the United Kingdom and at United States Air Force bases in continental Europe.
In 1960, Springfield left The Lana Sisters and formed a pop-folk trio, The Springfields, with Tom and Reshad Feild (both ex-The Kensington Squares), who was replaced by Mike Hurst in 1962. The trio chose their name while rehearsing in a field in Somerset in the springtime and took the stage names of Dusty, Tom, and Tim Springfield. Intending to make an authentic US album, the group travelled to Nashville, Tennessee, to record Folk Songs from the Hills. The local music that Springfield heard during this visit, in particular “Tell Him,” helped turn her style from folk and country towards pop music rooted in rhythm and blues. The band was voted the “Top British Vocal Group” by the New Musical Express poll in 1961 and 1962. During early 1963, The Springfields recorded their last UK Top 5 hit, “Say I Won’t Be There”. The group appeared on ITV Associated Rediffusion’s popular music TV series Ready Steady Go!
Springfield left the band after their final concert in October 1963. After the Springfields disbanded, Tom continued songwriting and producing for other artists, including Australian folk-pop group The Seekers, mid-1960s hits “I’ll Never Find Another You” and “The Carnival is Over” (lyrics only), and he co-wrote their “Georgy Girl”. He also wrote additional tracks for Springfield and released his own solo material.
In November 1963 Springfield released her first solo single, “I Only Want to Be with You,” which was co-written and arranged by Ivor Raymonde. It was produced by Johnny Franz in a manner similar to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” and included rhythm and blues features such as horn sections, backing singers, and double-tracked vocals, along with pop music strings, all in the style of girl groups that Springfield admired, such as the Exciters (whose version of “Tell Him” had inspired her to adopt a style oriented more towards rhythm and blues) and the Shirelles. It rose to No. 4 on the UK charts, leading to its nomination as a “Sure Shot” pick of records not yet charted in the US by New York disc jockey “Dandy” Dan Daniel of WMCA radio in December 1963, preceding Beatlemania. It remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks, peaking at No. 12. The B-side, “Once Upon a Time”, was written by Springfield. The release finished as No. 48 on New York’s WABC radio Top 100 for 1964. On 1 January 1964 “I Only Want to Be with You” was one of the first songs played on Top of the Pops, BBC-TV’s new music program. It sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc in the UK.
On 17 April 1964 Springfield issued her debut album A Girl Called Dusty which included mostly cover versions of her favorite songs. Among the tracks were “Mama Said,” “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” “You Don’t Own Me,” and “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa.” The album reached No. 6 in the UK in May 1964. The chart hits “Stay Awhile,” “All Cried Out,” and “Losing You” followed the same year. The B-side of “Stay Awhile” featured another self-penned track, “Somethin’ Special,” which AllMusic’s Richie Unterberger described as “a first-rate Springfield original”. However, Springfield declared: “I don’t really see myself as a songwriter. I don’t really like writing … I just don’t get any good ideas and the ones I do get are pinched from other records. The only reason I write is for the money – oh mercenary creature!”
In 1964, Springfield recorded two Burt Bacharach songs: “Wishin’ and Hopin’ ” – a US Top 10 hit – and the emotional “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” which reached No. 3 on the UK chart. The latter song set the standard for much of her later material. In December 1964, Springfield together with her group The Echoes tour of South Africa was controversially terminated, and she was deported, after they performed for an integrated audience at a theatre near Cape Town, which was against the then government’s segregation policy. Her contract specifically excluded segregated performances, one of the first British artists to do so. In the same year, she was voted the Top Female British Artist of the year in the New Musical Express poll, topping Lulu, Sandie Shaw, and Cilla Black. Springfield received the award again for the next three years. During 1965, Springfield released three more UK Top 40 hits: “Your Hurtin’ Kinda Love,” “In the Middle of Nowhere,” and the Carole King-penned “Some of Your Lovin’.”
However, these were not included on her next UK album recorded with The Echoes, Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty, which was released in October 1965 and featured songs by Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, Rod Argent, and Randy Newman, and a cover of the traditional Mexican song, “La Bamba.” The album peaked at No. 6 on the UK chart.
From 28 to 30 January 1965 Springfield took part in the Italian Song Festival in San Remo, and reached a semi-final with “Tu che ne sai?” (English:”What Do You Know?”) but failed to qualify for the final. During the competition, she heard the song “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” performed by one of its composers Pino Donaggio and separately by US country music singer Jody Miller.
Its English version, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” featured lyrics newly written by Springfield’s friend Vicki Wickham and her future manager, Simon Napier-Bell. It was released in May 1966 and reached No. 1 in the UK and No. 4 in the US, where it was also No. 35 on the Billboard Top 100 for 1966. The song, which Springfield called “good old schmaltz,” was voted among the All Time Top 100 Songs by the listeners of BBC Radio 2 in 1999.
There, standing on the staircase at Philips studio, singing into the stairwell, Dusty gave her greatest ever performance – perfection from first breath to last, as great as anything by Aretha Franklin or Sinatra or Pavarotti.
Great singers can take mundane lyrics and fill them with their own meaning. This can help a listener’s own ill-defined feelings come clearly into focus. Vicki [Wickham] and I had thought our lyric was about avoiding emotional commitment. Dusty stood it on its head and made it a passionate lament of loneliness and love.
Springfield introduced the Motown sound to a wider UK audience, both with her covers of Motown songs, and by facilitating the first UK TV appearance for The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, and Stevie Wonder on a special edition of the Ready Steady Go! show – which was produced by Wickham – called The Sound of Motown. On 28 April 1965 it was broadcast by Rediffusion TV, with Springfield opening each half of the show accompanied by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Motown’s in-house band, The Funk Brothers.
Springfield acquired the title ‘White Queen of Soul‘ as a result of her many hit cover versions of songs by African American artists such as the Shirelles, Inez and Charlie Foxx, and Baby Washington.
The associated Tamla-Motown Revue featuring The Supremes, The Miracles and Wonder had started in London in March, and according to The Supremes’ Mary Wilson, the tour was a flop: “It’s always … disheartening when you go out there and you see the house is half-full … but once you’re on stage … You perform as well for five as you do for 500.” Wickham, a fan of the Motown artists, booked them for the Ready Steady Go! special and enlisted Springfield to host it.
In 1966 Springfield released three additional UK Top 20 hits: “Little By Little” and two dramatic ballads – one written by Carole King: “Goin’ Back” and “All I See Is You,” written by Ben Weisman & Carl Westlake, which also reached the US Top 20. In August and September 1966, she hosted Dusty, a six-part music and talk show weekly BBC TV series. A compilation of her singles, Golden Hits released in November 1966, reached No. 2 in the UK. From the mid-1960s, Springfield would use the pseudonym “Gladys Thong” when recording backing vocals for other artists including Madeline Bell, Kiki Dee, Anne Murray and Elton John. Bell was a regular backing singer on early Springfield albums, and the pair co-wrote “I’m Gonna Leave You” with Lesley Duncan, which appeared as the B-side of “Goin’ Back.”
Dusty in Memphis earned her a nomination for the Grammy Award and it received the Grammy Hall of Fame award. International polls list the album among the greatest of all time. Its standout track “Son of a Preacher Man” was an international Top 10 hit in 1969. Because of her enthusiasm for Motown music, she campaigned to get some little-known American soul music singers a better audience in the U.K. She devised and hosted The Sound Of Motown, a special edition of Ready Steady Go! TV programme on 28 April 1965. The show was broadcast by Rediffusion TV from their studios in Kingsway, London.
Dusty opened the two parts of the show, performing “Wishin’ and Hopin'” and “Can’t Hear You No More”, accompanied by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Motown’s in-house band The Funk Brothers. Other guests included The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder. In 1987, she sang with the Pet Shop Boys on their single “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” it reached No.2 on both sides of the Atlantic. While in Nashville, Dusty fell ill during the recording her final album A Very Fine Love.
Dusty Springfield was one of a plethora of artists who followed Elvis Presley’s example in appropriating the repertoire of African American singers. Songs she sang were also performed by Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, among others, although these songs were invariably written by white composers. Where she differs substantially from Elvis is in being remembered for attempting to return the favour and promote her black sisters (and brothers) in the UK, as well as in refusing to perform to segregated white audiences in South Africa in 1964.
Consequently, despite the exaggerated whiteness of her blonde, backcombed beehive hairdos (a virtual camp parody of the black Motown girl groups), she became a highly creolized figure in Anglo- American pop.
Dusty Springfield also attracted legions of black and “marginalized (especially gay) fans and supporters. In addition, she appropriated the repertoire of European “others,” recording authoritative English (and some Italian) versions of songs by European com- posers such as Jacques Brel (as did her cult Anglo-American label-mate Scott Walker), Charles Aznavour, and Pino Donaggio, and performed versions of her own hits in German, Italian, French, and Spanish. According to Valentine and Wickham, Springfield’s border-crossing cosmopolitanism (she was also interested in Portuguese fado) particularly endeared her to the gay community: “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 travelled, as much as for her ‘over-the-top’ look
Springfield’s position in canonic histories of pop music was confined to one biography (that by Lucy O’Brien, which first appeared in 1988) and a series of vignettes acknowledging her status as the most prominent and proficient of the handful of “girl singers” among the 1960s “British Invasion.” She is mostly remembered for her string of transatlantic hits between 1962 and 1969 rather than for her formative years with the “girl group” trio the Lana Sisters from 1958 to 1960 and then with the folk group the Springfields, which included her brother Tom. Her career peaked with her 1969 US album Dusty in Memphis, which sold poorly but later became a cult success, particularly for the transatlantic hit “Son of a Preacher Man,” later recorded by Aretha Franklin. A discreet gap follows until her career revival in the UK in 1987 with the Pet Shop Boys.
In January 1994 while recording her penultimate album, A Very Fine Love, in Nashville, Dusty Springfield felt ill. When she returned to the United Kingdom a few months later, her physicians diagnosed breast cancer. She received months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment and the cancer was in remission. In 1995, in apparent good health, Springfield set about promoting the album, which was released that year. By mid-1996 the cancer had returned, and in spite of vigorous treatments she died in Henley-on-Thames on 2 March 1999. She was 59.
Her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, had been scheduled two weeks after her death. Her friend Elton John helped induct her into the Hall of Fame, declaring, “I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been … Every song she sang, she claimed as her own.”
Dusty Springfield’s life as a gay woman and rock and roll/pop legend is beautifully described in an eulogy with many of rock’s influential performers contributing to the picture of a fascinating life.