The ’60s were a pretty magical decade for Dusty Springfield. In the space of about seven years, she went from modest folk singer to a pop sensation who ruled the pop charts, helped bring Motown artists to the U.K. and was a near-ubiquitous presence on British television. And, by the end of the decade, she was considered by many to be a peer to her soul singing idols.
Dusty Springfield was born Mary O’Brien on this day in 1939. She and her older brother Dion were raised by middle-class parents who were fond of music. In fact, Dusty’s father would often tap out musical rhythms on the back of her hand, and have her guess which song it was. She also loved playing soccer in the street with the neighborhood boys, and the tomboy nature helped earn Mary the nickname Dusty.
After finishing school, in 1958, Dusty joined a vocal group, named the Lana Sisters, learned how to harmonize and did her first recording and TV show appearances. Two years later, she left the group to form her own act – a folk-pop trio with her brother Dion and Reshad Field. They Christened themselves the Springfields and so, Mary O’Brien’s official stage name became Dusty Springfield.
The group had some pretty successful singles in early ’60s England, but the big moment for Dusty came when they traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to record an album and hopefully capture an “American” sound. During the trip, Dusty heard tons of American pop songs, and she became less interested in folk tunes and more interested in the Motown sound and other R&B-inflected girl group music.
In the fall of ’63, the left the group and went solo. Her first solo single, written and arranged by Ivor Raymonde, copped the “wall of sound” production style Dusty had so fallen in love with. It turned out that music fans on both sides of the Atlantic loved Dusty, too. “I Only Want to Be with You” proved a debut smash, and launched Dusty into a very fruitful ’64, during which she was considered one of the stars of the British Invasion alongside The Beatles. She had a bevy of hits that year, including the U.K. smash “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” and the U.S. Top 10 hit “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (both penned by the Burt Bacharach/Hal David team). Springfield set herself apart from the many other female singers of the time because of her white soul (or blue-eyed soul) sound. Dusty’s breathy delivery seemed to hint at a strong sexuality. In fact, many listeners thought she was a black, American performer upon hearing her records.
At the end of ’64, Springfield courted controversy – but only for the best of reasons. The singer was deported from South Africa for performing in front of a racially integrated crowd, which was forbidden in the country at that time (and for some time after). The incident only enhanced her “cool” standing, and she remained an enormously popular star.
In 1965, Springfield entered the Italian Song Festival. Although she didn’t make the final, the experience proved fruitful for other reasons. During her time in Italy, she heard the song “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te),” and thought the tune was remarkable. She commissioned her friend Vicki Wickham and future manager Simon Napier-Bell to write English words to the melody and the result was “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” It became her biggest hit at home and abroad, even though she later called it “good old schmaltz.”
That year was another important one for Dusty, and not just because of hit singles and albums, such as Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty. In the spring of ’65, she took on the role of presenter and influencer when she facilitated the U.K. TV debut of a bunch of Motown acts. In April, Springfield opened a special episode of Ready Steady Go! that featured performances by The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (not to mention Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers, who backed everyone up). Dusty wasn’t just a singing star, she was a huge tastemaker in British popular music.
Obviously, the BBC recognized her potential in this arena and began having her host her own show. In a few years time, she would have her own programs on both the BBC and ITV. Also, by the end of the decade, she would have made and released what nearly everyone considers her masterpiece.
As the ’60s progressed, the music culture changed and Dusty’s brand of pop became increasingly uncool to many music fans – who began to prefer works with an avant-garde leaning, harder rock albums and more emotionally wrenching R&B songs. The latter certainly appealed to Springfield, who signed to Atlantic Records (due to Aretha Franklin’s association with the label) and planned to record her next album in Memphis, Tennessee. Atlantic all-star producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin signed on and made an instant change in Dusty’s sound. Instead of placing her voice in the midst of layers of orchestration, they pushed her singing up front in the mix, spotlighting her expressive and sultry delivery.
Yet, the Memphis sessions were not all that productive – as far as Springfield was concerned. The backing tracks were laid down, but Dusty (having never worked this way) was uncomfortable and wasn’t singing at her best. In fact, the most lucrative thing for Atlantic to come out of the sessions was Dusty’s suggestion that the label sign the newly formed Led Zeppelin to a contract. Springfield was friends with bassist John Paul Jones, who had played in her band in concert. Based on Dusty’s recommendation, Atlantic brought them aboard.
Strangely enough, Dusty in Memphis only features vocal tracks that Springfield recorded after the Memphis sessions, in New York. Released in January of 1969, the album was a critical smash, praised effusively by the likes of Greil Marcus. Commercially, it didn’t fare as well – although the single “Son of a Preacher Man” was a Top 10 chart hit in England and America. Over time, the record’s reputation would grow to such a point that it is now considered a pinnacle of blue-eyed soul and one of the best albums ever made.
The following decades were harder on Dusty, both professionally and personally, with lagging sales and battles with alcoholism. She became a controversial figure for some and a heroine to others because of statements she made in 1970 indicating she was bisexual.
Out of virtually nowhere, Springfield returned to the spotlight in 1987 when she sang on the Pet Shop Boys’ hit “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” – a #2 hit in the U.K. and U.S. For the next decade she was considered more or less a living legend, revered for her soulful vocal talents and ’60s hits. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, the same year she succumbed to a five-year battle with breast cancer. In his induction speech, Elton John called her “the greatest white singer there has ever been.” Given how much she idolized and was inspired by African-American musicians, Dusty would have taken that as the highest compliment.