Music Features

Dusty Springfield: A Life In Music

The problem with many singers today is that they don’t know how to sing. If all it took was a booming chest voice and showy melismas, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits would never have stood a chance.  Grandstanding warblers get the thumbs-up from TV judges, but those ceremonies of kitsch are quickly forgotten when the cameras are switched off. Without emotional heft, the listener is unmoved. A song rings true when an interpreter communicates the joy or sadness of the lyrics, using style, color and inflection to make it come alive. The best ones, like Sinatra and Bennett, are always in vogue. Dusty Springfield belongs to that illustrious group. 

“That girl listens with an arranger’s ears,” Burt Bacharach once remarked of Springfield. Others got credit for arranging and producing her records, but Springfield was the real powerhouse behind the scenes, striving for musical perfection in an industry that belittled women. She was famously hard to please and was known to throw a plate or two when angered, but journalists fail to mention that she was fighting a trench war every day. One argument at a time, she was gaining headway for future female performers.

Springfield was born Mary Isobel Catherine O’Brien in 1939. The sad cadences of Irish folk songs were an early influence on her, but her musical education covered a wide spectrum, at ease with jazz standards, country, folk, pop, R&B and show tunes.

The pull of music was too strong for the shy tomboy. To become a professional, she created a persona. She was still Mary O’Brien when she joined the Lana Sisters in 1958, replacing the name for good when she joined Tim Feild and her brother Tom to form The Springfields in 1960. The trio had a notable run of UK hits, as well as landing a Top 20 position in the USA with Silver Threads And Golden Needles in 1962, a precursor to the jangly folk-pop sound that would become ubiquitous during that decade. Yet the group failed to capitalize on it, with Dusty going solo in 1963.

A trip to America in 1962 had convinced her to change course. This was the heyday of the Lieber and Stoller production team, and Brill Building songwriters, with vocal groups like The Exciters and The Shirelles topping the charts. It was a distinctly American sound performed by black voices, but Springfield was undaunted. She never felt she was taking a gamble when she recorded I Only Want To Be With You, a song that became a Top Ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic. This bouncy pop concoction was followed by other danceable sides, such as Stay Awhile and Little By Little, her career gaining momentum with each release.

Springfield was as soulful as any of the black singers that inspired her. She never tried to sound black; she reached within herself for the range of emotions the song required. Her innate sense of rhythm was only part of the equation. More important were her vocal range and her understanding of the R&B idiom, which found the gist and gravitas that writers aimed at. There was no studio fakery behind her voice, as she constantly proved in live performances. With her panda eyes, elaborate hairstyles, and long dresses she carried the image of a high-maintenance diva, but on stage she could get down and stir audiences into a frenzy, even in high heels.

In 1964, Springfield made international headlines when she refused to perform for “whites only” audiences in South Africa, the first British singer to do so. At home, she was an advocate for black performers. In 1965, she hosted Sounds Of Motown, a BBC special that boosted that label’s roster of artists at a moment when they could barely fill concert halls. Yet black music wasn’t her only passion.

Her smoky, sultry voice had songwriters in thrall. Wishin’ And Hopin’, The Look Of Love and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself remain the definitive versions of those Bacharach & David classics. Her nuanced, tender approach to Goffin & King’s Some Of Your Lovin’ forces you to sit down and listen. As a balladeer, she could even tackle the melodrama and high notes required for Pino Donaggio’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, an Italian pop aria that gained her a worldwide hit in 1966.

Springfield’s BBC TV series was a showcase for her wide musical range. Take the August 29, 1967 programme, for instance, where she starts with a Broadway tune (Come Back To Me), moves to a soul ballad (Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream), veers to a jazz standard (Peel Me A Grape), takes the scenic route with a French chanson (If You Go Away), and ends with a dance song (You Can Have Him). She goes through this with remarkable flair, giving the orchestra a hard workout.

Critics have proclaimed Dusty In Memphis (1969) as one of the best albums of all time; a versatile work that combines seductive soul with the songwriting artistry of Randy Newman and Mann & Weil. She capped the decade with A Brand New Me, which would be her last hit before the dry times of the seventies.

Springfield moved to America and lost her way there in a maze of record label shakedowns, drugs, alcohol and difficult relationships. Moreover, in an age when audiences were fragmenting, she didn’t belong to a particular niche. Was she a soul singer, a pop diva or a nightclub performer? Her strengths became a hindrance, and every attempt at a comeback was met with indifference. 

Pet Shop Boys reinvigorated her career in 1987 with What Have I Done To Deserve This?, a collaboration that put her back in the spotlight, with more hits following. All of a sudden, she was being recognized as a singing legend, which both puzzled and delighted her. She was recording A Very Fine Love in 1995 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in 1999, but a new generation of admirers has kept her memory alive.

Lately, there’s been talk of a biopic, and a great deal of fuss will be made about her private life to sell tickets. But the best way to understand Springfield is through her music, which still conveys strong emotions at a moment in time when so many singers sound cold and calculated. The good news is that she has influenced a new crop of British female singers, who recognize her as a trailblazer. It’s easy to see why. For all of us who have been touched by Springfield’s music, she remains an icon.