An examination of the musical icon, with guest and biographer Karen Bartlett (“Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend”) helping to guide listeners through the extraordinary and, at times, complex journey.
Fans and newcomers alike are taken through Dusty’s time with The Springfields, her support of African-American artists in the British music scene, and more, eventually culminating in an extended look at landmark record, “Dusty In Memphis.”
Women of Atlantic is a special series on What’d I Say. It’s hosted by Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, founder of Classic Album Sundays.
Dusty Springfield — “Son of a Preacher Man”
Colleen Murphy: Dusty Springfield, adored in Britain and often unknown beyond its shores was the most iconic British female musician throughout the swinging ’60s. But her popularity wasn’t anchored to the UK as at one time, Dusty was the best-selling female singer in the world.
And after The Beatles, Dusty was the second British invasion artists to have secured a U.S. hit. Dusty was not only an icon, was also an iconoclast who was ahead of her time in both her professional and personal life. And her achievements paved the way for modern English soul sirens like Amy Winehouse and Adele. She exercised a level of control over her work that other female singers dreamed of, but dared not demand.
She was a feminist and a civil rights activist by example rather than by word. In order to get ahead, she had to be tough, outspoken, and composed – but she was actually vulnerable, shy, and internally breaking at the seams.
And of course, she faced many more challenges in her career as compared to her male peers. So how did this introverted female artist achieve such notoriety and fame despite the numerous obstacles in her path?
I’m Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, host of the series, “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” and I’m hoping that by the end of this podcast you’ll not only discover why Dusty was one of the most significant trailblazing performers of her era, but that you will also fall in love with her voice and her music. I certainly have.
Dusty had what is known as a meteoric rise to stardom, but after a decade of success, she did what meteors actually do, she fell. She fell from public favor through a cataclysmic combination of bad timing and dysfunctional behavior.
Her musical imprints had trouble keeping pace with the rapidly changing sounds of the ’70s, and at the same time, she succumbed to her debilitating insecurities and personal demons. And the following decade, Dusty’s career was resurrected by the Pet Shop Boys when she collaborated on their Top 10 1987 single, “What Have I Done To Deserve This.”
Encouraged, she returned to the studio to record a new album of her own, which in turn spun two more UK hits. In the ’90s, her most famous song was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s most famous movie and her legacy was cemented forever.
And in the same year of Pulp Fiction’s release, while she was recording the last album that would be released in her lifetime, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dusty wouldn’t live to see the end of the decade. Rather than itemize an exhaustive chronicle of her life, I’m going to highlight how despite all odds, Dusty was a woman ahead of her time during the most successful period of her career. And I’m also going to take an in depth look at her most famous album, one that graces many a top albums list, including Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
And that also happens to have been her first album for Atlantic Records, the classic “Dusty in Memphis.” Joining me is someone who has spent an ordinate amount of time and researching all things, Dusty, Karen Bartlett, author of the comprehensive biography, “Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend.”
And as a starting point, I asked her what personal characteristics set Dusty apart from many other female musicians of her generation.
Karen Bartlett: She knew what she wanted to achieve and she just went for it. Here was this girl who started life as a convent school girl from a very strict Irish-Catholic family. She didn’t look like a singer, she didn’t appear to be an entertainer, but somewhere deep inside she knew that greatness was within her.
So, I’m always amazed by how did she know that and how did that come to be that that came out of her. And she literally went through a transformation as a teenager from leaving school to turning herself from Mary Catherine Isobel O’Brien into Dusty Springfield.
Now obviously there were stages along the way, but essentially, she knew that this persona was out there and she went out and grabbed it.
Colleen Murphy: The griddley determined Mary O’Brien had a very modest upbringing in the less than glamorous middle-class suburbs on the outskirts of London. Her parents were seemingly ordinary people as her father was a tax accountant and her mother a housewife, but they were also somewhat eccentric and dysfunctional.
For example, they were prone to off-beat conduct like food fights, even if guests happen to be present. Mary must’ve felt this was normal as this was a family tradition she upheld in her own adult years as Dusty.
But her parents also exerted a positive influence over their two children as they were very musical and listened to a wide array of music outside of the normal pop fair, blues, classical and jazz, especially from American composers like George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, and singers like Peggy Lee were often played in the family home and inspire the young Mary and her brother Dionne.
In fact, in an early display of self conviction, Mary was so inspired that at the age of 12, she went to the local record shop where she recorded herself singing an Irving Berlin standard.
The Andrews Sisters — “When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’”
This set the train in motion as Karen Bartlett elaborates.
Karen Bartlett: She went out with her brother and they started singing in little nightclubs around London. And right from the beginning, she knew that she had that talent. Her brother was incredibly talented too and he was a very clever boy, and he’d always been the family favorite.
And I think everyone thought including him really, that he was the one who was going to be the star, but she had that extra added element to her. After they’d been doing that for a while, she joined an all-girl group, a very ’50s poppy, almost like The Beverly Sisters, like a poor man’s version of The Beverly Sisters called The Lana Sisters.
And they didn’t really have any hits, but they did make records, and they did appear on TV, and they did perform, and she learned show business from them. And so, she could appreciate all of that, but she really hated all of those constraints. She hated the costume, she hated the fluffy music, she hated all of that.
And she knew that she was ready to go on from there into the next stage of her career. And so, after she’d been doing that for a couple of years, her brother came to her and said… He’d been singing with one of his friends and they had a group and they wanted to form The Springfields.
And so, it seemed natural that that was the next evolution of her career. And so Dusty became Dusty, Dusty Springfield.
Colleen Murphy: So, Mary became Dusty and Dione became Tom, and joined by Tom Field, and later Mike Hurst, they became The Springfields. In terms of style, they were almost like a British version of pop folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary.
And with the TV series under their belt, they became one of the most popular groups in the UK enjoying a run of hit singles such as “Island of Dreams” and “Say I won’t Be There.” And perhaps because of their affected American accent, this single even made the U.S. Top 20.
The Springfields — “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
In the hopes of achieving more authenticity and credibility, in 1962, the group traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to record their LP, “Folk Songs From The Hills.” During a pit stop in New York city, Dusty was walking by Colony Records store on Broadway and heard this song by The Exciters.
The Exciters — “Tell Him”
This song forever changed Dusty’s musical inclinations. And despite the amazing success she had enjoyed in her career thus far, she was inspired to make an artistic U-turn. She felt hemmed in by The Springfields’ musical limitations and wanted to pursue a more pop-soul sound.
Towards the end of 1963, she told her brothers she was leaving to start her own solo career. Dusty biographer, Karen Bartlett.
Karen Bartlett: I think what’s amazing about the story is that even if she’d only been in The Springfields, she still would have been really successful. The Springfields, people tend to forget because of course then The Beatles came along.
But for a few years, The Springfields were a really, really top group, particularly in Britain. They had massive hit records, they were hugely popular and Dusty was very popular. So even if she’d only ever done that, she still would’ve been a really successful singer and entertainer.
But I think what really came out of that experience was this performing with her brother, and the realization that her brother was a really accomplished writer, and he was really accomplished at managing the group, but he didn’t like to be on stage, and he didn’t like to be an entertainer.
And one of her other band-mate told me, he used to take tranquilizers before he’d go on stage. He looked terrified, he’d be wooden, he’d be petrified of the audience, but Dusty could go on stage and she could really turn it on and be the star of the group.
And I think she always knew that she was going to be a solo star. There was going to come point where she was going to go solo.
Colleen Murphy: She debuted weeks later with a song that was written for somebody else but that Dusty was adamant, had to be her first solo release, and she was right on the money. As her Phil Spector sounding single, “I Only Want to Be With You” reached number four on the UK charts was one of the first songs to be performed on the nascent British music TV show, “Top of the Pops,” and was a Top 40 hit in the U.S.A.
Dusty Springfield — “I Only Want to Be With You”
Dusty may have sung in a pseudo Southern American accent with The Springfields, but now as a solo artist, her sound was less American-pop folk and more like American RNB doo wop group, The Shirelles.
Her 1964 debut, “A Girl Called Dusty” featured some Motown influenced songs and collaborations with American songwriting teams like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and the husband and wife team, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. She was wearing her influences on her sleeve.
Karen Bartlett: She was always a big fan of American music and she was always a big fan of America. One of her earliest friends, a guy called Peter Miles, who actually recorded her very, very first record with her. He said he would remember going round to their house and he would see the magazines lying open everywhere with pictures of America in them.
So, she was always fascinated about this idea of America and American potential. And of course, she went there for the first time with The Springfields and fell in love with America, and absolutely fell in love with New York, and the music, and was just swept away by it.
So, she always had this enormous love of America. I think American music always influenced her more than anything else really.
Colleen Murphy: Now, of course, there were other successful British female singers like Lulu and Cilla Black, contemporaries of Dusty Springfield who also turned their gaze across the pond for inspiration.
But Dusty had something they didn’t as she in turn was accepted by many of her American idols, including some of her African-American heroes, as author Karen Bartlett explains.
Karen Bartlett: I was always really struck by the fact that Dusty actually went there. She went to New York, she performed in Harlem, she was there with Martha and the Vandellas. She was this white English girl there with all these great black American acts, and somewhat I think it was quite tough for her.
It was really intimidating and she was completely out of her comfort zone. And when you think about it, what a brave thing to do, but she always wanted to go beyond her comfort zone and challenge herself artistically like that.
Colleen Murphy: While she continued to enjoy a string of hits such as “Wishing and Hoping,” and “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” Dusty played a key role in exposing African-American artists to a British audience. Her support was crucial.
She hosted a string of television shows in the 1960s such as the series “Dusty,” followed by the series, “Decidedly Dusty” on the BBC, and the ATV series “It Must Be Dusty.” She also hosted early episodes of one of the UKs most popular rock-pop television programs, Friday night’s “Ready Steady Go!”
And in 1965, she devised and hosted Ready Steady Go’s Motown special for which she landed The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, and a young Stevie Wonder, their first UK TV appearance. She also performed a duet with her friend Martha Reeves.
Dusty Springfield — “Wishin’ and Hopin’”
Karen Bartlett: She was the most progressive artist I think in the 1960s in Britain, and she never really gets the recognition for this that I think she deserves. She had gone to America, she’d performed with all these great black artists, she’d made friends with them.
She wanted to bring their sound over to Britain herself. Now, she never claims sole credit for this, it’s never just one person, but she was the key person in that, and she hosted the show, and she made that happen. And she really worked hard to help those artists get visibility in Britain and further their careers.
Colleen Murphy: This wasn’t the only time that Dusty took a public stand to support African-American artists. And in the same vein, she also took a very public stance against Apartheid in 1964, and in doing so stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Dusty biographer, Karen Bartlett,
Karen Bartlett: She’d been asked to go on tour in South Africa, which in those days a lot of British artists did. It was apartheid South Africa, so the separation between black people and white people, and all of the black South Africans just being treated so, so badly.
But Dusty knew about segregation because she’d been in America and she had American friends, so she understood what it was really like. And she didn’t really want to go and tour in South Africa. But she was persuaded to do it, and she said, “Okay. Well, I’ve got certain conditions. I don’t ever want to play in front of an all-white audience, I only ever want to play in front of mixed audiences so everyone can hear my music.”
And so she reluctantly went over to South Africa. And of course, when she got there, she found that everything that she’d been promised was meaningless. And of course, they weren’t going to let this singer from England come over and challenge Apartheid and do things differently to the way it had always been done.
Immediately she had to start performing in front of all white audiences. And so, by the second night, she just looked out there and she said to her band mate, Doug Reece, “Is there anybody out there who’s not white?” And he peeped through the curtains and said, “No, they’re all white.”
And she just said, “I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to perform here.” And so she went back to her hotel and there was huge trouble. She thought she was going to be arrested, she thought they were going to be deported from the country.
She flew home and there was international outcry and she got back to Heathrow, and all of the press were waiting for at Heathrow to have a sort of a press conference on the spot about why she’d done this.
And she gives this, you can see the television clips now, this very measured response about the fact that she knows black artists, she’s got black friends and she just didn’t want to go to South Africa and perform in front of white people. She just didn’t think it was the right thing to do.
Even then it was a huge, huge political issue. It was in the newspapers, there was a debate about it in parliament, in the House of Commons that Dusty Springfield had done this. She was the first person to ever challenge it in that way.
You had guys like The Beatles who came out and supported her and said, “Dusty’s done absolutely the right thing.” And then you had other entertainers who didn’t support her, who criticized her and said, “She shouldn’t have done that.”
Colleen Murphy: Dusty set herself apart from many other pop stars, not only by standing up for what she believed in, but also through the way in which she recorded. Dusty made this song written by Bacharach-David for the film Casino Royale, one of the slowest tempo hits of the ’60s.
Dusty Springfield — “The Look of Love”
At the time, most pop acts, whether male or female sang other people’s tunes and weren’t really involved with the production and the arrangements. They didn’t have ideas as to how a baseline should sound or how the strings should be played, but Dusty did.
She had a very large record collection and she was well-versed with a huge variety of musical styles. She listened to music all the time. She was completely consumed by it.
Karen Bartlett: Her friends in the ’60s remember how they would go down into Soho and buy the latest music that was coming from America, and she would listen to it, and she would really analyze the way that it was played and would say to her musicians, “No, no, no, you have to do it like this.”
So, she always had that ear for really listening to the music and wanting to get the best sound. Even though she couldn’t read music, which always seems like a very curious contradiction.
And I think one of the stories that really hit home on that note was… I was talking to Judy Felix and Judy was telling me that she’d come back from this recording in Norway and Dusty said to her, “Well, how did it go?” And Judy said, “Yeah, yeah, it was okay, but I had this guitarist and I didn’t think he was very good.”
Karen Bartlett: And so Dusty started to ask her these very specific questions like, who was he? And what did he play? And did he do this and did he do that? And Judy Felix didn’t know the answer to any of these questions.
She just had turned up and played and they’d recorded the song, and she’d come away and thought, yeah, that was okay and maybe not so good. And she was really struck by the fact of how really into the music Dusty was.
And Dusty was like, “How could you record that and not know who he was and how he played and what he was doing.” So for her, having that control over her music was always very, very important to her.
Colleen Murphy: When Dusty was signed to Philips, she worked with a producer engineer named Johnnie Franz, but it was really Dusty who went into the live room to speak to the musicians, telling them what she wanted.
Even though she couldn’t read music, she would convey the sound she wanted by humming a harmony or playing other records as examples. She did what a producer does, but she didn’t take the official producer’s credit on the record sleeve.
I asked author Karen Bartlett why she felt Dusty wasn’t publicly acknowledged as the producer
Karen Bartlett: Well, she always understood that she really was the producer. And I think later in her life she said, “Look, I should have claimed the credit. I should have said I was the producer, I was the producer.” But maybe at the time she felt that she couldn’t do that.
I think it’s amazing that she actually behave that way in the studio. When I talked to The Lana Sisters who she recorded with to begin with, and then I talk to Lulu about it, and I asked them about their experiences recording in the studio, and they said to me, “Look, we wouldn’t have behaved the way that Dusty behaved.”
Lulu said, “I just don’t think I could’ve got away with it.” It wouldn’t have even occurred to her to go into the studio and tell the musicians how to do their job. She was saying like, “These are in the days where the sound engineers used to turn up and they wore white coats.”
They were like very old, traditional white men. And firstly, they would’ve felt a bit afraid of doing that, and it wouldn’t even have crossed their mind that they would have got away with it. They just kind of thought they were lucky to be there and recording in the first place.
So you think, why did that amazing confidence come from with Dusty? Because in many ways she was a very shy person, but in terms of her career and knowing what she wanted, she absolutely, she knew what she wanted and she was determined to get it.
She said, “Look, those guys used to call her a bitch.” They used to say horrible things about her and she knew that, but she was prepared to go through all of that torture to make sure that she was getting what she wanted.
Colleen Murphy: And if her male session musicians called her names, they usually introverted Dusty had no problem reminding them who is paying their salary.
Dusty Springfield — “Little By Little”
Now, Dusty Springfield was often critical of others and that must have been difficult to deal with, especially from men of that era. But she was definitely most critical of herself, and to a degree that was almost paralyzing.
Karen Bartlett: Dusty was a complete perfectionist, and if you read what the Pet Shop Boys say about recording with her. They were like pulling their hair out with frustration that she would literally go through a song and she would record a syllable by syllable.
And she would record a syllable and then she would stop, but they were sitting there thinking, “Are we ever going to get to the end of this song? Who knew that this song even had so many words.”
But even when you talk to people who worked with her in the ’60s and the ’70s, she was the same. And people who would record with her in the ’70s when she was in LA and they say, “Look, you’d sit there and it would be painful. It would be really slow.” And maybe it was even unnecessary to their ears listening to it.
They thought that her perfectionism almost crossed the line and was almost unnecessarily harsh in what she was demanding of herself that actually, she was great and what she was doing would have been great.
But to her it wasn’t good enough and she was never prepared to settle for anything that in her mind wasn’t absolutely the best that it could be. She could hear it even if nobody else could hear it.
Colleen Murphy: But this perfectionism paid off. It’s important to realize just how famous and popular she was in Britain in the 1960s as at one point she was even rivaling The Beatles in terms of singles making the Top 10.
Karen Bartlett: Dusty was an absolute icon even then. And the fact that people are still talking about her now in that same way just shows how famous and talented she really was. What I find really interesting about her career in the ’60s is that she’s remembered as being such an icon.
And I think also she’s pretty much acknowledged to have been the best British vocalist there was. People always compare her to the other female singers in Britain at the time, and I think they will admit that she was by far the best.
And yet, she didn’t really have many number one records. In her whole career, she only ever had one.
Colleen Murphy: Dusty did have a number one hit with this.
Dusty Springfield — “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”
But as Dusty biographer, Karen Bartlett mentioned, she wasn’t at the top of the charts all the time. I asked Karen why she felt this was the case.
Karen Bartlett: At the time when the whole movement was going towards The Beatles and Cilla and working-class icons, and working-class acts, and short skirts and all of that we associate with the ’60s, and Dusty didn’t have any of that.
She was very well spoken. She sounded upper middle class. And she wore great big long complicated gowns. She was more like Shirley Bassey, and her look then, she was like Cilla or Sandie Shaw.
So, she went against the spirit of the ’60s, and yet she’s remembered as this big ’60s icon. It’s interesting when you watch her interviews and when you watch her on her television programs, Mike Hurst, he was in The Springfields with her, said, “She never really looked very comfortable doing those programs.”
She had huge hit shows, but when she wasn’t singing, when she’s talking to the camera and she’s being herself, she looks quite shy and uncomfortable, and you do get the sense of that much more vulnerable person. She was a ’60s icon, but also a contradiction as well. But somehow for her, that combination of her look, and her persona, and her singing all matched up, and I think that’s what’s made her so enduring, at least in the British imagination anyway.
Colleen Murphy: Dusty may have seemed quite old fashioned and conventional in terms of her presentation, and also her song choices, and she almost had more of a cabaret style, singing songs by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, which were becoming progressively uncool for the ’60s counter-culture electric Kool-Aid Brigade.
But there was an aspect about Dusty that was very unconventional for that time. It was something that she tried to suppress, but later made public by choice, Dusty Springfield was gay.
Karen Bartlett: Well, it’s interesting because people always say, “Oh, Dusty felt that she couldn’t say that she was gay because it would have ruined her career.” When I talked to her manager, Vicki Wickham about this, and they’d been friends in the ’60s, she said, “Yeah. Well, Dusty was right. It would have ruined her career.”
She knew what she was up against and she knew the consequences of being a gay woman. She knew that she couldn’t openly be a gay woman. What’s interesting about Dusty is that she never sought to pretend in her private life. She didn’t pretend to have boyfriends when she didn’t.
There were people who thought she should have like a sham marriage and she never did that. She had girlfriends and she lived with women, and she had relationships, and that was her life. And she never felt in her private life that she wanted to hide that.
But obviously in public she could never talk about it. And so, you read these slightly strange interviews where she says, “Well, I’d love to get married, but I’m a complicated person and I don’t think I ever could.” And then obviously by the time the ’60s were coming to a close, I think she felt she couldn’t go on with that any longer. I think it was a combination of things. She’d been at the top of her game for a long time. Music was changing, her career was changing.
I think she was thinking, if I stay in this country, in Britain, where am I going to go next? Am I going to be performing in pantomimes and things? I don’t want to do that. How am I going to live my life? Am I always going to have to hide who I am?
Karen Bartlett: And so, she does this really amazing interview with Ray Connolly from the Evening Standard. He talks about going along there to interview her and he’d heard all these things about she could be a bit difficult, and a bit prickly, and all the rest of it. And they do this interview and they talk about all the usual things.
And then at the end of it, she just makes this announcement about being bisexual and liking girls as much as she likes guys. And he was a bit staggered by this. He was not expecting this at all. He didn’t really know what to do. He thought, should I print this?
It could ruin her career. “Am I going to get into big trouble?” “Where did this come from?” But she was determined to get it out there, and the story went out the next day. I think what he remembers most clearly about it is that there wasn’t really that much of a fuss about it at the time.
It was in the papers, it was a headline, obviously, but you might expect that the world would erupt with a torrent of gossip and it didn’t. I think even in those standards, I don’t think the newspapers really quite knew how to handle this announcement. What should they do with it? How should they react to it?
It was out there and I think, I personally think that her decision to move to California was partly prompted by her desire to live a more ordinary gay life where she could just be herself and to find out if she could live that life. And that was the start of that era really.
Dusty Springfield — “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”
Colleen Murphy: Her move to America was not only prompted by a desire to express her sexuality, but also because she had been signed to Atlantic Records, a label she had admired from the other side of the ocean because of their incredible soul and jazz roster, featuring artists like Solomon Burke, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles.
Atlantic was also the musical home of her favorite artist, Aretha Franklin. Dusty couldn’t believe her luck when at the age of 29, Ahmet Ertegun decided to sign her and gave her the opportunity to require with some of the best musicians in soul music.
Her biographer, Karen Bartlett elaborates.
Karen Bartlett: I think it was a dream for her. I think she finally felt that this was her chance where she was going to really artistically fulfill herself. That this was her music in a sense. She wasn’t the only British artist to go over there and to try and record those kinds of albums. But I think for her it just came at that peak of her popularity, and her music had been changing anyway in the ’60s. It had been becoming more soulful. She’d had more of an influence over it.
Colleen Murphy: But now she had the chance to record an album entirely devoted to the soul music that she loved, and it worked as it became her most enduring classic album, “Dusty in Memphis.”
Dusty Springfield — “Just a Little Loving”
Karen Bartlett: So, she was really ready for that album. The black musicians and the singers were the people that she really admired the most. On the one hand, I can imagine it was amazing and exciting for her and also amazingly terrifying, and that’s what happened when she went to Memphis.
That pinnacle of excitement and terror and being paralyzed by all of those emotions, and fears, and her demons came to the fore then.
Colleen Murphy: Dusty had the recording set up of her dreams with an all-star cast, including the man who coined the term rhythm and blues and Atlantic Records partner Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin producer and Atlantic vice-president, Arif Mardin, and engineer Tom Dowd, who had recorded Ray Charles, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
But despite this powerhouse trio at the helm, and like so many great albums, the recording of Dusty in Memphis was fraught with difficulties, mostly introduced by Dusty herself.
Karen Bartlett: And she turned up in Memphis and she had all these personal problems as well. She had started self-harming, she was really drinking a lot. She’d been taking all of these pills and she’d got a reputation in England as being quite difficult to work with, quite difficult to be with.
She was having problems in her personal life. She turned up with her hairdresser from Australia and he was saying, “Look, it was quite a crazy setup in Memphis.” They took over the top floor of their hotel.
Dusty was drinking and taking pills, and she’d brought in a woman that she’d met in LA who she thought she might have a fling with because her regular partner was back in England. All of that was going on and they were throwing things out of the window, and so it was crazy.
Dusty Springfield — “So Much Love”
Colleen Murphy: Ahmet, Arif and Jerry really believed in Dusty and we’re giving her all of the ingredients for a classic soul record. The sessions were held at the iconic American Sound Studios where people like Aretha and Elvis had previously recorded.
The songwriting team features some of the best in the business, Randy Newman and the two leading husband and wife teams of the time, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
Her instrumental section was the Memphis Cats who had backed Wilson Pickett and the backing vocals were provided by the Sweet Inspirations, an in-demand vocal ensemble they had recorded and toiled with Elvis and Aretha and was led by Whitney Houston’s mum Cissy Houston.
The stage was set for Dusty, but as Dusty biographer, Karen Bartlett explains, she was paralyzed with what Wexler coins as a giant inferiority complex.
Karen Bartlett: She remembers she had to stand where Aretha stood and record and perform in front of these musicians. And she’s thinking, “Are they thinking I’m as good as Aretha? There’s no way that I can be as good as Aretha.”
Colleen Murphy: I asked Karen if her desire to be accepted by African-American artists may have also impeded her recording.
Karen Bartlett: She did want to be accepted by African-American artists, and I think she felt like she was an imposter and a fraud. And in a way, we talked about this with some of early music where white British singers were reproducing what African-American people were doing in America. And so she had that.
She knew that there was that level of criticism there, and now she had to go and prove herself.
Colleen Murphy: And as an over the top perfectionist, she was basically unable to settle on anything and let it go. Wexler played her 80 acetates of songs he had put together for possible recording and she turned down all of them.
Then he presented her with another 20 and she loved all of them, especially Goffin and King’s. “So Much Love,” and Newman’s “Just One Smile.” Frustratingly, these had been in the initial heap of records that she had rejected.
Wexler, Mardin and Dowd felt her vocals should be placed at the forefront of the recording without the grounds string arrangements on some of her previous songs. To this end, she had been asked to record over basic rhythm tracks, which didn’t suit her at all.
In fact, she didn’t like what she heard produced in the studio, and Wexler recalled in his book “Rhythm and Blues” that out of all the songs that were initially recorded for the album, she approved exactly zero. To say yes to one song was seen as a lifetime commitment.
Karen Bartlett: It all just reached that apex. And so as we know, she actually didn’t really record there. The musicians recorded there and they just kept going and they got very little out of her. She went back to England and then she came back again to New York and she recorded all of her vocals and it was brilliant.
The result was that absolute masterpiece of “Dusty in Memphis.”
Colleen Murphy: Despite the challenges, Dusty’s fifth studio LP and her Atlantic Records debut is now regarded as a classic album and claims a spot on many best album lists, but it was released to underwhelming found fair and was a commercial failure. And this of course was devastating to Dusty.
But conversely, the album achieved cult status, and only a few years after its release, “Village Voice” music critic, Robert Christgau predicted that the album would be a slow burner and would eventually become a pop standard and classic.
But then out of the blue, 25 years after its release, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack gave a new life to this album cut.
Dusty Springfield — “Son of a Preacher Man”
Dusty biographer, Karen Bartlett gives us a low down on the song that forever cemented Dusty Springfield’s legacy.
Karen Bartlett: I believe Aretha was actually offered that song first and she turned it down. She was a religious person, she didn’t like the connotations in the lyrics and Dusty sang it, and then Aretha recorded it. And then Dusty listened to the way that Aretha had sung and said, “That’s how I should have sung it.”
And she always beat herself up about it. Then from then on, she always tried to sing it if she was singing it live the way that Aretha had sung it, to use the same phrase because she thought that was the way that it really should have been sung. And later on in her life she would downplay it, “Everyone talks about that record, everyone talks about that song, ‘Son of a Preacher Man.’” But at the time she was really, really excited about it.
Vicky Wickham said she remembers Dusty rang her up and was playing it to her on the phone and was literally jumping up and down with excitement about it, saying, “Can you believe this? It’s amazing.”
So, her excitement about the result was real. I think she knew what she had achieved even if it didn’t have the commercial success that she hoped for.
Colleen Murphy: So, what is it about the album and Dusty singing style that has garnered fans in the past 50 years since its release. In the 2002 reissue Liner Notes, uber-fan Elvis Costello had this to say about “Dusty in Memphis.”
“Dusty Springfield singing on this album is among the very best ever put on record by anyone. It is overwhelmingly sensual and self-possessed, but it is never self-regarding. The delivery might be confidential, intimate or vulnerable in the opening line of the song only to explode in the chorus with unknowable emotion.”
“Every crescendo as well judged, the performances are never showy, are bombastic. The most striking impression throughout is one of honesty.”
Bee Gee Robin Gibb called her, “The genuine article and probably the greatest female popular singer in the modern pop rock era.” Other big Dusty fans include Annie Lennox and Elton John. The album also struck a core with hip-hop producers and has been sampled by Cypress Hill, Wu Tang Clan, Ludacris featuring Lil Wayne, Del the Funky Homosapien, amongst many others.
And finally, both Dusty and her classic album, “Dusty in Memphis” inspired some of Britain’s greatest modern musical experts. Author Karen Bartlett.
Karen Bartlett: I think the legacy of Dusty Springfield in British music and that album particularly Adele and Amy Winehouse. Now, I know some Dusty fans get quite angry when you talk about Adele because they think that Dusty was a much better singer than Adele.
But I think that you can see in the style of singing and you can definitely see that legacy. And Amy Winehouse I think was very, very much in the legacy of Dusty, and in the legacy of that, the soul music as well. And I think Amy Winehouse even acknowledged that Dusty was one of her influences.
Colleen Murphy: Whilst her music is her greatest legacy inspiring countless artists over many decades, let’s not forget that Dusty Springfield was a trailblazing artist who broke down many doors when it came to issues involving civil rights, feminism and LGBTQ matters. She was one of a kind and ahead of her time.
Thank you for listening to “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series here on What’d I Say. I sincerely hope that you are now on your way to becoming as big a Dusty Springfield fan as I am. Look for “Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend” by Karen Bartlett at your local bookstore.
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