Dusty Springfield died last night (Tuesday March 2) at her home in Oxfordshire after a four year battle with cancer.
When tags like ‘legend’ are attached to every no-mark who survives more than a few years in the music business, it sometimes devalues it when it is needed to describe someone who unquestionably deserves it.
Born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in London, Dusty‘s pop career began in the late 1950s as a member of The Springfields, a folk trio formed with brother Tom.
Her solo career launched her as a great white soul singer and one of the few British female artists to enjoy international success. Her biggest hit – ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ – was a top ten in both Britain and the US.
While contemporaries like Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black stuck to fairly routine British pop music, always with an eye to the middle of the road Saturday night TV variety show audience, Dusty pushed herself and her music, bringing a heavy Motown influence to her work and carefully selecting her material. She recorded several Burt Bacharach & Hal David songs, most notably ‘The Look Of Love’. Like Scott Walker, she championed Belgian singer Jacques Brel, covering his ‘If You Go Away’ on her fourth album ‘Where Am I Going’ in 1967. She also covered several Carole King & Gerry Goffin songs, enjoying a 1966 hit with ‘Goin’ Back’ – later recorded by The Byrds – and recording the definitive version of ‘No Easy Way Down’ – recently recorded by Mark Eitzel.
Her best album – ‘Dusty In Memphis’ – was recorded with Atlantic/Stax producer Jerry Wexler. It was her high watermark; she settled in America and recorded a series of hit and miss albums, though her performances cannot be faulted and all containing occasional great songs – her cover version of Van Morrison‘s ‘Tupelo Honey’, for example. She made a few ill advised records, like the early 80s disco album ‘Whiteheat’ and a comeback orchestrated by Peter Stringfellow.
She worked with The Pet Shop Boys in the mid 80s and again for her 1990 album ‘Reputations’ which recaptured some of the spirit of her 60s work.
Unlike other mainstream British showbiz singers, Dusty had mystique; her personal style – the make-up applied with a shovel, the processed hair, the white lips – was almost like a mask. Rumours abounded about her private life, which she actually managed to keep very private. For Dusty, it was just about the music.
While Cilla became of TV presenter and Sandie Shaw became a Morrissey-approved novelty act, Dusty was still making music up until her illness made it too difficult to continue. She still had the distinctive smokey, silky voice with the undertones of sensuality that put her nearer to Aretha Franklin than to Petula Clark. Dusty was awarded an OBE in the New Years Honours list. She was too ill to attend the ceremony to collect it. Her legacy is a phenomenal body of work and an inspiration for artists as diverse as Elvis Costello and Neil Tennant and every British female singer with ambitions to record a great torch song.