Dusty Springfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month. Queen Elizabeth II made her an officer of the British Empire this past December. But the woman with the husky voice that conveyed unendurable sadness and left an indelible mark on pop music won't get a chance to revel in the honors.
Last May Springfield sold the rights to her 275 songs for more than fifteen million dollars to Prudential Insurance. She retreated to a well-maintained mansion on the Thames river, hidden away and secure behind a high electrical fence. The lump she had discovered in 1994 and fought with six months of chemotherapy returned with a nasty vengeance. On March 2 at the age of 59, Springfield lost her battle with breast cancer.
The reality is harsh yet not incompatible with the exciting, melodramatic and tragic world that Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien created for herself. She was the daughter of a tax accountant and housewife who told her reflection in the mirror at age sixteen: "Be miserable or become someone else." She lost her glasses, bought a blonde beehive wig, and added heavy, dark mascara to her eyes. The change was immediate. She successfully auditioned for a spot with the Lana Sisters and after gaining needed experience singing their immature girl-group fodder, joined her brother Tom and friend Tim Field to form the Springfields. In 1962 the Springfields scored a Top 20 hit on the U.S. charts with "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." It was a catchy piece of folk-pop but it hardly reflected the passionate direction her music would soon take, a shift augured by a name change. When the Springfields broke up a year later, Mary O'Brien embarked on a new solo career, christening herself Dusty Springfield.
She took the pop mission very seriously. She escaped the doldrums of north London by refashioning a gawky and unhappy teenager into a stylish chanteuse, a makeover that stayed with her and informed her music. No heart was ever casually broken. No lonely person ever spent an average night alone. The cold, callous place she grew up in was a constant target for her criticism: That world should learn to feel.
Whether it was youthful naivete or a strong, inner creative drive, Springfield instantly made her impact as a diva of consequence. "I Only Want to Be with You" was again harmless, inconsequential pop. But her growing interest in American soul led her to incorporate the excitable rhythms of Motown into the songwriting of Burt Bacharach and Hal David on tunes such as "Wishin' and Hopin'" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart." The complex, cinematic sweep of "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" proved Springfield had new vistas to explore.
Listening today, three decades removed, the music retains its exuberance. It is dated in a way that fashion inevitably dates its subjects, yet Springfield's style remains arresting. The arrangements use the full complement of studio musicians, with string and horn sections, back-up choruses, and solid rhythm work, all adding up to oddly satisfying and dramatic recordings. "Oddly" satisfying because Springfield uses her blue-eyed soul to undercut the music's youthful impulses with a careful and reserved sophistication. This queer dichotomy of a newly adult singer grappling with the passions of youth, all the while catering to the pop market, makes the ironies involved that much more worth savoring. This is no goofy teen dream, but it's no night at the opera, either. Springfield's niche was defining these cracks, finding a way to the lite-FM elevators with her integrity and taste intact.
Her work in the mid-'60s is where her real reputation was made. The unrepentant longing of "If You Go Away" is extreme, the sound of a woman expressing an emotional breakdown. "I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten" features a piano that clunks downward as her most fervent hopes are swallowed up by the grandeur of the strings. Unfortunately the radical musical and cultural shifts of the '60s practically guaranteed that last year's model would look downright anachronistic if steps weren't taken to keep up. Springfield continued to make great, moving music, but as the guitar tones of the '60s revolution turned distorted and angry, Springfield looked as if she were representing the old guard. In pop terms she was slowly dying.
In 1969 she moved to Atlantic Records and worked with Jerry Wexler. He went with her to Memphis with his production team of Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. There she teamed up with the "Memphis Cats," a team that included guitarist Reggie Young and organist Bobby Emmons and was best known for accompanying Wilson Pickett and Elvis Presley. The result was the sublime Dusty in Memphis (recently reissued on Rhino), an album that yielded both "Windmills of Your Mind," a strange yet sultry ballad, and the slinky "Son of a Preacher Man," which returned her to the Top 10. It's no wonder that years later Quentin Tarantino would choose "Preacher Man" for inclusion in his film Pulp Fiction. It sounds both retro and completely alive, quaint and up to the minute.
Springfield's life went haywire from here. She moved to New York and then Los Angeles in 1972 and partook in the City of Angels' offerings of drink, drugs, and bisexual encounters. Depression set in. Soft rock assaulted the charts, its mellow crooning and lush orchestration perfectly in tune with Springfield's mellower sensibilities. Except Springfield wasn't in a prime position to pounce. She recorded Cameo for ABC/Dunhill in 1973, turning a few nice tricks with Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey," in particular. But the label was hardly the powerhouse needed to get her back on the radio, and the album was banished to the cutout bins. She sang backup for Anne Murray and Elton John. Deals fell through and those that materialized did little to add to her legacy.
Springfield entered the '80s as just another singer time had callously passed. Elvis Costello sang her praises and submitted songs to her releases, but she was treading water. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys knew better what to do with her. Their duet, "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" went to number two on the charts in the United States and Britain in 1987. It was hardly representative of anything Springfield had previously offered, though. The dance beats and cold synthesizers were the antithesis to the warm, engaging sound she was used to. Springfield adapted effortlessly, but she wasn't interested in re-creating herself as a full-time dance diva and turned down a number of offers intended to keep her career moving ahead. She did record 1990's Reputation with the Pet Shop Boys, but it had no lasting effect. In 1995 with the cancer temporarily beaten, she recorded A Very Fine Love, an album that hewed to the line of contemporary country singers.
The liner notes to last year's fantastic three-CD The Dusty Springfield Anthology (Mercury) are particularly sad. In them she speaks of conquering her cancer and looking forward to the future. "In twenty years, I see myself living in Connecticut, some old broad who gets wheeled down to New York for one or two cabaret shows a year." She never got that chance.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.